Is Linux on the iPad possible in 2023?

KevDoy
5 min readFeb 20, 2023

Introduction

Since the release of the first iPad in 2010, the tablet market has exploded in popularity, with Apple’s iPad operating system dominating the market. However, for those who prefer a more open and customizable experience, the prospect of running Linux on an iPad has been a popular topic of discussion among the tech community. In 2023, the state of Linux for the iPad continues to be a mixed bag. On one hand, the iPad’s hardware is well-suited to running Linux, with its fast, modern hardware and good battery life. This has resulted in several projects, such as Project Sandbox. Despite these efforts, however, Linux on iPad has yet to achieve a stable ‘daily driver’ solution.

One of the main challenges is that Linux is not officially supported on iPad, meaning that those who attempt to run it do so at their own risk and must have a strong understanding of the inner workings of both iPads and Linux. Another challenge is the closed nature of the iOS-iPadOS ecosystem, with Apple tightly controlling both the hardware and software of their devices. This has made it difficult for the Linux community to develop a version of the operating system that is fully compatible with the iPad.

In 2019 I created iPadLinux.org to track all efforts to bring Linux to iPad hardware and in March 2020, some viable options cropped up which I wrote about at the time. In the 3 years since there have been additional exciting updates that warrant a new breakdown.

What has happened since 2020

The last time I wrote about the available Linux solutions for the iPad, iSH was at the top of that list. iSH is an app that brings a real Linux shell to iPads and iPhones including full Files access. Running Alpine Linux virtually can be a powerful tool to get your CLI apps running on your Apple tablet. Last time it was only available via the TestFlight app but since October 2020 the developers were able to officially publish it on the Apple App Store.

iSH running on an iPhone. Photo: iSH

This surprised many including myself since Apple usually rejects apps with this much ‘power’ to be on their mobile App Store. In fact, this almost happened as Apple’s App Review team, just 4 days after publishing iSH, sent a notice to the iSH team that they would remove it from the App Store permanently. Thanks to the team’s quick action, they filed an appeal that was approved and the app remains available to this day. iSH isn’t the end-all-be-all solution that we are looking for, especially since it requires relatively modern iPad hardware to run, however having an official method to run Linux tools on an iPad is still an incredible piece of progress.

The other working solution in 2020 was running Linux in a virtual machine via UTM. While not as easily accessible as iSH, UTM allowed you to emulate an architecture and install a distro directly from an iso. The issue with UTM then was it required you to download the app on a Mac, sign it with your Apple developer ID, and repeat this process weekly. Today, with solutions like AltStore the installation is almost automatic. Unfortunately, since iPadOS 14, you either need a jailbreak or run your side-loaded UTM app in a “Semi-tethered” fashion which involves connecting your iPad to a Mac/PC or another iOS/iPadOS device. It was complicated last time and while AltStore makes the installation of the app easier, these new obstacles continue to make this a working, however, slow and impractical solution.

The last project featured as part of the 2020 solutions was Project Sandcastle by Corellium which enabled the booting of Linux on the iPhone and iPad natively for the first time. It was in development at the time of the March 2020 update but has not had any code changes since. Development seems to be paused indefinitely. Before you get disappointed, Corellium’s research did not go to waste. In June of 2022, Konrad Dybcio (@konradybcio) published a blog post on the work he’s done to take up the torch. I reached out to Konrad for an update and he told me that other projects have kept him busy and he hopes to upstream his work [into the Linux kernel] in the near future. He ended the message with “so far the road is a bit rocky but we’ll get there.” It’s people like this that give me hope that we will indeed have Linux running on our aging iPads in the future.
These past 3 years, starting with the release of Project Sandcastle, have arguably been the most interesting in iPad Linux thus far. These projects have been successful in proving that it will be possible to run Linux on the iPad and have provided a foundation for future developments in this area.

Photo: Konrad Dybcio

In conclusion, while Linux on iPad remains a niche area, the progress made in recent years and the continued efforts of the Linux community provide hope that the state of iPad Linux will improve in the future. As interest and the number of obsolete iPads grows, we may see Linux on iPad become a more mainstream option in the next few years.

For future updates follow me on Twitter or keep up with news at iPadLinux.org

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