It was for quite a long time that Apple operating systems for mobile phones, tablets, and computers were mainly developed with Objective-C. The year 2014 had flipped everything around with the presentation of Swift – a modern, faster, and simpler to implement a programming language. It’s been 7 years since Swift 1.0 release and now iOS developers are expecting Swift 5.5 version.
Swift has proved to be a viable alternative to Objective-C for many projects and now more and more companies are building their iOS apps with Swift. In this article, we’ll dive into Swift’s details and find out when to use this programming language and if Objective-C is still relevant.
What Is Swift?
Swift is a programming language developed by Apple Inc. and used for building native apps which run on the Apple and Linux operating systems. While Linux is a stand-alone platform, Apple operating systems include a whole line of solutions like iOS for mobile phones, macOS for computers, iPadOS for tablets, watchOS for smartwatches, and tvOS for Apple TV. Therefore, there is a wide range of software applications that can be developed with Swift.
Swift first appeared in 2014 as an alternative solution to Objective-C, which was omnipresent on all Apple’s platforms. Since its introduction, Swift started quickly gaining popularity and in 2015 it became open source. Many developers admit that this programming language is much simpler to code and easier to read.
Today, Swift reaches top positions in the international charts on programming languages. For example, TIOBE Index for July 2021 has ranked Swift the 16th among the top 20 programming languages. Whereas in PYPL PopularitY of Programming Language Index Swift charted at number 10, and Stack Overflow Developer survey mentioned Swift as the 9th most loved development language.
In its recent survey, software developer Andrew Madsen examined the top 110 apps in the App store with a Python script for leveraging Swift in their source code. The developer found out that 42% of the top 110 apps are developed with the Swift programming language to a greater or lesser extent. The apps with the largest percentage of Swift-based code appeared to be Walmart for iOS with 80% of Swift, Microsoft Outlook and Postmates use 67% of the language, Tinder has 47% of it, and Starbucks includes 35%.
Certainly, a much larger number of world-known brands build their apps with Swift and it’s expected to continue growing in popularity in the near future.
The Pros and Cons of Swift Programming Language
As any development language, Swift has its own pros and cons. Despite some shortcomings, many developers still prefer implementing Swift more for quick and effective iOS development than any other programming languages. Let’s have a closer look at the advantages and drawbacks of Swift.
Swift is an open-source development language. It means that it’s available for everyone who wants to create iOS apps with it. Swift developers can contribute to language development, sharing their solutions on bug fixing, best pieces of code, and various language improvement ideas. In just several years after becoming an open-source solution, Swift acquired a strong and supportive community and an extensive number of third-party development tools.
For quick app creation, Swift provides software developers with LLVM tools, a set of modular and reusable compiler and toolchain technologies. These tools make the assembly code compile to the machine code, resulting in faster code processing.
Moreover, according to Apple Inc. Swift is 2.6 times faster than Objective-C and up to 8.4 times faster than Python.
- Simple to read, easy to maintain
Swift has a simple and expressive syntax and grammar. It’s much easier to read and write than Objective-C. Software developers need to write less code to create the same tasks in Swift rather than in Objective-C. This results in faster coding, rapid problem solving, and easy maintenance due to a fewer number of errors in the code.
Besides that, Swift includes an Automatic Memory Counting (ARC) feature. It tracks and handles the memory usage in the developed apps, excluding the necessity to do it manually. This way, Swift automates the routine processes of memory management, alleviating and accelerating the development process many times.
Swift helps developers to quickly define and eradicate bugs before code compilation. To prevent a code from crashing, it initializes variables before their use, checks arrays and integers for overflow, and manages memory with ARC automatically. Moreover, Swift has improvements in its nil pointer which prevents its objects to be nil by default. This results in a cleaner and safer code that doesn’t lead to any errors during its compilation.
- Enhanced team scalability
With Swift project managers can easily scale their development teams and add more developers as needed. It’s possible due to the simplicity, brevity, and readability of the programming language. The specialists in Java, Python, C#, and C++ can code in Swift to some extent due to its proximity to these languages and English and shallow learning curve.
It’s possible to seamlessly integrate Swift with the Objective-C and Cocoa framework. Software developers can interchangeably use Objective-C in Swift and Swift in Objective-C. This interoperability is especially useful for large and long-lasting projects where software developers can leverage the best features of the two languages in one project.
In 2019, Swift developers released its 5.0 version and in 2021 we already await Swift 5.5. Apple is investing much effort into Swift development, trying to build a solid ecosystem with all the Swift libraries included in OS releases. This way, developers can use Swift for building apps for various Apple products. Above all, starting from Swift 5.0, it includes a stable application binary interface (ABI) that allows Apple to provide strong support of the language across the Apple platforms.
Swift is a young development language that undergoes various changes and experiments. This means that it has few native libraries and some development frameworks. Though the Swift community is growing fast and has many experts, it still may not always be possible to find all the programming solutions quickly in comparison to other programming languages.
- Swift version compatibility issues
As Swift developers introduce many language changes in its newer versions, it’s prone to version compatibility issues. This way, if a developer decides to shift to a newer version of Swift, they may find some difficulties, including the necessity to rewrite their app’s code. To cope with this issue, Swift developers have created Swift Migration Tool for XCode that makes code migration from version to version much easier.
- Old OS version compatibility issues
As Swift is a new development language, it doesn’t work with the old OS operating systems. It starts only with iOS 7, macOS 10.9, and supports later versions. For older platforms, software developers have to use a longstanding Objective-C.
Before choosing Swift for your application development project, make sure that it doesn’t depend on the C++ programming language as Swift and C++ are not interoperable.
How It All Started At SCAND
In June 2014, the SCAND mobile development team together with other software development experts were watching the annual Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). At that conference, Craig Federighi presented Swift for the first time. Our team was excited about the new language which generated heated discussions about the future and perspectives of iOS development.
Although the first version of Swift was quite raw, we understood that this language had great potential. Therefore, with the first Swift documentation release our iOS team dug into its details and started learning this new programming language. They began with creating prototypes based on Swift 1.0 and with time started discovering new development practices, becoming more and more experienced in the language.
The SCAND experts were learning Swift and comparing it to the development with Objective-C. This helped our team make a detailed study of the differences between the two development languages, their own pros and cons, and for what projects it’s better to use one language over another.
Now, the SCAND developers widely use Swift for iPhone app development. This programming language allows building powerful and effective apps for various industries, including FinTech, M-commerce, healthcare, entertainment, and others. Moreover, our team has studied the best practices of how to use Swift together with Objective-C to contribute the most to their app development projects.
Why Objective-C Is Still Popular
Swift is quickly conquering the OS development field but does it mean that the time of Objective-C has passed? Although Objective-C is much harder to learn and, compared to Swift, has less modern tools and properties, it’ll stay with us for longer.
The fact is Objective-C has a large codebase and many apps still have this language at their core. It’s hardly possible to rebuild all those solutions and libraries developed with Objective-C just for the sake of using a new language. Moreover, this programming language has existed for more than 20 years in the development market and is much more stable than Swift.
Apple developers have found a way to unite the two languages. It is to improve compatibility between the two. Therefore, Objective-C creators still update this language to better adjust it to Swift.
There are several cases when Objective-C works better than Swift for OS development:
- a large codebase written in Objective-C, e.g. if your project has more than 100,000 code lines written in this language, it’s not worth switching to Swift;
- if you plan to build a framework or SDK, then Objective-C is a better choice due to Swift ABI instability which will result in poor communication between the elements in the machinery code;
- if your projects are built with C or C++ third-party frameworks as Swift isn’t compatible with those programming languages.
Conclusion on Swift Programming Language
Swift is a young but quickly developing programming language for Apple operating systems which represents a viable alternative to Objective-C. Many software developers prefer this programming language as it’s much easier to write and read, debug, maintain, and it offers modern development tools.
Meanwhile, many businesses are also starting to hire mobile developers who work with Swift as it allows building powerful and effective iOS software solutions much faster and at a reasonable cost.