September 30, 1999 1:30 PM PDT

Secretive start-up Transmeta takes aim at Intel

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Top secret chip less secret now

November 13, 1998
Transmeta, a top-secret Silicon Valley start-up, apparently hopes to offer Intel-compatible chips while sidestepping legal landmines, a new patent reveals.

A patent awarded to the Silicon Valley chip design firm yesterday, along with another patent issued in 1998, show that Transmeta is working on a new chip that can emulate an Intel chip.

But the newest patent indicates that Transmeta is taking a very different tack than what other Intel chip cloners such as AMD and Cyrix have used, according to independent patent consultant Richard Belgard.

"Transmeta will not have a problem with...two of the principal [Intel chip] patents," Belgard said.

The result: Transmeta could be able to sell its chips at a lower, more-competitive cost by avoiding fees it would otherwise have to pay to license Intel patents, Belgard said. That's something current Intel cloners haven't been able to do, because Intel has defended the two patents so vigorously.

Intel declined to comment on the issue, and Transmeta representatives did not return phone calls.

Many eyes are fixed on Transmeta. David Ditzel, formerly a top designer for Sun's UltraSparc chips, is the company's chief executive; Linus Torvalds, founder of the upstart Linux operating system, is among its employees. Last month, the buzz around the company increased when Torvalds hinted the company might debut its products at the Comdex computer trade show in November.

The patents indicate that the company is working on a combination of a chip and accompanying software that is capable of acting like an Intel chip. In fact, the chip is capable of acting like any number of other chips, Transmeta says in its patents, but the company appears to be working chiefly on speaking the "x86" language that Intel invented for its mainstream chips, Belgard said.

However, Belgard said Transmeta might be late with its chip. "I'm suspicious that they don't have a product yet," Belgard said. A year ago, Ditzel said Transmeta's products would debut before the Microprocessor Forum that begins next week in San Jose, California, but now it appears the product won't arrive until after.

In the Transmeta design, software translates instructions intended for an Intel chip into instructions the Transmeta chip can understand. Once translated, those instructions are stored in memory--either conventional memory or high-speed "cache" memory--so they can be called upon quickly. Because of this method, the Transmeta chip would be good at performing the same instructions over and over, a circumstance that wouldn't force the delays imposed by the translation process, Belgard said.

Getting around Intel's patents
That could make the Transmeta chip a good choice for something like a router, the special computers that shuttle data across the Internet, or a TV set-top box--"something where there's a narrow range of applications or a single application that runs constantly," Belgard said.

But the software does more, he said. It also gets around two patents Intel has that handle processes called bounds and limit checking that Intel chips perform in hardware, he said.

Transmeta's patents indicate the company is working on a "very long instruction word," or VLIW, chip. VLIW chips execute instructions that have been grouped into batches, but in order to work properly, the instructions have to be set up in advance so that each calculation within a batch is independent from its fellows.

Although language in the patents indicates that Transmeta is working on clones of Intel chips, there's no reason why software couldn't also be written to run natively on the chips, without the burden of the translation phase, Belgard said.

The most recent patent, titled "Host microprocessor with apparatus for temporarily holding target processor state," governs part of the Transmeta translation process. Specifically, it describes when data processed by the Transmeta chip may be safely stored into the computer's memory, Belgard said.

Transmeta could be working on other products as well, Belgard said, but the patents indicate the company is focusing on the Intel chip clone. "I've got to believe they're actually building this," he said. "Getting all these patents costs a lot of money."

Transmeta's Web page offers no clues, displaying the same uninformative message it's had for months: "This Web page is not here yet!"

 

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