Transmeta’s chips are “inherently simpler to design” than conventional ones, says Stanford’s Wharton. “You can make a software change, incorporate it into a test version, run it and see if it works, all in one afternoon. In the hardware realm, the turnaround time can be three to nine months. Intel may put 500 or 1,000 man-years into designing Itanium. The next Transmeta chip may require 10, or 20, or 50. That’s mouse nuts.”
The movement toward making chips that are hybrids of software and hardware, rather than pure silicon, has caught on broadly. But Transmeta is likely to keep the lead for the foreseeable future. That’s because Ditzel was the first person to take these ideas out of the lab, hire 200 employees to work on them, and build a chip that worked. Along the way, he created at least two roadblocks that will slow down his competition.
The first is the company’s testing tools. Indeed, Transmeta’s jewels are probably not even the chips themselves, but rather the diagnostic software the company was forced to create in the development process. The off-the-shelf tools that exist for checking out conventional chips all assume that there is a static relationship between software, a chip and a given instruction. Transmeta needed to solve the problem of testing a microprocessor that changes dynamically in response to the software it runs. Other companies will need to start from scratch to build their own testing tools, which could easily take a year or longer.