Transmeta was founded to design and develop an Intel compatible microprocessor/software combination. Transmeta was founded by David Ditzel, who was one the main computer architects of Sun Microsystem's SPARC processor. In addition to Ditzel, Transmeta hired a number of other "big names". These included Steve Johnson who did early C compiler work at AT&T, Linus Torvalds, the original author and force behind the Linux operating system and Dave Taylor, one of the key developers of the Quake computer game. Dave Taylor ported Quake to Linux. In hiring Torvalds and Taylor it appeared to some people that Transmeta was hiring for name recognition first and skills that could be contributed to the company second. This is not to suggest that these individuals are not extremely talented. But it does beg the question of whether people with the same background and skills would have been hired if they were not well known in the industry.
When Transmeta was founded Intel was not concentrating heavily on the market for processors for portable devices. The profit margins in this market were thin, compared to what they could get in the desk top market. Transmeta was founded as a "fabless" semiconductor company that would design a processor that was faster and cheaper than the Intel processors for laptop systems. The Transmeta processor would, however, be fully compatible with the Intel processor (the so called x86 instruction set).
Intel is infamous for suing any competitor that produces a processor that executes a compatible instruction set. For example, they had a long running suit against Advanced Micro Devices. To avoid such a suit Transmeta designed their processor to run in an environment where software translated the Intel instruction set into Transmeta processor instructions. This is sometimes called "on the fly" code translation. Despite Transmeta's claims to inventing this idea, a significant body of work was done first at IBM.
There is an obvious problem with on-the-fly translation: instruction execution is slowed down by going through software translation. In contrast, instruction execution in VLSI is implemented by hardware components that attempt to make use of parallelism and pipelining. At the time Transmeta claimed that since their processor would be simpler than the mind bendingly complex Pentium processors from Intel. Since the Transmeta processor would be simpler, the company claimed, it could run at a higher clock rate (shorter critical paths in the CPU), offsetting the overhead of software translation. The Transmeta processor would also use caching so that portions of the code that had already been translated would not have to be translated when executed again.
Transmeta was not able to achieve their goal of a faster, cheaper processor for laptop computer applications. So they repositioned the processor as a low power device for portable computer applications. There were problems here as well. The most lucrative market for portable devices is laptop computers. When the power consumption of a laptop is examined, only a fraction is actually consumed by the processor. The largest power consumers are the hard disk and the display. Memory is also a significant consumer of power. For this reason, laptop manufactures use slower, less power intensive, memory, which has a negative impact on the performance that can be delivered by the processor. In terms of power consumption, the processor comes in around third or fourth place.
The fact that the processor is not an overriding consumer of power in a laptop means that the Transmeta processor is not likely to tempt any laptop manufacturer to switch from Intel. The only applications left are tablet or PDA devices, where the processor does consume a significant fraction of the power. Transmeta has had some design wins for PDA devices sold in Japan, but at the time of this writing, there have been few design wins for devices sold in the United States.
The market for low power processors for portable computing devices is hotly competitive. For over five years chip design tool companies like Synopsys have worked to develop software tools to help design lower power chips. Intel has gone from ignoring this market to shipping low power versions of the Pentium. Both Intel and AMD have become very price competitive and the margins have fallen for low power processors. All of this has removed any real advantage that Transmeta had. What is left is the hype. But hype will not deliver quarterly profits.
A Wired News article reports that Transmeta is being sued by the usual gang (e.g., Milberg Weiss) in response to their stock tanking. What is interesting is that this suit claims that Transmeta was not fully forth coming about the issues surrounding their processor in their IPO.
In the best of times the high tech environment is risky and I tend to think that Milberg Weiss suits are usually, as they say, "without merit". In many cases Milberg Weiss has acted as a blackmailer, threatening long term costly litigation to force companies to settle, even when Wilberg Weiss' claims have been weak. However, in this case Milberg's argument does not seem to be based on simple blackmail. In the filing for the suit, Milberg writes:
The Prospectus was false and misleading because it portrayed the Company's Crusoe technology as being able to "simultaneously offer long battery life, high performance and x86 compatibility." In fact, the Company was not providing revolutionary technology, but rather, Transmeta's technology was significantly slower than comparable Intel and AMD products. Despite this fact that the Crusoe technology was anything but "high performance," the Prospectus falsely stated that:
We develop and sell software-based microprocessors and develop additional hardware and software technologies that enable computer manufacturers to build computers that simultaneously offer long battery life, high performance and x86 compatibility
Transmeta ran extensive internal benchmark tests so it seems likely that they knew about the performance of the Transmeta processor. They did disclose that the processor would run some instructions slower, but they still claimed that overall performance would at least be comparable to Intel's. It would be interesting to know if their internal benchmarks bear this out.
The Milberg Weiss web page on this suit has moved from my original link or been removed entirely. A summary of the filing can be found on a Stanford Law School web page. I have not found any information on the current status of this suit. Perhaps Milberg Weiss has dropped it. In bringing this suit, Milberg Weiss would be under pressure to collect some money before Transmeta goes bankrupt. Since Transmeta's clock seems to be ticking faster than that of the court process, Milberg Weiss may simply have concluded that they would not make a profit.
Although Transmeta is built largely on hype, this does not mean that there are not low power approaches to higher performance processors. One of the most promising is asynchronous design. An asynchronous processor would not have a clock. Rather, the logic would be self timed. An overview of this technology can be found in the Technology Review article It's Time for Clockless Chips
The problem with asynchronous design is that all of the design tools that currently exist and all of the simulation tools rely on synchronous (clocked) design. So a great deal of work remains to be done to make this approach practical.
The November 5, 2001 news.com article referenced below seems to have triggered a Transmeta death watch. The speculation is that Transmeta will either go under or get bought by a company like VIA Technology. At the time of this writing, Transmeta does have quite a bit of money in the bank, so they may still have space to pull a rabbit (or more hype) out of their hat.
As this page is updated in July 2002, Transmeta's future does not look any brighter than it did in November of 2001. Transmeta has consumed big chunks of their cash reserve. The company announced that they are firing about 40 percent of their staff. As the value of the Transmeta hype recedes, the fact that they do not have technology that delivers any important advantage is becoming obvious to more people. Intel has not ceded the low power market and has been aggressively marketing lower power processors. Low power processors also exist based on the ARM and MIPS instruction set architecture. Other technologies, like asynchronous design, promise low power high performance devices in the future.
In November of 2002, as this article is updated, Transmeta still survives, but continues to lose money. Transmeta's stock has fallen from its IPO open of $21 about 95% to $1.15. The company currently has $150 million in cash and is burning about $20 million per quarter. According to Transmeta's current CEO, the company hopes to gain profitability (presumably on a cash flow basis) in the later part of 2003. That is, if they are not eaten by Intel first. AMD has been struggling against Intel with a much better product line.
The semiconductor industry is currently going through its worst down turn in history (many are referring to it as a depression). In such an environment a buyout is less likely to save Transmeta (assuming that there is actually something there worth buying).
These references are ordered from newest to oldest.
Transmeta mulls exit from processors, January 4, 2005, by Michael Kanellos Cnet news.com
The title of this article pretty much says it all. The "Fat Lady" is about to sing Transmeta's swan song as a chip producer. After five years or so it has become clear that Transmeta is not succeeding selling chips. In fact, this article notes, Transmeta made more money last quarter selling intellectual property that it did no selling chips. Sadly, Transmeta will probably become yet another company that is laying off engineers as they downsize to fit their new business model.
For those who knew something about the processor market and Transmeta's processor architecture in particular, the company never had a promising business plan. The truth of this has been played out in the companies stock price.
When Transmeta started selling their stock to the public, Transmeta shares (TMTA on the NASDAQ exchange) were selling at $50 per share. They stock price is now around $1.
The only thing that I find surprising is that it has taken a little over three years between the time I first wrote about the "Transmeta deathwatch" and its current state as a zombie company (still living, but largely dead).
I am still waiting to see if my prediction of the Demise of Sun Microsystems will also come to pass.
Transmeta's Low Power Chip: Efficeon by Jeffrey Burt, eWeek, August 12, 2003.
A brief article on Transmeta's new processor, which is aimed at embedded applications, like medical devices and cash registers.
Transmeta has survived longer than I expected. Does this mean that your humble author will have to eat the crow that is the meal of those who loudly predict events which do not come to pass?
In the ExtremeTech article Transmeta Brands "Astro" CPU as Efficeon (August 12, 2003), Mark Hachman brings up some of the same points that I have raised above:
But analysts also pointed out that notebooks using the chip actually consumed more power as a result of the large LCDs the devices used [liquid crystal displays on PDAs and tablet PCs], while Intel tried to hamstring the Crusoe by characterizing it underperforming. Although several Japanese notebook manufacturers adopted the Crusoe, Intel's latest Pentium M and Centrino platforms worked to eliminate the low-power advantage. To date, Transmeta also lacks wireless 802.11 components
Transmeta clims into embedded market by Michael Kanellos, News.com January 5, 2003
At this point it is pretty clear that Transmeta will not be the next Intel. Their early attempt at the laptop market never panned out. Their current move into tablet PCs is not setting the world afire. So up next: embedded applications, where their low power chip supporting the x86 instruction set might have an advantage.
Transmeta Hangs in the Balance by Lisa DiCarlo, Forbes.com, November 5, 2002
I despise everything about Steve Forbes and I would not subscribe to any publication he owns. So it pains me somewhat to admit that, at least in the case of Forbes.com (the on-line version of Forbes magazine), they publish some good business journalism. This article discusses the continuing struggles of Transmeta. The "balance" that is mentioned in the title is the acceptance of the tablet PC (or PDAs). The Tablet PC (the Dynabook of Alan Kay's dreams) is being pushed by Microsoft for tablet PCs to be manufactured by Hewlett-Packard.
Even the success of the computing tablet will not guarantee the success of Transmeta. From a computer architecture point of view, the Transmeta processors have little to recommend them. There are a number of other paths to deliver high performance and low power, including partially or fully asychronous processors. Intel is clearly targeting this area with a new processor line.
Transmeta to cut 200 as losses deepen, news.com, July 18, 2002
This article discusses Transmeta's continuing losses and a 40 percent staff cut in an attempt to reduce the burn rate to $20 million/quarter and achieve profitability in 2003.
Transmeta: Are the chips down? By Michael Kanellos and Rachel Konrad, CNET News.com, November 5, 2001
More on Transmeta's struggles to sell a microprocessor in the face of rapidly developing technology at Intel and elsewhere.
"Transmeta is not relevant," Jerry Sanders, CEO of rival Advanced Micro Devices, asserted in a recent conference call. "Intel has effectively kept them out of the marketplace."
POWER5, UltraSparc IV, and Efficeon: a look at three new processors by Jon "Hannibal" Stokes, Ars Technica
Although this article is included out of date order, it is logically paired with the earlier article by Jon "Hannibal" Stokes. I'm afraid that I've been somewhat unfair to Mr. Stokes, below. I have learned from and enjoyed his articles on processor architecture. Yes, he was taken in my the Transmeta hype in this case. However, time has "pulled the scales from his eyes". To quote Mr. Stokes:
It seems like ages ago that I covered the unveiling of Transmeta's eagerly awaited Crusoe processor. At the time, I was sold on it, and had hoped it would deliver, first on performance per watt and ultimately on raw performance. I also speculated that TM had something else up their sleeves besides just power efficient chips, and that they'd eventually make a processor aimed at the high-performance workstation/server market.
Well, I turned out to be clearly wrong about the second point, and arguably wrong about the first. Now, two years later, with the announcement of Transmeta's new Efficeon processor, the wrongness of my initial prediction regarding a high-performance TM CPU has been given further confirmation. As I've written before, it looks like Transmeta thought that they could do the so-called "RISC revolution" all over again by simplifying processor hardware and moving more functionality back into software. But though the RISC movement did indeed have a profound impact on processor design, the real advances in processor performance have come disproportionately more from process technology than from architectural voodoo. Thus TM, with their RISC redivivus approach, was never quite able to get the kinds of performance gains that I and many others think they were expecting by making the extremely-difficult and very-risky design moves that they made.
If I'd have known then what I know now, I might've called it differently, because I think that TM bumped up against a combination of two things: 1) a set of fundamental design constraints inherent in the basic architecture of the stored-program computer and 2) Moore's Law.
As with most of his writing, Mr. Stokes goes on to provide an excellent analysis of the architectural issues surrounding the Transmeta chip. He concludes, as I have here, with a rather grim prognosis for Transmeta:
We'll see how TM fares in the long run (no pun intended), but with the rest of the industry focusing on latency hiding while at the same time doing a good job of keeping up with TM in terms of MIPS/Watt, things don't look good. Perhaps the upcoming 90nm version of Efficeon will give them enough of an edge to allow them to score some much needed design wins.
The state of Transmeta by Jon "Hannibal" Stokes, Ars Technica, November, 2001
I've included the above link for "balance", since most of the other references are pretty negative concerning Transmeta. Even on SlashDot the dicussion is negative concerning Transmeta and many of the points made above have been made there (e.g., most of the power in a portable computing device is consumed by the display and disk).
Having written this, the Ars Technica article seems to have been written by a clueless student who thinks that Transmeta has way cool, way innovative technology.
As it turns out, Transmeta simply came up with a cool name: "Code Morphing". IBM published a great deal of work on "on-the-fly" translation before Transmeta was founded. Mr. Stokes speculates that Transmeta is going to come out with a blazingly fast workstation processor. There are a few problems with the speculation: Stokes admits that Transmeta was unable to realize their performance goals. There is no reason to assume that a processor with the extra level of interpretation of Transmeta's Crusoe will even beat a processor like the IA-64 or the AMD processor line. Mr. Stokes needs to study computer architecture. If he had, he would know that even the Pentium processors are highly parallel internally. The "Code Morphing" to VLIW instruction set is doing something similar to Intel (or AMD's) instruction decode and scheduling. However, Transmeta is doing it in software.
Transmeta dumps latest CEO, Cnet.com, October 16, 2001
After seven months, Transmeta fired their new CEO, apparently as a result of delays in producing a new chip.
Ian Kaplan, June 2001
Revised: January 2005