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Apple has moved away from the x86 architecture with the launch of M1 chips– a series of ARM-based system-on-a-chips (SoCs)– in November 2020. In other words, users will find it difficult to run multiple operating systems on new Apple computers.
The Cupertino-giant started using Intel chips in 2006, which allowed users to run Windows on Apple computers. You could use Windows on a Mac through Bootcamp or virtualisation software.
Since the introduction of the M1 chips, a lot of Apple users have demanded interoperability. Taking the cue, Parallels launched a version of its Parallels Desktop for Mac virtualisation last year that works on the M1-based Apple computers. However, there is a catch: The software requires you to use a version of Windows designed to run on ARM processors, called Windows 10 for ARM64.
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Also, projects such as Asahi, the first Linux distribution that can be installed natively on Apple M1-based Apple computers, offers a silver lining. Similar projects are in the pipeline as well.
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Microsoft and Apple share a very complicated relationship. When Apple launched its Macintosh PCs in the 80s, Bill Gates had said Microsoft had more people working on the Mac than Apple. Then, Microsoft had worked closely with Apple to create programmes for Apple’s PC.
In 1994, Apple released a Macintosh with an Intel 80486 DX2/66 processor that allowed its users to run both its operating systems on a single computer. The 1996 Power Mac 4400 launched by Apple supported Windows as well.
A year later, Connectix released Virtual PC letting users to run Windows within macOS and not have to reboot. Soon Virtual PC became the most popular way to run Windows on an Apple computer until 2006.
What makes Windows on M1 hard?
Apple doesn’t provide drivers for Windows. Also, since Apple moved away from x86 CPUs, it is even harder for developers to step in and provide those drivers.
Apple implements a non-standard interrupt controller on their SoCs, called the Apple Interrupt Controller (AIC), making it difficult to run Windows on M1 chip-powered Apple.
The ARM64 Windows kernel does not support the AIC (the overwhelming majority of ARM64 systems that run Windows use an interrupt controller standard called the Generic Interrupt Controller).
Also, the Apple MMU supports both 16K and 4K pages, the IOMMU only supports 16K pages as far as we know, which presents challenges with hardware communicating with Windows.
The straightforward solution is for Microsoft to make Windows 11 available for all ARM variants. However, last year, Microsoft said Windows 11 would not offer official support for M1-powered Apple computers.
Apple could also launch Boot Camp support for the same–chances of which, again, remain slim.
“Thankfully, there’s already a very lightweight, open-source hypervisor for Apple silicon platforms that works great. Meet m1n1, the bootloader the Asahi folks are using to bootstrap UBoot on their implementation. The bootloader also serves as a very lightweight hypervisor that I can tweak such that it can be used for launching our UEFI firmware in EL1 and getting Windows running. (Right now work is being done in a custom fork of m1n1, I will push these changes to mainline m1n1 once I’ve verified that UEFI boots successfully),” said developer Arminder Singh.
The success of the Asahi Linux project opens doors to run Windows on Apple’s M1 chip-powered computers.
The Asahi Linux project
The Asahi Linux project was launched soon after Apple announced the new M1 chips. “Our goal is not just to make Linux run on these machines but to polish it to the point where it can be used as a daily OS. Doing this requires a tremendous amount of work, as Apple Silicon is an entirely undocumented platform. In particular, we will be reverse engineering the Apple GPU architecture and developing an open-source driver for it,” according to their website.
The developers worked for months by adapting existing drivers and in many instances, writing their own. Earlier this year, the team finally launched the software for the general public.