Transmeta was founded in 1995 by Dave Ditzel as a US-based corporation that designed VLIW code morphing microprocessors. To date, it has produced two x86 compatible CPU architectures: the Crusoe and Efficeon processors. These CPUs have appeared in ultra-portable Laptops, Blade servers, Tablet PCs, and even a silent desktop, where the low power consumption and heat dissipation offer best advantage.
As of January, 2005 the company announced a strategic restructuring away from being a chip product company to a intellectual property company. That is, instead of selling chips the company will now sell technology for use by other chip makers. In March, 2005 the company announced that it was laying off 68 people, leaving 208 employees. About half of the remaining employees will be working on propagating the LongRun2 power optimization technology within Sony products. Sony is one of the licensees of that Transmeta technology.
Transmeta has employed a number of industry luminaries such as Linus Torvalds and Dave Taylor. Initially, its purpose was kept secret, but partially because it had such talent amongst its staff, the industry was constantly abuzz with rumors in addition to 'conspiracy theories' resulting in excellent press relations (PR).
The technology behind the TM series of micro-processors is certainly fascinating and extraordinarily innovative. However, while they had hoped to be performance leaders in the x86 space, Intel and AMD had raised the bar so much since work began back in 1995, they were rapidly cornered into the small form factor (SFF) low power segment of the market.
This forced a rapid re-design of the technology, that was marketed as the Efficeon processor, claimed to have twice the performance of the original Crusoe CPU at the same frequency. However, the relative performance was still weak, and the complexity of the chip had increased significantly. The increased size and power consumption, seemed to many to undermine the one clear area of market advantage Transmeta's chips had previously enjoyed over the competition.
The actual TM processors are in-order VLIW cores. To execute x86 code, a pure software-based instruction translator, on-demand, dynamically compiles or emulates executing x86 code sequences on the fly, using execution-hotspot guided heuristics. While similar technologies existed (WABI for Sun, FX!32 for Alpha) in the early 90s, the TM approach has set a much higher bar for compatibility—able to execute all x86 instructions from initial boot up to the latest multimedia instructions—while retaining most of its core performance.
There are many technical benefits to Transmeta's approach:
- As the market leaders Intel and/or AMD would extend the core x86 instruction set, Transmeta could quickly upgrade their product with a software upgrade rather than requiring a respin of their hardware.
- If there were flaws in the hardware, the software could work around them rather than losing time in having to constantly be respinning the hardware.
- Without all the x86 baggage built into the hardware, more time could be spent concentrating on enhancing the capabilities of the core or reducing its power consumption without worrying about backward compatibility or other instruction set constraints.
- The processor could emulate multiple other architectures, possibly even at the same time (at its initial Crusoe launch, Transmeta demonstrated pico-Java and x86 running intermixed on the native hardware.)
These capabilities seem to confirm the possibilities indicated by some of the rumors flying around prior to the release of Crusoe (that they were building a hybrid PowerPC and x86 processor—something they certainly could have done, and which they may have initially been planning, for example). However, Transmeta at first decided to concentrate solely on the extremely low-power x86 market.
Linus Torvalds left Transmeta in June 2003 to dedicate himself to the further development of the Linux kernel. The most valuable asset held by Transmeta at the present time is their patent portfolio, and rumors persist that the company might be bought by a larger player for this reason.