Analysts are warning that the release of the Crusoe chip, a software-based microprocessor for laptops and handhelds, may not lead to the new technological age promised by its creators.
Linux enthusiasts and the IT press have been bubbling with excitement about Crusoe since the Santa Clara chip company, Transmeta, revealed news of the chip on 19 January.
Transmeta claims that the chip is simpler, cheaper, faster and needs only a quarter of the power of any other product on the market.
It is expected to appear in products by the middle of this year after more than four years of secret development. Some industry watchers are claiming that it will turn technology on its head.
Making its mark in the mobile market
Transmeta's chief executive, Dave Ditzel, speaking at the launch of Crusoe, said: "Cellular phones became more pervasive when they were made smaller and provided greater battery life. Similarly, we believe that Crusoe will bring about a significant change in mobile internet computers."
Transmeta says Crusoe will be an ideal candidate for the mobile market, where it can deliver longer battery life. In the case of a laptop, that would mean more than a day's continuous use, and in the case of smaller portable devices, weeks between recharges.
Crusoe is cheap, with a 400Mhz version expected to retail in mid-2000 at $89 (£55.60) and 700Mhz for $329.
Clive Longbottom, of Strategy Partners, said that even if Crusoe can do half of what is claimed, it will be an incredibly important development. "But if it turns out that the software is full of bugs, then it could be the shortest lived 'great white hope' in history," he warned.
He said that the product was still in the 'smoke and mirrors' stage of marketing, and that there had been no independent testing.
"In its raw state, it will probably be quite fast; but once it's in a device, it could slow considerably. It can be competitive if it can manage speeds between 600 or 700Mhz. Any lower, and it will be competing with stuff which is already on the market," he said.
Too early to assess impact
Gartner Group's vice president of research, George Weiss, said it is too soon to tell if Crusoe will have a significant impact on the market until its products hit the streets.
"They are busy using the word revolutionary to describe their product, but we really only have their word for it.
"It is not until we see products that use the chip and the applications that will run on it, that we can assess how much of an impact it will have," he said.
- Chip off the old block
The Crusoe chip is revolutionary in its design in that instead of running the entire processor in hardware, it is surrounded by a software layer.
The hardware is a simple low power Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) engine, but the software that surrounds it acts as a translator between the chip and the application.
It saves the information in a solid state ROM translation cache where it can be used the next time the application is run. Crusoe does not need so many transistors, making the chip faster and, crucially, meaning that it does not need much power to operate.
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