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Crowdfunded Asahi project aims for 'polished' Linux experience on Apple Silicon

Project wins sponsorship, and Torvalds is interested, but can it succeed without the mothership's cooperation?

Japan-based developer Hector Martin has formally kicked off the crowdfunded Asahi project, which aims to get Linux running on Arm-based Apple Silicon Macs.

"The goal is to bring Linux support on Apple Silicon Macs to the point where it is not merely a tech demo, but is actually an OS you would want to use on a daily driver basis," Martin said, observing that it is easy to get Linux running but "making it work well is hard."

This will include coding a driver for the "completely custom Apple GPU" as well as tricky areas like power management. The first target is the M1 Mac Mini. Asahi Linux will "eventually be a remix of Arch Linux ARM," he said. Arch Linux describes itself as "targeted at the proficient GNU/Linux user, or anyone with a do-it-yourself attitude who is willing to read the documentation and solve their own problems."

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Martin said he has been reverse-engineering since the early 2000s. His projects include porting Linux to the Sony PlayStation 4, a Linux bootloader for the PlayStation 3, and "unofficial open software" for the Nintendo Wii. He has sought project sponsorship on Patreon and on GitHub, and has achieved over 80 per cent of his monthly $4,000 goal, enough, he said, to make the project viable though not yet to work on it full time. Sponsors have also provided him with Mac hardware.

"The name comes from the Japanese name for the McIntosh apple, 旭 (Asahi). This is the very same apple that gave the Mac its name," Martin said. The project is on GitHub and will be dual-licensed using upstream licences such as GPL and MIT.

Martin said that "Apple allows booting unsigned/custom kernels on Apple Silicon Macs without a jailbreak," which he takes as evidence that "Apple does not intend to lock down what OS you can use."

Apple does control the boot process and firmware on its Secure Enclave Processor, but, according to Martin, this is no more restrictive than modern PCs.

"In fact, mainstream x86 platforms are arguably more intrusive, as the proprietary UEFI firmware is allowed to steal the main CPU from the OS at any time via SMM interrupts, which is not the case on Apple Silicon Macs," he said.

Linus Torvalds said last year that he would welcome Linux on Apple Silicon. "I'd absolutely love to have one, if it just ran Linux... I've been waiting for an ARM laptop that can run Linux for a long time. The new Air would be almost perfect, except for the OS. And I don't have the time to tinker with it, or the inclination to fight companies that don't want to help."

Whether or not it is via this project, the ability to run Linux on Apple Silicon is significant for software freedom. Apple Silicon is a hardware breakthrough, outperforming x86 PCs, but Apple is making MacOS in some respects more like iOS, encouraging users to install software from a store gated by Apple.

In November, users found themselves unable to open non-Apple applications, or that they were slow to open, because an Apple service that checks for certificate revocation was not working correctly.

Writer and activist Cory Doctorow said that this "gave Apple a remote veto over whether that program would launch when you double-clicked it," a system he likens to feudalism where digital warlords must be trusted to keep us safe, and one that fails as soon as there is a conflict between the interests of the user and that of the warlord, or when a government insists that certain things are allowed or blocked.

"The mere existence of such a killswitch is a moral hazard," he said. "The thing that gives tech companies the power to overrule your choices on your computers and devices is that they're not really yours."

Apple can be both a consumer champion when it comes to privacy and third parties like Facebook, and a company accused of mistreating developers with excessive fees and capricious policies.

In this context, the ability to benefit from Apple's nice hardware but run free and open software in place of macOS is valuable, and even the possibility of doing so helps to shift the imbalance of power between users and giant global corporations.

Will Apple stay sweet?

That said, Apple could change its policy concerning the ability to boot other operating systems on Apple Silicon. In his FAQ on the legality of reverse-engineering macOS for interoperability purposes, Martin argued that for Apple to take legal action against Asahi Linux "would be a massive PR hit for no real benefit to them" and that same PR pressure could apply to other potential moves to block Linux from running.

But the challenge of getting Linux to run sweetly on Apple's custom hardware is considerable, unless Apple itself could be persuaded to assist with documentation and support. Comments on Hacker News reference the difficulty open-source developers have with the Nouveau project, to create open drivers for Nvidia GPUs. "Nouveau can't even do better than a framebuffer on anything newer than a Geforce 10 series card. GPU development is just too erratic and fast paced to even try to keep up the effort," claimed a commenter.

Following this week's launch, the official website can be found here. ®

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