Apple returns to its core with Swift programming language

3 Jun 2014

Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference lived up to its potential – it was all about the developers – and the rollout of a new programming language called Swift proves the California tech giant has its eye on some very long-term strategic goals.

As the dust settles after the first day of WWDC many people will be bemoaning the fact that Apple didn’t reveal any new hardware – no iWatches, no Apple televisions, no new smart devices.

Actually Apple did more than that; it tore up the canvas of previous years’ achievement and created an entire new blank page for developers and creators to build their ideas upon. And that was always the core of what Apple was about.

If you think back to the company’s early days – when it appealed more to hippies and the avant-garde – it was always about creating a fresh canvas for others to draw upon. And a community of 9m software developers worldwide whose futures were jumpstarted by the apps economy Apple created when it launched the iPhone in 2007 is a long shot from the first 30 developers to attend the first WWDC 25 years ago in 1990.

The problem with today is people are attracted to baubles and no company has been better at drawing in people like moths to a light bulb with more money than sense and who must have the newest, shiniest thing than Apple.

But Apple has always had a pragmatic core that speaks as much to the technology purists of 1977, 1990, 2007 and directly to the 13 year-old app developer who was in attendance at WWDC yesterday. The key has always been to get inside the guts of the machines, the networks, the operating systems and the bare metal and create a fresh canvas for others to draw upon.

Apple plants a seed

Yesterday Apple showed how its newest operating system for the Mac, OS X Yosemite was very much influenced by the iPad. It previewed iOS 8 and introduced what is its biggest developer release, the iOS 8 SDK which has over 4,000 APIs.

It also introduced Metal, a set of tools that allows app developers to cut through the layers of technology, get “bare metal” access and draw upon the full power of its A7 processor.

But it went even further. Last night Apple revealed a whole new programming language called Swift which the company’s software chief Craig Federighi describes as “Objective-C without the baggage of C.”

In creating a whole new programming language and set of tools that can potentially lead to more powerful apps and service, Apple is laying the groundwork for tying developers to its cloak for a decade to come. If you understand Apple, and I do, this is more pivotal than just another hardware release; it sets the stage for a whole series of things to happen.

Swift promises to make developing apps easier, faster and much more stable. In effect it is a shorthand way of creating highly complex applications in a less tedious way.

The goal is both breath-taking and simple. Swift is aimed at replacing Objective-C and Python languages with something that is more conducive to rapid, quality development. It is native to Apple’s Cocoa and Cocoa Touch frameworks upon which OS X and iOS are built.

It is Apple doing what Apple does best, ignoring other platforms and tying in a community of creators to the platforms and hardware it has developed and invested heavily in over the past decade.

Take the App Store as a very good example of this. Yesterday Tim Cook revealed that the App Store now has 1.2m apps and 300m people visit the App Store every week. To date, he revealed that some 75bn apps have been downloaded so far and now Apple plans to invest heavily in the App Store.

For example, he revealed a new beta test service for developers called TestFlight which enables developers to invite users to test apps and said that third party app developers will also be able to create apps that make use of the iPhone’s Touch ID fingerprint security feature without compromising the security data that sits on the A7 processor.

Keep a close high on HealthKit, a range of tools that Apple believes will revolutionise healthcare and wearable devices, and also on HomeKit which is Apple’s other platform for the ‘internet of things’ via the automated home.

Those who bemoan the lack of hardware on show yesterday are missing the bigger picture: Apple has returned to its core and it is setting the software scene for a hardware step change in a tradition of step changes that extend back to the first Macs in the 1980s, the iMac in 1999, the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, the iPad in 2010 …

Apple has planted a seed, be astute enough to know it.

Evolution of Apple logo image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years