Fable: The Billion Dollar IC Start-Up

There was once an initially very secretive company backed by, among others, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It attracted the glitterati of the tech industry, among them Linus Torvalds.

The company raised $969 million in its 14 year lifetime.

Four years after it was founded it filed for a patent on a processor that could run any application software faster than in native mode.

Five years after it was founded the company announced its first product – an x86 processor – and, the same year, it had an IPO raising $273 million.

The processor’s performance did not match expectations, while Intel immediately announced five new mobile processors.

Siy years after the IPO, three years before the company was sold,  it sued Intel for infringement of its patents in the Pentium III, Pentium 4, Pentium M, Core and Core 2 processors.

Intel paid $150 million up-front and $20 million a year for five years to settle the case.

Moral: Going up against Intel in x86 is kinda tough.


Comments

11 comments

  1. As I recall: the technology was based around reconfigurable hardware (FPGA type stuff). In order to achieve high efficiency it relied on most processes being very repetitive, which they are. Unfortunately most methods which measure the efficiency of processors only do each operation once then move on to the next; so the Tranmeta processors did very badly in benchmark tests. In the real world I suspect that they worked pretty well.

    • SecretEuroPatentAgentMan

      Transmeta had serious issues with thermal throttling too. This was discovered when benchmarks ran in deep freezers turned out to be pretty good.

      The reconfigurable hardware approach is new to me, I thought it was code morphing using a VLIW processor emulating x86.

  2. Intriguing SEPAM, the assignment dates of these patents from Transmeta to IV is 2009 in all cases, but the dates the assignments were recorded all vary -.and three were as late as 2013, 2014 and 2017. Seems odd.

  3. Yes I was intrigued by the 2014 patent filing you mentioned SEPAM but wasn’t sure what it implied. Transmeta was bought in 2009 by Novafora and 140 of its patents and some pending patent applications went to Intellectual Ventures – the troll run by Nathan Myhrvold former CTO of Microsoft. Transmeta, of course, was backed by Paul Allen – so there could be a connection. Assuming the 2014 patent activity was related to the IV IP, I wonder why the register relates it to Transmeta rather than IV. As you say, worth another look.

  4. Absolutely Steve and SEPAM, Transmeta it was. They became famous for being secret. I went round there once and they let me in and chatted and were terribly nice and said I couldn’t write a thing.

    • SecretEuroPatentAgentMan

      Why not do a follow up and hear where the tech now is used? Since an application was published in 2014 it means there is some activity going on.

  5. SecretEuroPatentAgentMan

    That must be Transmeta.

    They had the most high profile stealth web pages ever. Still interesting:
    http://transmeta.com/

    Time to check patenting activity.

    Pub Date
    Date No
    2006 40
    2007 33
    2008 10
    2014 1

    There is still some life left.

  6. Sounds a lot like Transmeta to me. Star-studded cast. Immediate Intel response with low-power mobile processors that did not have as many performance/power shift points as Transmeta’s processor, but had just enough for Intel to keep 99+ percent of the mobile business. Moral: Awake a sleeping giant at your peril. You can do so, but you’d better know that you can run faster than the giant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*