Airport Extreme vs. Linux

One of the reasons our Powerbook stays in Mac OS most of the time (aside from the fact that It Just Works™) is that Yellow Dog Linux 3.0 didn’t have drivers for Airport Extreme, so it can’t connect to the wireless network. I had hoped that YDL 4 (just released) would resolve this — perhaps the driver was only available for the 2.6 kernel, or something.

I finally started looking, and that’s not the case. It seems that the Airport Extreme chipset manufacturer, Broadcom, refuses to release Linux drivers or to release specs to allow anyone else to write Linux drivers.

I don’t expect it to do any good, but I signed my first online petition.

Ah, well, I can do almost everything under Mac OS, and for those occasions that I actually need Linux, I can always go solo or plug in a cable, though it does limit where I can hook it up.

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38 thoughts on “Airport Extreme vs. Linux

  1. vejce

    I bought iBook G4 for the reason I needed a notebook and I didn’t want to pay for M$ operating system. But now, when I see that Broadcom adopted M$ attitude to open source, it looks like I was wrong with buying Apple hardware…

  2. Mikey Mac

    Blame Apple. They could’ve insisted on using a wireless chip with open specs. Or they could’ve twisted Broadcom’s arm. They did neither. Apple wants cred with the community – and this is the kind of stuff we should bust their balls about. (Typed on an iBook with the ol’ Linux-friendly Airport standard card. I refuse to buy another Mac until this issue is resolved.) Don’t just sign a petition or email Broadcom – email Apple! They won’t care about this unless they know that we care about it.

  3. Mike Tuttle

    Any Luck with the petition to Broadcom? Isnt it in their favor to give YDL their binary as code and allow YDL to package it?

    Cheers- Mike

  4. Bruce Walker

    Perhaps download and examine the GPL’ed Linux sources for the Linksys WRT54G. That wireless router uses a Broadcom chipset; likely a similar or identical one to the Apple WiFi stuff. I bought Linksys WiFi products to use with my PowerBook specifcally because I found out about the Broadcom chips inside and so I’d have no trouble with signal compatibility.

  5. Samuel McConnell

    I don’t mind not being able to use Linux on my iBook. Well, I know I could, but the Airport Extreme is why I use the laptop in the first place. Ah well, OS X is good enough for me.

  6. bastian

    I think Mikey Mac is right. We should e-mail Apple, not Broadcom, and promulgate not to buy apple products until they provide us a driver. At least, I’m not spending any money in a company that ignores me as a user. The thing is that I haven’t found any e-mail in their website to make a formal complain. Can you guys give me one? I seriously want to raise my voice here.
    If my English was just better, I would phone them personally (and I encourage you to do so – you’d never imagine how so easy is and what you can get calling a big boss’ secretary).

  7. Andy

    I had a look at the openWRT software for the Linksys router, but they only provide the binary module wl.o 🙁 I also had the idea of grabbing it from there, but no luck

  8. billy ball

    – tks for the heads up on the chipset problem… this will save me some time and effort (and dollars)…

    – i too will wait before purchasing another piece of Apple hardware…

  9. keit

    Why on earth would you want to run linux on an Apple machine? That’s sinful. OS X is better in *every* regard!

    OSX can do everything linux can do and more. Heck, you can even run your favorite (and rather bad-compared-to-aqua) window manager with Apple’s X11 server O_o

  10. Kelson Post author

    Keit: On a modern Macintosh system, it’s mainly a matter of “because I can.” Also, while it’s possible to install most OSS apps on Mac OS X either directly from source or using a project like Fink, it’s often easier to use these apps in their native environment. Servers are a slightly different story.

    I would never buy a new Mac desktop or laptop, wipe the disk, and install Linux. I would buy one, repartition it, and make a dual-boot system. And I might run Linux on a Mac server, depending on whether research suggests that it’s worth it. (My brother told me once about trying to update a headless Mac OS X server and having it stop, waiting for someone to click OK on some dialog box—QuickTime, maybe—despite the fact that there was no monitor connected to the machine!)

    On older systems, Linux is a lot less resource-hungry than OS X. If I were to pick up a G3-level machine, I might be more inclined to run mainly Linux. Tiger’s supposed to improve matters, but I’m not sure how well it does with older hardware.

    Then of course there’s the politically-motivated, i.e. “I will run only Free Software unless I absolutely cannot avoid it.” Of course, in that case, I don’t see a major advantage to using Apple hardware over PC hardware.

    And finally, here’s TerraSoft Solutions’ take on the matter.

  11. david

    In fact there isn’t any advantage. I’m the sad owner of a 1.33GHz PowerBook G4. I *hate* Mac OS X. It’s closed nature (copied from Free/NetBSD and then semi-closed, thanks Apple!). Nothing works at its best with NetBSD on it. And it’s not NetBSD’s fault, it’s Apple’s, Broadcom’s, nVidia’s, it’s everyone who is deaf to the OpenSource community’s fault. Don’t ever buy an Apple product if you want great compatibility. Graphics are unaccelerated (nVidia could release a ppc version of its drivers), Airport Extreme doesn’t work, external monitor doesn’t work). There are also other problems (cd burning stuck to 8x while drive capabilities are 24x and so on :() so don’t buy apple if you don’t wanna run OS X

  12. David Stover

    Another reason to use Linux on a Mac is enterprise-level driver support. Stubborn companies like Emulex won’t offer OS X drivers for their Fibre Channel HBAs, but they do offer noarch rpms that can be compiled on PPC64 (Because IBM uses that architecture as well.) I’m actually going through this process right now, but I can’t use Linux on my Mac because Airport is my only link out. I’m very mad at Broadcom for keeping their drivers closed-source, because it keeps me from accessing my data.

  13. adodo

    Read comparison of G5, XEON and AMD64 at AnandTech.
    Compared for raw cpu performance.
    Not suitable to make a purchase decision.

    Mac OS X IS MUCH SLOWER. Something to with the layers, wrappers and threading implementation.

    Mac OS X scored ok for the desktop, but as a server the numbers were abysmal.

  14. adodo

    Sorry, I realise I was not addressing the Airport Extreme issue above. On the Powerbook note – I have purchased a PB 15″ because I did want to run OS X. However I also installed Ubuntu Linux beside it and at some time in the future intend to play with Gentoo and LFS.

    Result – No wireless, no sound, no trackpad, broken power management

    I agree that the pressure needs to be applied to Apple. I am also interested in the new announcement to switch to Intel based Apples. I wonder whether the supporting hardware will get better support?

  15. Kelson Post author

    Result – No wireless, no sound, no trackpad, broken power management

    Wow… The only problem I’ve had on my 12″ PB with Yellow Dog is the wireless. (Actually sound is problematic under the 2.6 kernel, but worked fine under YDL 3, which used the 2.4 kernel)

    As for hardware support—I wouldn’t expect much to change, since it depends on the company producing that bit of hardware being willing to either write drivers or provide specs.

    One probable exception will be NVIDIA. They’ve been willing to provide closed source binary-only drivers for Linux and FreeBSD on x86 and related architectures, so I can use hardware acceleration on my AMD desktop, but they haven’t provided drivers for PPC Linux, so my PowerBook is stuck with non-accelerated graphics under Linux. There’s no reason to think the drivers for the x86 kernel won’t work on an x86-based Mac with an NVIDIA graphics card. (Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if they were willing to release a GPL-compatible driver…)

  16. calyth

    After reading the Anandtech article, you might want to look up microkernels on wikipedia.
    Problem with microkernels is that many of the functionalities of a monolithic kernel is replaced by userland servers, which when you request, say something from the network card, you’d make a context switch from your program, to the kernel, then from the kernel to the server, and then back to the kernel, and back to the program. In comparison, monolithic kernels required only 2 context switches.
    Also Aqua sucks up quite a bit of memory. I have to take this from the Anandtech article… 256MB was apparently not enough to prevent OSX from swapping. IMO that’s worse than Win2k. As a student, I might not have the money to buy an iBook with 512MB memory… then I’d most likely replace OSX with Linux… But then what’s the point of buying an iBook with *nix like functionality if I swap it to a different one, I don’t have wireless?

  17. Kelson Post author

    Those names and phone numbers are listed as press contacts, and the second one is for a contact at a public relations firm. So if you’re planning to write an article on Apple’s use of Airport Extreme, it might be appropriate, but if you want to tell Apple you want them to use hardware with open drivers, they’re probably not the best points of contact.

    It’s also a two-year-old press release, so I wouldn’t count on the same people being in those positions today.

    Apple’s Contact Page or Product Feedback look like they might be better places to start.

  18. UMR_Matt

    While I agree that the airport extreme situation sucks, and that the switch to x86 may hold some surprises for us, I have some things to tell.

    First, I actually wrote complaints to both companies, Apple and Broadcom. Apple apparently “lost” all of my emails as I never recieved any replies back from them. Broadcom played the pointing game. I said they need to provide binary drivers for their chipset, and if not, at least chipset specs so drivers could be written, Broadcam said it’s not their job and I should contact Apple for such things (BS! the same chipset is used by multiple companies, they have the specs, or multiple companies wouldn’t be using it). In the end, I told them I would make sure nothing I ever purchased again would contain one of their products, and the Broadcom rep said that was my choice where I spent my money (which wont be on them).

    Secondly, I can’t help but feel people are being a bit harsh about this, as I look back at it. Yeah, it sucks that Airport Extreme doesn’t work, BUT, go look at the wireless compatibility listings for linux. Most wireless cards *dont* work. Even most cards listed as working are only working by using windows drivers inside linux. Not really an optimal solution either. In my oppinion, this situation is worse because there are a ton of Mac zealots that complain alot, and also that Apple is generally superior/quality hardware and problems like this aren’t *as* expected as a generic pc laptop. There was also some progress being made by the OSS community at writing drivers, and it was coming along nicely, but some months ago the lead developer quit or something and the project skidded to a halt.

    And for everyone saying they won’t buy Apple in the future, well, thats a short future. Just remember, Airport Extreme is already OLD technology, within a year Apple will probably start packaging a new Airport card in their systems and this whole problem will cease to exist for new purchase. (yeah, this isn’t great for those of us who already have the current cards, we’ll just have to hope for the best).

  19. Max

    I will NEVER purchase another Broadcom product, nor will I allow co-workers, employees or my business to purchase ANYTHING that has to do with the company until they release a linux driver or chipset documentation so that one can be made. I the head of an open source group and own an IT company, and I am so disapointed with a company that would be so close minded as to attempt to lock out the GNU/Linux community.

  20. Funklord

    Broadcom has been known for being a nasty company since many years.
    I already decided never to touch their chips when they were selling 100mbit network adapters falsely advertised as 1gbit.
    When they finally did develop gbit chips, they only work at about 600mbit/s at 100% cpu usage.
    It is not improbable that this company will never change it’s attitude toward end users and their problems.
    Broadcom wireless chips are also constantly disconnecting and confusing the AP they are talking to, especially if you use encryption.

    The technical background to this is basically:
    The hardware broadcom supplies is very simplistic and cheap, the work is all done in software which is falsely called firmware or a hardware abstraction layer.
    There is no way software can act at the same speed or real-time manner, as real hardware, it just isn’t possible to answer two irqs at once.
    There is also the “It can always be fixed later” factor about software.
    Which is most apparent when there is little, or no firmware on a hardware peripheral.

    If we support companies like broadcom, atheros and nvidia, we are saying it’s ok to sell simplistic hardware with a high pricetag and software that will be fixed later.

    Alternatives for wireless chips: orinoco/avaya/lucent, prism54
    Alternatives for gfx: ATI has previously released full specs for drivers, but since people _still_ buy nvidia, their incentive to do so is very low (It is up to you to change this)

  21. alex m

    I made the mistake of buying a powerbook. I’m now trying to put linux on it. The reason I want to put linux on it is to hopefully get around a problem that OS X has with eclipse. Running eclipse on OS X eventually causes OS X to run increasingly slow the longer you run eclipse. It has been identified that this is a bug on Tiger and is fixed on 10.4.3, which is being continuously delayed.

    Other reasons I’m frustrated with OS X is it’s insane notion of “usabillity.” Why can I only resize a window by clicking the bottom corner? Why does it tell me I’m getting authentication errors when they are really dns resolution errors (this stumped me for days trying to connect to samba shares)? Why do some programs exit when clicking the X, while others hide?

  22. Kingsley

    I use just thinking of buying the 12″ powerbook, the hardware on it looks like a good deal. Although I’m re-considering. I intended to put freebsd (my fav. OS) on it instead of using OSX but I’ll guess I’ll wait. Thinkpad X40’s were my alternative although they are more expensive than powerbooks.

  23. Michael

    I have a iBook 12″ with an aiport extreme card.

    I love apple hardware, it really is nice quality. But I dont think I will buy another apple product again.
    They are just not open to open source. Their iPod wont play ogg, this iBook is har getting to work properly under linux, there arent any drivers for the airport card.
    I hate it when tech companies make “fake” bounderies. There are no good reason why the iPod cant play ogg, and there arent any real reason that they dont use a wireless chipset with open source drivers.

  24. Kelson Post author

    Apple seems to take a pragmatic approach to open source. If they can make use of it, they’ll do so, and they’ll honor at least the letter of their obligations (and, depending on which team, possibly more). They’ve been very open with the BSD-based Darwin core of OS X, and a few months ago they opened up Webkit, the basis for Safari.

    But they have no motivation on things like Airport Extreme. Apple wants a chipset that works with Mac OS. Whether the spec is open is irrelevant to them. I seriously doubt that they chose Broadcom specifically because Broadcom was opposed to providing open drivers or specs.

    As for Ogg and the iPod, there has to be more than just a lack of reasons against it, there has to be a reason for it that matters to Apple. Supporting MP3 was necessary because it was a defacto standard. Supporting a format that could include DRM was necessary for the iTunes store. And if WMA-based downloads ever outstrip iTMS sales, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple negotiate a deal to license WMA. But Ogg Vorbis? It’s an alternative to MP3, not to AAC or WMA, and its main selling point is that it’s not patent encumbered. (Contrast to PNG, which can actually deliver features GIF can’t—like full color and multilevel transparency.) Apple’s already paid the licenses for MP3, so they have no reason to implement Ogg unless they see a consumer demand for it. And their target audience—Windows users and Mac users—is likely to use CD ripping software that has paid the MP3 tax, and won’t have a huge library of Ogg files.

  25. paul

    you are all idiots. why would you want to run linux? i thoguht it would be a good idea, so i put yellow dog on my computer. after about a week, i realized that i wanted back my beautiful aqua interface. i know you feel special by now using anything mainstream, but it is a stupid and unproductive OS. everything yellow dog could do, osX could do better. and hey! the airport cards work too!

  26. Kelson Post author

    Now Paul, you may have noticed that keit(h)? said nearly the same thing earlier on, but without insulting everyone else who had posted on this page. He also got answers for his trouble.

    At an early age, someone should have told you that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

  27. Joao

    Hi there,

    I have a G4 Powerbook 12”. I have both Debian and OSX installed in my laptop. There are several things, you can do in Linux, and not in OSX. If you are going to configure servers (e.g. RADIUS, Apache, firewall scripts, network traffic control, several gateway definitions…) OSX won’t let you be flexible. You have to stick to already implemented solutions which are not allways what you need.

    PS: try to get ethereal run in OSX, and you’ll see the troubles you have to get it correctly installed 😉

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  29. djchem

    The latest version of YDL 4.1 supposedly contains experimental drivers for the Airport Extreme. This is taken from their hardware support page.

    “Wireless: While the 802.11b and 802.11g protocols (including the original Airport) are supported, Apple’s Airport Extreme is not. However, a beta driver is included with YDL v4.1.”

    It looks like YDL is finally going to get loaded onto my powerbook.

  30. Andalong Dudigual

    whew man, IMHO I can sugest that you can yellow dog linux, I know I bought it too, as a mac user its tempting to go for it since YDL attempts to appeal to mac users, problem is its crap and is always old. check out other distros like Debian which work on all macs, (PPC, Intel, and even 68k) dont require you to pay 30 some odd dollars, and is much more conigurable to your needs and personal taste. not to mention much much faster and more powerfull, once you get the swing of things try building a system without
    kde or gnome, (fluxbox and blackbox are beautifull and super fast).
    PS in response to some of the other replys, there are still quite a few truly great apps for linux that run slow as hell on apple X11, this warants that dual boot. I prefer OSX but sometimes you need Linux too.

  31. fadumpt

    without reading any comments….I don’t think signing a petition for this is going to matter. From what I’ve read, Broadcom can’t release the source for this card because of military frequency restrictions. So instead, we can all be happy using the drivers that are now reverse engineered and built in to the 2.6.17 kernel. Instructions and information can be found here–>http://bcm43xx.berlios.de/?go=home

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  33. Nick

    As of 2007 drivers are available for the broadcom chipset. I believe that it has been reverse engineered, without any specs from broadcom. They should be included with recent distros.

  34. Brian

    I use linux on my mac with Parallels. Then it works fine. I’m running ubuntu, so I can use my mac when I want and linux when I want, and it solves the driver problem.
    In my opinion the airport extreme sucks at this point. I’ve switched back to my netgear and want to return the piece of junk. I can’t even get a signal in the next room. I’m not newbie here either, it just can’t compare on signal strength. The printer didn’t really work either; not immediately, I’m sure I could mess with it, but why – its a Mac, I paid more so I didn’t have to mess with it.

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