Is "Free" going to work in hardware the way it has worked in software? We have been so accustomed to use free software but will hardware be ever free. The distribution costs are almost nil for software products while hardware involves both the distribution and manufacturing costs. But here we are just looking at the final product in the value chain. What about the intermediate stages?
To answer this question, we will have to consider the various levels in the hardware value chain and analyze the scope of "Free" model. We have already started to see some open source movement gaining up in the hardware side. There are some free EDA tools like Spice and GTKwave. There are some open source IPs for Microcontrollers and many other designs on opencores. There are also some open source board designs, schematics etc. Considering the "software" nature of these components in the value chain, we can explore the viability of "free" here.
There is decent amount of stuff free or in open source domain with various licenses. However, there is nothing of equivalent calibre as Apache or Linux from the software world! In software, there is MySQL against Oracle, but there is no free silicon IP equivalent to ARM. To my knowledge, there is no open source silicon IP being deployed in mass production (Are there any? Would be interested to know if any).
Reasons? One of them is that it is very hard to ascertain the quality of a "Free" IP. Another important thing is the much needed support in the integration of the IP. Then there is customizations based on various project requirements like frequency, interfaces, technology etc. With all these problems and considering the fact that the cost of IP is marginal compared to the overall chip cost, it is a risky proposition for a chip vendor to consider a free IP.
So it there anyway of establishing a successful IP model based on open source or "Free"? One of the options is to go the "software way". The delivery is open source or free...