Why port Linux to Apple Silicon?

Why port Linux to Apple Silicon?

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Linux fans, sit down and use an Apple M1-based MacBook Pro, and you’ll see just how good a keyboard, trackpad and display can be.

Image: iStockphoto

When Apple first released its new M1-based hardware, a small fraction of the Linux community was up in arms. Why? Because that community tends to prefer installing their favorite open-source operating system on Apple laptops. So upon launch of the new Apple Silicon-based hardware, it became clear that the usual route to getting Linux installed wouldn’t work.

And thus, a movement was put into motion to successfully install Linux on M1-based hardware. One company in particular Corellium, set out to make it happen. This company had a leg up on this, thanks to its virtualization platform having been a provider of security research with particular insights into how operating systems function on Apple ARM CPUs.

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And when Apple decided to allow the installation of custom kernels to its M1 chips, Corellium went to work. Because the M1 chips share several components with the Apple SoCs, Corellium hit the ground running. 

But then complications arose and that running start slowed to a walk…and then a crawl. You can read about the journey in the Corellium blog.

Then there’s Asahi Linux, attempting to pull off the same feat as Corellium. In its blog about the porting process, the biggest hurdle they’ve come across is the boot process, which is made clear in this passage:

Apple Silicon Macs have a boot process that is not based on any existing standard. Rather, it is a bespoke Apple mechanism that has slowly evolved from the early days of iOS devices. On the other hand, the rest of the 64-bit ARM world has largely converged on two competing standards: UEFI + ACPI (largely used by servers running Windows or Linux), and the ARM64 Linux boot protocol + DeviceTree (used on smaller systems, and also supported by U-Boot and more). We need to choose one of these for Asahi Linux and figure out a way to “bridge” Apple’s world to our own.

It’s great that these projects are in motion. But the big question I have is, “Why is this necessary?”

The answer to the question (from my perspective) is unfortunately a bit disappointing. 

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It’s all about the hardware

I’ve used laptops from just about every company that ships with Linux preinstalled. Although many of those mobile devices turn Linux into an outstanding option for on-the-go users, the hardware simply cannot stack up to what is offered by Apple. 

And it’s not just about style.

Yes, Apple laptops are gorgeous. I’ve yet to find a laptop to best the aesthetics of a MacBook Pro. Outside of one iteration that included a keyboard designed to fail, those laptops are without fault from a design perspective. 

It goes well beyond the look. 

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I have two Apple MacBook Pros. The first is with an Intel chip and the second with Apple Silicon. The first I’ve owned for five years, and you would think it was a one-year-old. Granted I take very good care of my hardware, but if you open the lid on that laptop, you’d think you were using something relatively new. And the OS still runs like a champ.

I have other, non-Apple, laptops which cannot make such claims. Hinges loosened, keyboard keys lost their spring, displays aren’t as crisp, and they just feel, well, used. Or, even worse, when new the keyboards, trackpads, and displays were so-so at best. I don’t care how amazing the specs are on a laptop, if those three things are sub-par, the whole experience is diminished.

Sit down and use an Apple M1-based MacBook Pro, and you’ll see just how good a keyboard, trackpad, and display can be. They’re brilliant. And because it’s Apple hardware, I can rest assured those things will be just as brilliant in five years as they are now. Why? Because that’s one of the biggest selling points of Apple hardware—it lasts.

So when I find out that projects like Asahi are doing everything they can to get Linux ported to the M1 hardware, my reaction is to nod in understanding.

I get it. So much so, I’d be willing to purchase another Apple Silicon-based MacBook (when the next iterations arrive) and install Asahi Linux on the M1 iteration. 

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There’s a lesson in there

This goes out to all OEMs creating hardware for preinstalled Linux, but I’m going to single out one of my favorite companies on the planet, System76. You make the single greatest desktop machine money can buy. The Thelio isn’t just a beast of a performer, it’s a work of art to look at. Case in point, I hate that I have my Thelio under my desk (but I need all the desktop space I can get). It should be on display for all to see.

But your laptops? I hate to say it, but they all so very pedestrian. Yes, they perform quite well, and I enjoy every second I can get with one. But when you compare those laptops to Apple hardware, they pale in comparison. Not only in look but feel.

So when you (System76) finally make the jump to designing and developing your in-house laptop, please make sure to give it the same coat of polish you gave the Thelio. Make it something you cannot get anywhere else; make it sexy, make it reliable, make it such that it’ll feel just as good in five years as it would today. When that happens, projects like Asahi and Corellium might not be necessary. Until then, however, those projects will continue and (eventually) deliver a version of Linux that can run on Apple Silicon. 

And when they do make that available, you can bet Linux users will flock to it.

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