- 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.