Can a computer get any smaller and cheaper than a netbook? Marvell Technology Group Ltd. thinks so.
The Silicon Valley chip maker is trying to create a new category of inexpensive, energy-efficient devices it calls "plug computers," for which it would supply the integrated processors.
Strongly resembling those vacation timers that turn on your lights at night to ward off potential robbers, a plug computer is more of a home networking gadget that transforms external hard drives or USB thumb drives into full network-attached storage (NAS) devices.
That allows easy access to your files, particularly videos and songs, via your home network or the Web site provided by your plug computer's maker, according to Raja Mukhopadhyay, a product marketing manager at the Santa Clara, Calif., company.
Marvell officially announced the plug computer concept today. It is based on Marvell's SheevaPlug platform, which includes a 1.2-GHz ARM-compatible processor with 512MB of flash memory and 512MB of DDR2 memory that roughly approximates the CPU-memory-storage trinity in regular PCs.
The target customers for SheevaPlug are Web and software companies that have both Linux and Java programmers, as well as the know-how to use SheevaPlug to create easy-to-use consumer gear.
The target customers for the finished plug computer would be not-terribly-techie multimedia junkies who want to store their TV shows on a drive at home so they can watch them from a laptop or netbook while on the go, Mukhopadhyay said in an interview Monday.
"We can provide the same services as a home server or a NAS device at a much lower price," he said.
San Francisco-based Cloud Engines Inc. is beta-testing a $99 Pogoplug device running Marvell's SheevaPlug system-on-chip. Brent Evans, who writes a gadget blog called GeekTonic, has written about the Pogoplug that he is testing on Twitter.
"It's very easy to set up and use -- easy enough your average nontechnical user could handle it," Evans wrote in an e-mail. "It is not a full-blown NAS and doesn't have all of the features you'd find with a more expensive NAS or Windows Home Server, but it seems like a great and easy way to do the NAS on the cheap."
Amy Stewart, owner of Stewart Design, a Richardson, Texas-based graphic design firm, has already ordered a Pogoplug. "Being able to plug all of my hard drives into this device and create my own personal cloud of data seems incredibly useful," she said.
Marvell chips used in iPods, BlackBerries, Kindles
The biggest chip maker that likely only investors would be familiar with, Marvell was founded in 1995 by a husband-and-wife team of Chinese immigrants, Sehat Sutardja and Weili Dai.
According to a report published last August by analyst Linley Gwennap, of The Linley Group, Marvell shipped more than 300 million processors in 2007 to control hard drives, power BlackBerries and other smartphones, iPods, GPS systems and e-book readers such as Amazon.com's Kindle.
Revenues have grown 36-fold since 2000. The company, which employees 5,000 workers, is now larger than many of its far-older Silicon Valley peers, recording $2.9 billion in revenue last year.
A major misstep for Marvell was a financial scandal involving backdated stock options that included Sutardja and Dai. It was settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year.
Marvell's chips are usually embedded deep into devices for which the market is already established. Thus, it has never had to "publicize its design efforts," Gwennap wrote.
But with the SheevaPlug, Marvell is stepping firmly into the general-purpose CPU turf, and is thus finding itself having to define a potential market and build an ecosystem for the first time.
Marvell has already announced a handful of other resellers that plan to build plug computers. But it hopes to attract far more, so that it can eventually price its SheevaPlug chips low enough for vendors to profitably sell plug computers for as little as $49, Mukhopadhyay said.
Besides price and ease of use, Marvell is touting the SheevaPlug's greenness. A plug computer should draw only about 3 watts of electrical power, Mukhopadhyay said. That compares to the 65 to 250 watts of most desktop PCs.
While the first wave of SheevaPlug devices will be focused on supercharging storage gear, there are already vendors considering whether to build antivirus devices that would scan network traffic for malware and allow users to uninstall antivirus software on their local PCs, Mukhopadhyay said.
And "there's nothing stopping an OEM from slapping a hard disk and more memory onto a SheevaPlug and making a netbook out of it," he added.