I have spent the past week in San Francisco at Apple WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference). It was the richest and more energetic WWDC I have ever participated in. Apple announced a lot of new features that are going to benefit our XMPP and push platforms for iOS and our mobile software.
But, as I still ponder the overall implications of the conference, I wanted to share some of my initial thoughts and debunk two misunderstandings.
The general media failed to understand how major this conference was
My first comments are about the gap in understanding by the general media regarding this conference. In France, for example, Le Monde, one of the major French newspapers, wrote that Apple is refreshing its iOS, but no revolution has been announced. This was a common pattern found in the non-technical press.
This fails to measure how radical the change in iOS and OSX was for the development community. Apple did open a new set of API, allowing interapplication communication and custom widgets for the notification center. It also created a new language to improve the overall platform for developers. More generally, most of the 100+ talks at WWDC were about granting more power to developers on various levels, improving API, and solving common and old technical limitations. Example from a random conference: Core data performance has been improved on two use cases—batch update and async fetch. This announcement alone is a reply to a complaint on core data performance for mass record changes; see On switching away from Core Data by Brent Simmons.
At the conference, there was general agreement that nearly all the wishes and complaints from Apple developers had been satisfied. Some said it was the most important Apple developer event in 10 years, with beta testing, performance, more powerful API, and even a new modern language called “Swift”. In a single week, the Apple development landscape radically changed. Marco Arment, a high-profile developer, noted that Apple opened new territory. Casey Liss said that during this conference, Apple changed its mindset, and its new message was about building a platform together with the development community.
WWDC is a developer conference, and it is getting back to its roots. The media was expecting hardware or software announcements. Apple has announced new hardware in the past at WWDC (examples are iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4) but was disappointed by announcements targeted at the developer community. However, it happens that the developers are the ones building the ecosystem. What Apple gives them is the tools that will make the platform much better and more powerful in the coming years. It will take a while to have everyone notice, but it is a profound change. This is a seed to improve the application ecosystem on iOS for the coming years.
Apple surprised the public with an announcement of a brand-new programming language. Despite it having being in development for four years, Apple managed to keep the secret until now. Launching a new programming language will have a huge impact on the development community. For developers, it was like Christmas in June.
That said, the impact was, again, largely misunderstood. It was described as a way to make the development with iOS simpler and accessible to more developers. However, having assisted at many talks on Swift, it is clear to me that the goal is not to appeal to a mass of new developers. Google is using Java—one of the most taught languages in the world—on this platform, and there is no way to compete with the ubiquitous knowledge of that platform among developers. Code factories are mostly based on Java skills, and Java is a programming language with a massive amount of manpower behind it.
What Apple proposes with Swift is that it be a language that is efficient, making it very adequate for mobile environments. It also is a language that is much more expressive and enjoyable to write than Objective C, the existing de facto language for iOS and OSX programming.
What Swift is not is a simple language. It is extremely expressive and powerful—and, as such, it requires a deep understanding of many programming paradigms (object oriented, functional). Developing for iOS and OSX requires knowledge of the many features available in the frameworks. No matter how you express your code, learning those frameworks takes time. You will still need a great deal of skills to write mobile apps.
Swift is there because Apple wants to help attract good developers—not simply a mass of developers. Apple wants to appeal to developers that are constantly looking for a better way to express their code and improve the performance and maintainability of their software.
Reading the first articles and analysis on Swift is by no means about “writing iOS or OSX software in 21 days”. It is profound how the articles analyze the influence and semantics of the language, and what design choices were made. For example, these are the first thoughts from the original lead developer of Rust, a language that was an inspiration for Swift. This is an example of the type of articles coming from professionals that want to use a state-of-the-art programming environment in a practical way. For example, Evan Miller explains how he found it more practical than Haskell, while inheriting some of its benefit in his piece, Swift impressions. Haskell is a language acclaimed for its properties, but it is often said to be used more in academic environments than by programmers for typical mobile or web software.
With Swift, what Apple wants is to do is attract and keep the best mobile developers working on iOS.
More to come on post-WWDC analysis
I will write more later on implications and expected improvements for ProcessOne and Boxcar software. I need time to think more about all the pieces of information I gathered during five days of talks and discussion with developers.