The Littlest Pc
Imagine a computer that's crash-proof and virus-resistant. It runs for hours on a pair of AA batteries and is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. "It" is the MachZ, a computer chip that might dramatically extend the reach of the Internet.
David L. Feldman, CEO of ZF Linux Devices Inc., the Palo Alto (Calif.) company that designed the MachZ, describes it as a "PC on a chip"--a complete computer on a one-square-inch wafer, equal in power to a 1998-era Pentium desktop and preloaded with the Linux operating system. But it's not aimed at desktops: The MachZ's small size, $53 price tag, and ability to recover from power interruptions and software crashes make it a natural match for the coming wave of Internet-enabled appliances and devices. "With a computer this small," Feldman says, "all sorts of things become possible."
The MachZ was introduced in June, and more than 60 companies are designing products around it--everything from medical devices and farm machinery to home appliances and vending machines. Typical is March Networks Corp., an Ottawa manufacturer of security systems that is using the MachZ to replace bulkier, costlier computers. "It will take our size down by 60% and cut hundreds of dollars off the cost," says March Networks Vice-President Peter Wilenius.
Feldman was a social worker in California in the late 1970s, when budget cuts led him to enroll in night courses to learn circuit-board design. He launched his first company, Ampro Computers Inc., in 1983. Twelve years later, with about $100,000 in savings, he left Ampro to start ZF Microsystems (named for his son, Zeb Feldman). He changed the name when it became apparent that Linux would find widespread use in microcontroller-based devices. In June, Feldman's 63-person company raised $15 million in financing from investors including National Semiconductor Corp. and Samsung Co.
ZF Linux faces tough competition from Intel Corp. and Transmeta Corp., both of which have designed processors for similar applications. But ZF Linux has an edge in this area, says Eric Ross, an analyst with Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco. Not only is the MachZ cheaper, but it is a complete computer, not just a processor that a manufacturer must integrate with a system board. Then there's MachZ's crash-resistant design. "It's bulletproof," Ross says.
Feldman expects orders for 35 million MachZs by the end of the year, and he anticipates going public by mid-2001. His computers may be miniature, but his plans aren't.