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6/3/2014
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Apple Bets Big On Swift

At WWDC, Apple introduces Swift, a programming language that will hasten iOS and OS X app development. Here's why it's important.

Apple dropped a bombshell at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) Monday, though only developers heard the explosion. The company introduced Swift, a new programming language that offers an alternative to creating OS X and iOS apps in Objective-C.

Objective-C has been Apple's programming language of choice for years. As an object-oriented language based on C, Objective-C is powerful but complicated. Its verbose nature and unintuitive structure -- particularly when wedded with Apple's Cocoa frameworks and Xcode integrated development environment -- have stymied many less experienced developers, driving them toward friendlier cross-platform development tools or less daunting programming languages.

Apple's ban on Adobe Flash in 2010 can be seen in part as a reaction to the fact that Adobe's development technology, for all its flaws, had a lower learning curve than Apple's and had attracted enough developers to threaten native development for Apple products.

[Learn more about Apple's reveals at WWDC Monday. See Apple OS X, iOS Draw Closer.]

With the launch of Swift and related graphics acceleration technology like Metal, Apple aims to make its native development tool chain more appealing. By lowering barriers to entry into its ecosystem, Apple is trying to attract more developers and encourage them to create apps that work exclusively on Apple hardware.

The company has already had considerable success in that regard: Apple has over 9 million registered developers, according to CEO Tim Cook, who noted that more than 50% of those have signed up in the past year.

Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have all created programming languages that enhance their platforms: Facebook has Hack; Google has Dart and Go; and Microsoft has TypeScript and C#.

Swift has a more narrow focus at the moment: It is designed to be used with Apple's Cocoa and Cocoa Touch frameworks. At some point, if Apple allows the creation of the appropriate middleware, it may be useful for writing apps that work with other frameworks, platforms, or hardware. But for now, Swift is only useful for Apple devices.

Developers welcomed the arrival of Swift nonetheless. Aza Raskin, VP of innovation at Jawbone, said via Twitter that Swift will do for mobile development what JavaScript did for Web development. That may be a bit of an overstatement, given that JavaScript isn't tied to a specific vendor. But Swift should allow developers to be create OS X and iOS apps faster and to write more secure code.

Swift promises greater security through type inference, restricted direct access to pointers, and automatic memory management -- all of which reduce the potential for vulnerable code. It also promises greater speed than Objective-C. Apple claims code written in Swift runs about 1.4x faster than equivalent Objective-C code. Both Swift and Objective-C depend on the same LLVM compiler.

Swift also works with Xcode's new Interactive Playgrounds, which help developers understand what they're creating by running code on the fly.

Walter Luh, CEO of Corona Labs, maker of cross-platform development tool Corona SDK, said in a phone interview that many Objective-C developers believe the language has developed a lot of cruft over the years and will welcome Swift as a fresh start. He also sees it attracting new developers who wouldn't have considered writing apps in Objective-C. He doubts Swift will threaten cross-platform tools because he believes developers will continue to want their code to run on multiple platforms.

Luh expects that Apple will focus its energy at its developer conference on trying to demonstrate the value of Swift. "Any time you introduce a new programming language, you need to provide a compelling reason for developers to use it," he said.

What do Uber, Bank of America, and Walgreens have to do with your mobile app strategy? Find out in the new Maximizing Mobility issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
6/3/2014 | 10:51:46 AM
Circle Wagons
I hate the closed garden Apple is always pushing. It limits competition and leads to consumers getting screwed. While I'm no fan of any of the big tech firm's involvement with the NSA and other govenrment organisations, at least Android is open enough to give you a choice of device. If every manufacturer had its own operating system we wouldn't have anywhere near the impressive development we've seen with smartphones over the past few years. 
Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
6/3/2014 | 11:01:42 AM
Re: Circle Wagons
Amen to that.
Liondance
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Liondance,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/3/2014 | 12:47:37 PM
Re: Circle Wagons
That "closed garden" (proprietary) approach does not stifle competition. Rather, it shifts competition to different arenas. Everyone is free to produce better products. If you are an Apple competitor and believe their software development infrastructure is bad, then you should be cheering that they are shooting themselves in the foot. If you think their approach is superior, then you should be looking at ways to innovate in that space for your own benefit.

I, for one, welcome Apple and a few others having the guts to invest and innovate on "software development infrastructure", instead of following the "pussy capitalism" approach that Google, for instance, used when stealing Java for Android.

Good software development infrastructure is not "free" and should not be free. There is a lot of value added in the labor that goes into designing and implementing software developpment infrastructure, e.g.: compilers, interpreters, debuggers, IDEs, etc. Lack of competition in the software development tools arena, partially fostered by a lazy, and "risk-averse" approach of many high-tech corporations, has also had adverse effects on consumers, just not immediately obvious.

melgross
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melgross,
User Rank: Ninja
6/3/2014 | 4:57:34 PM
Re: Circle Wagons
Actually, it's Apple having their own OS that has led to the fast improvements in smartphones the past few years. And it's having one OS for desktops that's lead to the stagnation there. That's well known.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
6/3/2014 | 1:35:44 PM
Could Apple's Swift go cross-platform?
Do you see any potential for Swift to mature into a cross-platform technology? Or is the only thing that's interesting here its connection to native frameworks? Is there anything interesting about the language itself?
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
6/3/2014 | 4:47:24 PM
Re: Could Apple's Swift go cross-platform?
The language itself looks suitably modern (no need to include semicolons, inferred typing, automatic garbage collection). It doesn't appeal Apple wants people to write Swift code apps for other platforms, but that would certainly be possible. I expect someone could write a tool to convern Swift to, say, JavaScript. At a cursory glance, it's more appealing than Objective-C for those committed to writing native iOS (or OS X) apps.
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
6/4/2014 | 3:08:22 AM
Re: Could Apple's Swift go cross-platform?
I am not going to make causual prediction for the future. But Swift will gain more and more popularity if its ease-of-use and robustness are proved. As long as it can be used to develop mobile apps on iOS, I do not see any reason why it cannot be cross-platform. I will attempt it by myself later on.:-)
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
6/3/2014 | 2:41:10 PM
Free and open source code, er, how about just free?
Apple is about to defy gravity and establish its own proprietary programming language. The success of the iPad and iPhone enable it to do that, but in general, the languages that have gained wide followings of late -- PHP, Ruby, Node.js -- have all been open source code. Will it be free, if not open?
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