No. of Recommendations: 4

You wrote, If nothing else, I’d like to see them survive in the market place because their presence helps to keep Intel honest. Two major chip-makers isn’t as good as it used to be. But at least Intel doesn’t have the sort of monopoly that Microsoft does. In fact, if I’m remembering right, there’s a Asian fab shop (VIA?) that’s still producing “value” CPUs and Transmeta is still hanging on, too.

Via started as a fabless semiconductor company targetted as a low-cost leader in computer chipsets. (Chipsets are a reference to the chip or chips that contain all the legacy glue logic and peripheral devices required to allow the CPU's bus to communicate with the various external bus standards, storage medium, graphics, and whatever else they decide to throw onto the board.)

Via has plowed a lot of its capital into buying intellectual property from marginal and failing fabless semiconductor businesses and then trying to salvage it for its own product lines. It has done this with at least two x86 microprocessor manufacturers that I'm aware of. One such company was Cyrix Corp (by way of National Semiconductor). Another was Centaur Technology. Ultimately, Via kept the Centar technology and pursued it and sold Cyrix's IP to AMD as the low-power, Geode processor - which AMD still sells today for low-power notepad and embedded applications.

Sadly Transmeta is no more. What remained of it was sold to a company called Novafora in January of this year. Novafora went under in August for a lack of funding.

Transmeta's architecture was quite unique in that the processor is not fundamentally an x86 core. It's what's known as a VLIW (Very Long Instruction Word) core. Instead of doing instruction translation and dynamic scheduling in hardware, like competing x86 processors, Transmeta's Crusoe did it all on the fly in software using a very simple, fast and efficient low-power CPU. The core technology used by Transmeta is actually known as JIT'ing, (Just-In-Time compiling) which is fundamentally the same type of technology used by Microsoft in its .NET development platform.

Some time back, Transmeta licensed its technology to AMD and later Intel. Both companies were extremely interested in the processor's ability to emulate any arbitrary instruction set in real-time. AMD and Intel intend (or intended to) use this ability to deploy pre-production development systems to certain companies so they could develop tools and applications that use newly proposed or enhanced x86 instructions. Such an offering would allow tools and libraries to be developed that use the new features while the processor designs are still no more than simulations.

I actually interviewed with Transmeta in 1997. I knew a number of their employees. During 1996 I worked at Texas Instruments in their next-gen x86 processor group, on a project code-named Amazon. During my stint there, I did some work for Amazon's x86 design verification group. Transmeta absorbed much of that team when TI shut them down - including purchasing much of the test IP developed by us to validate an X86 processor design.

There have been other startups, partial successes and failures in the x86 marketplace. But today, the game is so complex that only Intel and AMD really have the resources to compete as leading edge, general purpose players. The rest have been relegated to low-cost or low-power niche markets.

- Joel
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