As expected, Apple executives spent the first day of the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) unveiling iOS 8 and Mac OS X “Yosemite,” the newest versions of operating systems for iOS mobile devices and Macs. But the announcement that earned arguably the biggest response from the audience (and the tech media at large) came near the end, and it involved something that 99 percent of consumers probably won’t care about: a new programming language, Swift.
For many years, Apple-centric developers have relied on Objective-C to program apps for Macs and iOS devices. It’s a popular programming language, but also one that’s notoriously difficult to use; based on the crowd reaction to Apple’s announcement, those developers seemed pretty pumped at the prospect of leaving it in the rear view mirror.
Swift bears many attributes of scripting languages, an offshoot of programming languages that includes Python and Perl. Unlike programming languages that demand the programmer write a massive chunk of code before compiling it to see the results, scripting languages can display the outputs in real time. This can prove an invaluable time-saver: compiling huge swaths of code means that, if something goes wrong, the programmer has to go back and pick apart his or her work line-by-line in order to find what’s often a tiny error. With Swift, as with scripting languages, the feedback is instant.
Scripting languages operate at a high level of abstraction, meaning they can automate various programming functions, making them simpler to understand and write than other languages. (Apple also touts Swift’s ability to eliminate “entire classes of unsafe code,” with variables initializing before use, arrays/integers checked for overflow and automatic memory management.)
Apple hopes that Swift will make iOS and Mac OS X more accessible to a deeper pool of developers, strengthening those platforms’ respective app stores. Pro developers likely hope that Swift will make a hard job a little easier, while novices might see the new language as an invitation to launch a foray into Apple programming. Those interested in exploring the possibilities (and limits) of the language can download Apple’s free e-book, The Swift Programming Language, which provides a detailed tour. More information is also available on Apple’s development website.
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