Swift, first introduced by Apple in 2014, earned itself a lot of developer interest in a short time for its speed and relative simplicity.
In December of 2015, Apple took the huge step of releasing Swift as open source, meaning any developer anywhere can download the language’s source code and improve it to their liking.
It’s a move that’s hit the gas pedal on Swift’s already considerable growth and popularity, sending it to the top of the popularity charts at GitHub.
In a fascinating podcast interview with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, Apple Senior VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi discusses Apple’s grand ambitions for Swift, and the master plan behind releasing it.
“We saw open sourcing as a critical element to make Swift reach its potential to be the language, the major language for the next 20 years of programming in our industry,” Federighi says.
So to get to industry domination, it’s important to win over the developer of today, famously stubborn though they are to change their ways.
But it’s possibly even more crucial to make sure that Swift — which Apple does, indeed, see as better in many regards than Objective-C, the current standard in iOS development — be appealing to programming students. Apple boasts of how easy Swift is to learn, too.
“Swift is, we think, the primary programming language that developers should be taught programming in, actually,” Federighi told Gruber.
Which is why releasing it to open source was so critical, Federighi says. If you could only use Apple Swift to write software for Apple iPhone, Apple Macs, and Apple TV, it would never get the broad appeal it needed to go beyond an interesting curiosity for the dedicated iPhone app developer.
But once Apple Swift is released to open source, a dedicated cadre of Apple developers have the licence and tools necessary to take the language and make it work on anything else. Federighi says that the Swift source code has been downloaded and cloned around 60,000 times while programmers work on tweaking it to fit their needs.
While Swift was designed for mobile apps, for instance, IBM is taking Swift and getting it to run on its Linux servers.
And so, while it means that Apple’s programming language may get use far beyond the company’s own platforms, it means that the company is attracting more developers than ever before to Swift.
The benefits to Apple are potentially huge. If every programmer everywhere learns Swift, and Apple’s platforms are the best places to run code in Swift, then the iPhone becomes more attractive than ever before as a place to make and sell apps.
Of course, it may be a while before Swift is quite ready for that — it is, after all, less than two years old, and still under development. And Objective-C, C++, and the other older workhorses will be around for a while, meaning that Apple’s not planning on pulling support or anything like that.
It’s just that the company is seeing it more as supporting the past while building something better for the future, Federighi says.
“People here are idealistic yet really pragmatic, and I think you see that as an Apple characteristic in many, many elements of what we do,” he says.
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