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Transmeta's real mystery: its OS tweaking auction

Who's the fairest of them all? Windows! Er, we mean no one…

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Let's get this right. There are no favoured operating systems in Crusoeland. Transmeta has no instruction set of its own. There’s nothing to write to. And that code morphing engine hasn’t any preferences either– so don’t think that's been tweaked to any particular operating system. And oh no - certainly not Linux, even though we've got its creator on board, helping to design our code morphing engine. That's quite a plateful of holy agnosticism, from a company that can in theory emulate any chip on the market, and that boasts a software engine versatile enough to be tweaked to favour any OS on any of those platforms. Here at The Register we can only take so much piety on an empty stomach – so we weren't too surprised – in fact, we were relieved – when this proposition came unstuck within about half an hour of the start of Transmeta's coming out party yesterday. The Crusoe wonder chip only does about 25 per cent of the work of a typical microprocessor in the hardware, leaving some heady and tempting possibilities for favouritism toward particular hardware platforms, or even operating systems within those platforms, to be written into the software. That's not some underhand plan – it's the big advantage of owning the first software programmable chip – one that only its owner can program. But if you were wondering how long Transmeta could retain its position of Swiss neutrality, then wonder no longer. Of the two processors - and remember as a customer you don't automatically buy the rights to tweak it yourself – the TM5400 has been already specifically tweaked to favour, er… Windows 9x, Transmeta said yesterday. The software portion of the 700Mhz piece, which is aimed at 3lb to 4lb notebooks, had been optimised to boost 16-bit operations. And quite deliberately too, said execs, because Windows 9x is reliant on 16-bit code. The user interface remains 16-bit, and readers with long memories will recall how, long ago, Microsoft's spin doctors obliged its programmers to rename the Win16Lock() system call to the more agreeable sounding Win16Mutex(): the bottleneck which Andrew Schulmann used to demonstrate that the new Windows was just as suspect as the old Windows in the I/O department. To hackers, Win16Mutex() became the proof point that the Win9x kernel wasn’t re-entrant. Or in other words, this is what should blame when you try and format a floppy disk in Windows 9x, and you can’t do much else at the same time. Now hacking around such atrocities is well within Transmeta’s rights. But what we’re seeing here is the most lucrative aspect of Transmeta’s business model tumble out into the daylight. What Transmeta can demand is exactly what happens in the ASIC world – as cores are gradually enhanced by licensees. Only it's in software and it's accelerated into Internet timescales – and the IP rights remain, we can only assume, in the Kremlin. So do you want an ARM7 specific core with tweaks for Cirrus Logic graphics? We got it right here, bud…but it'll cost ya. Whether this sticks depends on how much control Transmeta wants over its tweaks, and it's too early to say just now, and how far licensees will pay for them. But the moral is, if you like, that a truly programmable chip can take a lot of layers out of that vertical cake. Rue the day when you let the software guys in the door boys. They'll eat your lunch. ® Transmeta launch coverage A Linux, Transmeta Web-enabled Diamond Rio for CeBIT? Transmeta could face Intel legal challenge No home for Rambus at Transmeta Transmeta OS tweaking auction Transmeta chips to run Linux, Windows, attack Intel x86

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