Legal stoush looms between Intel and Transmeta

Some precious intellectual property is at stake, says Tom Yager

Intel’s legal staff might as well buy homes in Delaware. That’s the venue for AMD’s anti-trust action against Intel. This month, Transmeta petitioned the Delaware Federal District Court to find that Intel has violated ten of Transmeta’s patents. The killer patent of the group is the one granted to Transmeta in August. It relates to adaptive power control, which Intel claims to have mastered in its Core micro-architecture.

According to the complaint, Intel and Transmeta were working together until a dust-up over the value of Transmeta’s intellectual property. Transmeta says Intel folded up its chequebook but kept using Transmeta IP in Intel designs. Having just declared itself the new Papa of the green x86, it looks bad that Intel might have let a little of Transmeta’s 1-watt 32-bit x86 leak into Intel’s performance-per-watt chips.

Transmeta’s not some down-and-out company that’s using a blindly issued patent to shake down a wealthy neighbour. In 1995, Transmeta set out to create a metaprocessor, a CPU that could assume the personality of another. Transmeta first created Crusoe, a uniquely flexible CPU with a native VLIW (very long instruction word) architecture. Itanium is another VLIW design, but as opposed to Intel, Transmeta never required developers to code to its CPUs’ native architectures. Instead, Transmeta wrote code morphing software to translate x86 instructions into native VLIW operations on the fly. Any 32-bit x86 software you choose runs, unmodified, on a Transmeta CPU. Translated code is cached, so Transmeta processors — the current being Efficeon — speed up as they learn the instruction mix of your applications.

The code morphing software not only translates x86 code to VLIW in real time, it also analyses the code it’s translating and makes fine-grained adjustments to CPU voltage and clock frequency based on performance demands and thermal conditions. It’s key that Efficeon doesn’t rely on the OS to measure load and change speed and voltage. Efficeon and code morphing measure and adjust to demand by themselves. Transmeta calls this LongRun, and LongRun2 pushes power-saving technology further by greatly reducing the amount of current that transistors leak while they’re in the “off” state. These are holy grails for CPU-makers, and they’re Transmeta’s golden IP.

Transmeta claims that Efficeon, which implements LongRun but not LongRun2, requires as little as one watt of power in active operation. To put this in perspective, the halt state that PCs enter when input devices are idle uses just six-tenths of a watt.

AMD struck a deal with Transmeta in June to license Efficeon’s technology and brand, creating the AMD Efficeon processor. AMD will sell this chip to OEMs targeting under-served foreign markets. It is telling that AMD tapped Transmeta despite the fact that AMD has low-cost, low-power x86 CPUs of its own. Most of the major computer-makers in Asia are already Transmeta licensees.

If Transmeta IP or lessons learned from it did get into Pentium 4, Core, and Core 2 CPUs as the complaint alleges, Intel should pony up — and not because it’s cheaper to pay than go to trial. Any Transmeta inventions that Intel used would be pivotal in positioning Intel as the self-described performance-per-watt leader.

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