For many years, Objective-C was developed and extensively used by the developer community as one of the most effective coding languages in various implementation areas. No wonder that Jobs and Co selected Objective-C as the language of choice for the company’s products and have been using it since the 1980s. However, to everyone’s surprise, in 2014, Apple introduced another tool for native iOS programming. What is more, it was implied that both languages would coexist and get Apple’s long-term support. Needless to say that under such conditions, the comprehensive comparison of Swift vs Objective-C was a matter of course. Two tools used for the same programming purpose and officially supported by Apple provoked several years of exhaustive tests and heated debates that rose whenever a new version of either language was released. This article offers you a detailed look at both Objective-C and Swift in order to define the effectiveness and future perspectives of these iOS programming languages.
Review of Coding Languages for iOS
There are three most noticeable differences between these two programming languages for iOS development: their paradigm, age, and origin. In the context of software development, the paradigm refers to an approach to programming utilized by a language. For instance, both languages are general-purpose, but Swift is multi-paradigm while Objective-C is object-oriented. The support of multiple paradigms means that Swift has more scenarios of implementation and generally offers more flexibility regarding problem solving during software development. The age of the iOS coding languages differs drastically. Objective-C is much older than Swift, yet it remains surprisingly popular, especially considering the fact that computer technologies tend to become obsolete very fast. However, over the decades of its existence, Objective-C managed to evolve and attract a large number of enthusiasts who participated in its further development. Let’s take a closer look at the historical path of Objective-C.
Objective-C over the years
Objective-C is one of the oldest programming languages, being 35 years old – an ancient age in the field of digital technologies. However, this fact does not prevent it from remaining one of the most popular coding languages as it currently takes twelfth place according to the TIOBE index while Swift takes the tenth place. Almost four decades of existence allowed Objective-C to create an impressive knowledge base and gain the support of a numerous community. The first concepts of Objective-C were devised by Brad Cox and Tom Love in the early 1980s under the influence of the Smalltalk language. However, 1988 was the milestone that defined the future of Objective-C. That year, Steve Jobs, who was ousted from Apple at that time, got the license for this coding language and used it to develop software products for his new company, NeXT, by designing the Appkit and the Foundation Kit. After 1996, when Apple bought NeXT, and Jobs returned from his “exile,” Objective-C continued to improve, and eventually, in 2007, version 2.0 of the coding language was introduced. The new version had significant improvements and functional additions, such as better syntax and garbage collection. However, there is another reason why 2007 was perhaps the most important milestone in the history of Objective-C. It was the year when Apple introduced iPhones to the world, and Objective-C was the only programming language to develop native applications for them. This monopoly continued until Apple unveiled Swift at WWDC in 2014.
First steps of Swift
Swift is a relatively new programming language that has a considerable potential for further development and implementation. Apple started working on it in 2010, and the company managed to create a balanced ecosystem so that Objective-C and Swift could coexist without interfering with each other or disrupting the established order in the community of iOS developers. In 2014, to prepare the favorable conditions for the new language, Apple released Swift simultaneously with Xcode 6.0 – the newest version of IDE for macOS and iOS that fully supported Swift. The new programming language turned out to be a huge success and immediately became one of the most popular and extensively improved coding languages. In 2015, Apple changed Swift’s model to the open-source one that facilitated its further improvement. Swift 5.0, released in 2019, became an important milestone as it introduced the long-awaited ABI stability of the language, thus ending the period of its chaotic development and greatly enhancing its compatibility with future versions. While Apple still supports Objective-C, it is clear that the company is focused on Swift, prioritizing it as the top development language for the whole range of Apple’s devices and operating systems. The core libraries of Swift are included in new versions of iOS, macOS, tvOS, watchOS, and iPadOS, thus covering the whole product list of Apple.
Criteria of the Side-by-side Comparison
The most obvious way to compare both languages for native iOS development is by using the same criteria and defining the differences between Swift and Objective-C
Perhaps, the most popular criterion for defining the best development technology is the performance of apps written in it. Here is the catch: Objective-C is a well-established language with four decades of testing, but Apple claims that Swift is 2.6 times faster. However, the performance of languages varies depending on many different factors, so the official statement is not always true. Swift is indeed focused on providing high performance and is faster than Objective-C in most scenarios. The performance gap continues to increase even further with each release of newer versions of Swift. However, Objective-C still manages to offer a shorter compilation time than its rival.
Swift undeniably beats Objective-C in this category by providing a simpler yet expressive syntax. It has a number of advantages over the traditional syntax of Objective-C, such as conciseness, low entry level for new coders, better readability, and many others. In comparison to Swift, Objective-C looks bloated with the overuse of brackets, semicolons, and other service symbols. As a result, to solve the same problem or perform the same task, the software written in Swift requires fewer lines of code than the one written in Objective-C.
Excellent clarity and readability of Swift made this language an optimal choice for novice developers, especially in comparison with Objective-C. Swift takes significantly fewer efforts to master and makes programming a breeze due to its concise syntax. It still requires a great deal of talent and dedication to learn it properly, especially considering the ongoing fast-paced development of the language and the frequent releases of new versions with added functionality. However, over the 35+ years of existence, Objective-C has built an impressive knowledge base, including educational materials for various skill levels, as well as manuals and advice to deal with almost every problem that may be encountered by programmers.
Swift offers significantly better error tracking and debugging methods as compared to Objective-C. In combination with the enhanced typing system, this method allows programmers to discover and fix bugs at the early stages of development based on compiler errors. This way, applications written in Swift are considered to be more stable and have fewer potential vulnerabilities that managed to sneak unnoticed to the release.
This article has already mentioned the well-established community of Objective-C programmers that has been building during the past 35+ years. Due to this fact, there are many expert developers who have decades of practicing their skills and gaining experience in this language. On the other hand, Swift is still building its fan base, though its popularity growth slowed down drastically after the initial boost. While it was named the “most loved programming language” in 2015, over the subsequent four years, Swift dropped to the sixth place in the Stack Overflow rating.
Use of dynamic libraries and memory
The approach to library use is another significant difference between these two compared languages. Swift uses dynamic libraries that allow easier and more frequent updating and shared use among several applications. The latter feature, combined with the inclusion of Swift core libraries in Apple’s operating systems, allows developers to reduce the size of applications significantly. Unlike Swift, Objective-C uses static libraries integrated into an application itself. Their modification requires recompiling the executable file, which is both a benefit and a drawback. Static libraries are an integral part of an application; that is why the relevant app runs faster as compared to dynamic libraries. Moreover, an integrated static library is more protected from tampering or corruption, but it is also more difficult to update. Both Objective-C and Swift have a memory management feature in the form of Automatic Reference Counting. In fact, Swift supported this feature from the beginning, while Objective-C initially used garbage collection and eventually dropped it in favor of ARC.
Future perspectives and official support
Both Swift and Objective-C are officially recognized by Apple as the native development languages for the company’s operating systems. The Xcode IDE supports both languages to the point where it is possible to combine pieces of code written in Objective-C and Swift into one application. This way, Apple enabled the possibility of using the most optimal programming tool for any particular task. This approach ensures the future demand for Objective-C as an iOS programming language and excludes the monopoly of Swift in this field.
As you can see, both programming languages have their advantages and drawbacks as well as support from Apple. Swift is generally easier and more compact, while Objective-C offers faster compilation and allows using C and C++ libraries. Currently, neither Swift nor Objective-C can be regarded as the best coding language for all types of iOS software as the difference in performance is often barely noticeable. However, the future perspectives of Swift are more promising, considering its relatively young age.