Linux Community Unlikely to Support Apple’s M1 Processor

image credit: EN24 News

published by Chand Bellur
November 28, 2020 at 2:31 p.m.


  • Apple recently launched a new line of Macintosh computers powered by the M1 chip.
  • Similar to the A-series chips powering iPhones, iPads, and Apple TVs, the M1 chip, made by Apple, features system-on-chip (SoC) technology.
  • SoC technology implements standard software algorithms, such as data compression, directly on the chip to boost performance.
  • Apple’s M1 chip is proprietary, and the company provides no detailed information about its SoC design, forcing Linux developers to reverse engineer the processor.
  • It’s more likely that Linux kernel developers will continue using Qualcomm Snapdragon or similar processors for future ARM-based computers.

What is Linux?

Linux is an operating system similar to Unix, used primarily in enterprise computing. Although some desktop users run Linux on their computers, most prefer Microsoft Windows or macOS, to a much lesser extent.

Although Linux is not a household name, the operating system is, by far, the most popular on the planet. Android is essentially a Linux-based operating system. Virtually every server in the world runs on Linux. Appliances such as TVs, smart home products, game consoles, and automotive computer systems run on Linux.

Linux runs on a variety of processors; however, it originated on Intel processors. Anyone with an Intel-based Mac or PC can easily install a Linux distribution such as Ubuntu. These are fully-equipped, user-friendly desktop operating systems.

Unfortunately, because Linux is so flexible, some streaming media providers block access. Linux isn’t an ideal desktop operating system for most lay computer users. Many software developers use the OS, ensuring their development environment is as close to production as possible.

It’s unlikely that you’ve used Linux directly, as in using Ubuntu on your computer. You still use the operating system as you surf the web or use an app with backend dependencies. Linux is the most popular operating system on the planet. It’s unavoidable.

Why Linux Won’t Come to Apple’s M1 Chip

As Apple relies more on SoC technologies, it embeds software algorithms directly in the silicon. Only Apple engineers know the design of the M1’s SoC components. Linux developers require transparent knowledge of chip design to create new Linux kernels, making it difficult to port to the M1.

Linus Torvalds, Linux’s creator, actually likes the M1 chips; however, he feels porting Linux to Apple’s new silicon is unlikely. The M1’s closed GPU design complicates Linux kernel development:

“The main problem with the M1 for me is the GPU and other devices around it, because that’s likely what would hold me off using it because it wouldn’t have any Linux support unless Apple opens up.”

In other words, bringing Linux to the M1 chip would require transparency from Apple. It’s unlikely Apple will reveal the inner-workings of the M1 chip, making a Linux port unlikely.

Qualcomm to the Rescue?

Apple’s M1 processor is an ARM chip, similar to Qualcomm’s line of Snapdragon processors. “ARM” stands for Advanced RISC Machine, with RISC being an abbreviation for “reduced instruction set computing”. Essentially, ARM chips offer simplified designs compared to more complicated processors. With fewer transistors, they use less power, making them more appropriate for mobile devices.

Although a few companies manufacture ARM chips, Qualcomm and Apple are the major players. Most Android smartphones use Qualcomm Snapdragon processors. The chips contain almost everything a smartphone needs, such as cellular and WiFi modems, image DSP, a graphics processing unit (GPU), and of course, multiple cores.

Android uses a Linux kernel, and the vast majority of devices already use Qualcomm Snapdragon chips. This is a considerable advantage for Qualcomm. As future Linux devices emerge, they’ll likely run on Qualcomm silicon, not Apple.

Intel and AMD are still significant players in the Linux world, and the latter actively develops ARM-based processors. However, Intel is staying true to chips with more complex instruction sets, which work well with Linux. Expect to see Intel remain a fixture in servers running Linux. ARM-processors will likely power inexpensive Linux machines for personal use in addition to cutting-edge smartphones and tablets.

M1 Mac Can Run Linux in a Virtual Machine

Although the M1 chip’s clandestine design makes it unappealing to Linux kernel developers, Apple’s newest laptops can still run Linux. Using virtual machine (VM) technology, users can install Linux on any of the latest M1 Macs.

Although this is useful to developers pushing solutions to production Linux machines, the performance isn’t as good as a native experience. As Apple is unlikely to make the inner workings of the M1 chip transparent to developers, they need to reverse engineer the processor to develop a native Linux kernel. It’s simply easier to use another processor offering greater transparency, such as the Snapdragon series.


  1. It’s not really accurate to say that “Anyone with an Intel-based Mac or PC can easily install a Linux distribution such as Ubuntu.” Prior to 2011, it was easy to install LInux on almost any Intel based Windows machine. With the introduction of UEFI boot loaders, it became more difficult to reliably put Linux on a laptop. There are tricks involved that the average computer user will find difficult. And Macs have been even more difficult since the pre-installed operating systems are locked down to a greater extent. Current Intel based Chromebooks are very resistant to an outside Linux install, although some Debian apps are allowed. The solution to this is for manufacturers to offer Core Boot or Libre Boot instead of UEFI. This would give users a free choice in what software they want on their computers.

    1. Good points, but I figure anyone who’s even remotely interested in installing Linux has some tech skills. Most developers I know tend to run a Linux in a VM, because the apps they need to work with the business people (MS Office) don’t run well on Linux. There’s WINE, but it’s easier to run Linux in a VM. I understand, running Linux in a VM isn’t the same. There are both hardware and performance issues.

      I had no idea that Apple was locking down the Mac to this extent. Thanks for the info. There are some tools that can get around these technologies, like Etcher.

      I think Apple is making a huge mistake by blocking Linux. The M-series Mac Mini could be the server of the future. If they opened up the M1 documentation to the Linux community, I believe it could power some data centers. The Mac Mini is already a fixture in some data centers. Will Apple be so stubborn as to dampen sales of Mac Minis to enterprise customers? Probably… As Apple evolves, they seem more about millennials and iMessages than developers and data centers.

      Thanks for the comment, by the way. It’s one of the most intelligent comments I’ve seen since founding this site back in 2012!

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