Skip to Content

Apple Seeks a Swift Way to Lure More Developers

A simpler programming language from Apple could broaden the pool of apps and help make them more interactive.

Apple may not have wowed consumers with the latest software offerings at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco this year. But it unveiled something that could have a much bigger impact than a new version of its iOS mobile software or even a new iPhone: a new programming language.

Called Swift, it’s meant to offer a faster, easier way to build software for Apple’s products than its existing programming language, Objective-C. And so far, developers like what they see, saying it will be especially helpful for inexperienced coders who may have shied away from developing iPhone apps in the past.

Objective-C has a long history at Apple. First conceived in the 1980s as an extension to the C programming language, it was licensed by NeXT Computer—the company Steve Jobs founded after being ousted from Apple in 1985—and used for its operating system. After Apple bought NeXT in 1996 and Jobs returned to Apple, Objective-C was used in Apple’s OS X operating system and, eventually, in the iOS mobile operating system, too.

Yet Objective-C can be complicated and confusing, especially for new programmers, and it is viewed as clunkier than some more modern programming languages. Swift is simpler than Objective-C and allows users to see their code in action as they write it on their computer screens, rather than running it through a compiler before checking it out. But it is also compatible with Objective-C code, which means it will work with apps already in Apple’s App Store. And it’s meant to be used for development of Mac apps, too.

Apple rolled out a beta version of Swift on Monday to members of its developer program. A final version will come out in the fall.

Introducing Swift to the crowd at Apple’s annual developer conference in San Francisco on Monday, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, said it’s “like Objective-C without the bulk of C.”

Frank Bentley, a principal research associate at Yahoo Labs who studies the future of mobile and teaches mobile programming at MIT, expects Swift will make it a lot easier for his students to get up and running with iOS apps.

Historically, iOS “tends to trip up some students,” he says, with some of its more complex features that relate to things like memory management and bracket notation. When he took a first look at Swift, he saw that those barriers were gone.

Bentley also thinks students will like the ability to automatically debug and try out things like animation while writing code in Swift (something Apple demonstrated on Monday by making a simple game using Swift and Apple’s Xcode).

“This gives kind of a new way to run things interactively—to just try things,” he says. “Then you can change a couple constants around, see how something works differently. It just lets you play around a little more without having to load it on the phone and try something new every time.”

Developers say Swift’s similarities to other modern programming languages may also help encourage new developers to build software for iOS, according to Tony Scherba, president and founding partner at mobile app developer Yeti. “I know people, even in our shop, that are getting up to speed on iOS, coming from a Ruby or JavaScript or Python background; all of the overhead of Objective-C gets rather confusing,” he says. “I think Swift is going to make that a lot easier.”

Scherba says Swift is better suited to developing games and apps with 3-dimensional graphics and will generally make coding clearer and more concise than it was with Objective-C.

“You can imagine if [there’s] some strange, archaic written language that has these really long names, it’s going to be a little bit more scary to learn how to read and write that language than something clear and concise, that makes more sense and is more legible,” he says.

However, there could be one perhaps unintended consequence of Swift: if it does bring in many more iOS developers, Scherba says, it could also bring down the premium fetched by current iOS developers, whose skills have been considered a hot commodity.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

masked travellers at Heathrow airport
masked travellers at Heathrow airport

We still don’t know enough about the omicron variant to panic

The variant has caused alarm and immediate border shutdowns—but we still don't know how it will respond to vaccines.

This new startup has built a record-breaking 256-qubit quantum computer

QuEra Computing, launched by physicists at Harvard and MIT, is trying a different quantum approach to tackle impossibly hard computational tasks.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.