Crusoe finds a home in Microsoft's Tablet PC

Microsoft is using Transmeta's 600MHz TM5600 chip to develop "reference designs" for the Tablet PC, or prototypes that will be sent to manufacturers to show them how the device can be built. The announcement confirms rumours that have circulated for months about a tie-up between the companies.

The partnership is non-exclusive, meaning that Microsoft can also develop Tablet PCs with chips from other vendors. Nevertheless, it is important because it demonstrates support in the industry for Transmeta's chips, which are designed to meet the low-power requirements of portable devices, said David Ditzel, the company's vice chairman and chief technology officer.

"I think it's a huge deal for Transmeta," Ditzel said. "Microsoft is developing the next-generation user interface (for Tablet PC) on top of Crusoe, and they'll be offering that platform as a reference design, I presume, to other vendors to go and manufacture."

Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, first showed the Tablet PC in November at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas. Resembling a child's Etch A Sketch, the device will use Microsoft's new Windows XP operating system and run most standard Windows applications. The goal, Gates said, is to combine the power of a PC with the convenience and portability of a pen and paper. As such, users will be able to scribble handwritten notes on the device using a special stylus, and then search and edit those notes much as they can with a Microsoft Word document today. The Tablet PC can also be used at a desk with a keyboard.

Apart from Compaq, Microsoft hasn't disclosed which manufacturers are expected to make the device. The first Tablet PCs probably won't go on sale for a year or more, said Ditzel. This concurs with predictions made by Microsoft officials at Comdex.

Transmeta is competing with Intel, National Semiconductor and a handful of other chip makers to provide silicon for Web tablets, the generic name for computers like the Tablet PC. Indeed, Intel spokeswoman Shannon Johnson said that Microsoft is also creating Tablet PC prototypes using Intel processors. Microsoft didn't return numerous calls seeking confirmation.

In its statement Monday, Transmeta said the companies are working to optimise Windows XP for the mobile segment, where performance, low weight, cool running temperatures and long battery life are considered essential.

The Tablet PC shown at Comdex was rumoured to be based on a Transmeta processor, though neither company would confirm it at the time. "This is a huge deal for us, and now we'll finally be able to start talking about it," Ditzel said Friday.

The fact that Microsoft is using the Crusoe chip for reference designs doesn't necessarily mean that manufacturers who eventually make the Tablet PC will choose Transmeta's chip, Ditzel acknowledged. The work that Microsoft is doing to prepare its software for Crusoe could easily be transferred to another processor, he said. However, Crusoe's support for long battery life should make it a popular choice, he said.

Transmeta's chips already are offered in a Web tablet from Gateway and America Online called the Connected Touch Pad. That product is currently offered for $US499 at Gateway's online store.

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