Swift vs. Objective-C: Which Language Should You Adopt For iPhone App Development?
- Web & App
Objective-C was developed in the early 1980s as an object-oriented, general-purpose programming language that became popular for its use in the development of iPhone applications.
After it was licensed by NeXT Computer Inc, Objective-C helped lay the groundwork for Apple products and iOS mobile apps. Being an old-generation language, Objective-C has stood the test of time and many generations of developers have used and tested the language for development.
Objective-C was derived from two other languages, C and Smalltalk. It integrated the object syntax and messaging style from Smalltalk and non-objected oriented operations’ syntax from C language.
Comparatively, Swift is a modern-day programming language that was released by Apple in June 2014 at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Swift exhibits specific characteristics of Objective-C, such as Dynamic Dispatch, extensible programming, and late binding.
Since its release, Swift has undergone several changes, with its most recent release in September 2019, Swift 5.1. Swift 5.1 introduced module stability. In the last 5 years, Swift has managed to amass a massive following amongst the developers. An abundance of community support and third-party tools being developed showcases the rising popularity of the language.
According to a Stackoverflow survey, Swift was more popular within the app development community than Objective-C. But why exactly is Swift rising so quickly in terms of popularity?
The answer lies in the comparison between these two languages.
Which of these languages is more convenient for developers while being a cost-effective solution for a business?
From a business perspective, considering factors such as cost and time of iOS app development and the future scope of the language is essential. For developers, languages are all about their syntax, compilation, and code safety.
In this comparison, we will be taking into consideration the following metrics to answer one simple question; which programming language should you use for iPhone app development?
- Performance and speed comparison
- Code safety and null pointers
- Two-file maintenance vs. one file compilation
- Code length, complexity, and time-efficiency
- Memory management for objective-C vs. Swift
- Dynamic libraries vs. static libraries
- The future of the two programming languages
Performance and Speed Comparison
In terms of pure speed performance, Apple claims that Swift can be up to 2.6 times faster than Objective-C.
However, this isn’t true for all cases. One study exhibits that this difference is not black and white in nature. While Swift 5.1 comes with significant improvement with regards to RC optimization, there is still a lot of work to be done with regards to Apple’s promise of a 2.6x performance increase.
Both these languages are statistically typed and use the same iOS SDK and the high-quality Low-Level Virtual Machine (LLVM) compiler. So to further analyze this, let’s dive deeper into factors that affect language performance.
Objective-C is based on runtime code compilation
Objective-C was not designed to be a fast-performing language. Instead of using compile-time, Objective-C uses runtime code compilation which is bound to be slow in performance.
When an Objective-C programmed object calls for another object present in the code, there’s an added layer of activity involved. As a developer, you barely notice this the first time you compile code, since it happens quickly. But once the code compilation is done enough times, this delay becomes noticeable and slows down your performance.
Swift was named “swift” for a reason
When we talk about performance-sensitive code, Swift performs faster than Objective C. Its performance in its early phases gave competition to C++, and with Swift 5.1’s optimization, one can see Swift leaving C++ behind for all kinds of algorithms.
Swift is still maturing; there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to really make it the single industry standard for iPhone app development but that’s what makes it stand-out.
Still, in its growth phase, Swift is faster, and as time goes by, its performance is going to be enhanced further.
Code Safety and Null Pointers
Swift was developed with the vision to improve code safety for developers. Swift is both type-safe and memory-safe.
Type Safety is a programming language function that allows the language itself to prevent type errors in coding.
On the other hand, Memory-safety helps developers to not deal with any vulnerabilities that come as a result of uninitialized or dangling pointers.
For developers, these errors are a huge pain point. Finding these bugs in multiple lines of code can be time-consuming and tiring. By eliminating the possibility of these errors, swift is a faster and safer iOS app development language.
Objective-C and null pointers
Objective C uses null pointers as a safety feature in its development. C-based languages and C++ depend on pointers, but they can result in a lot of security vulnerabilities.
Null pointers result in very complex problems for developers. While it does give them higher access to the data, calling a method with nil pointer results in nothing really happening. Often, people take this superficially since it doesn’t register or cause a crash.
The line of code becomes a no-operation (NOP), and the program moves on to the next sequential task. Though it doesn’t crash, it could be a bug source that will affect your bug finding and fixing. NOPs cause results that are unpredictable and create unnecessary complications, as opposed to a crash which would help you clean-up the mistake promptly.
Clean coding with Swift
In contrast, Swift doesn’t use pointers. When using Swift, if developers miss a pointer within the code, such as a nil value, the application will crash.
While this can be annoying, it allows them to fix bugs and make corrections quickly. A cleaner and shorter code are easier to scan for bugs and that’s what swift does for its users.
Swift comes with a set of features such as optionals and type interface means that mobile apps on swift are less likely to have bugs in the code that go unnoticed during development.
Two-file Maintenance vs. One-File Compilation
For app maintenance, the main difference between Objective-C and Swift lies in the number of files developers have to manage.
For Objective-C users, maintenance is more time consuming and hectic than it is for Swift developers.
Maintaining two code files in Objective-C is a hassle
Objective-C’s dependency on its parent language C limits its functionality when it comes to making changes to the code.
Developers are required to maintain two separate files of code in Objective-C for efficient maintenance and to achieve a shortened development cycle for an application.
In Objective-C, the synchronization of method names and comments is not an automated process; instead it requires developers to synchronize them manually.
Swift is based on a single program code file
Application maintenance on Swift is much easier. Swift’s LLVM compiler and Xmind allow for a certain degree of automation within the process.
The compiler and Xmind, which is a mind mapping software, is used to gather the requirements and complete the builds without any need for dual file maintenance or manual labor.
This is reflected in the separation between the header file, denoted as (.h), and the implementation file, denoted as (.m) on Objective C. On Swift, these files are combined in one single code file that can be maintained, which is denoted with (.swift).
Swift’s modernity is showcased in its development. It was designed by apple to be a simple and easily understandable language. The idea was to encourage developers to learn this accessible language and build more apps for iPhone and populate Apple’s Appstore further.
Objective-С, on the other hand, developed back in the 80s, is a more complex language, both to learn and implement. Since then, the industry standards have shifted and more concise programming languages such as Swift itself have been developed.
Objective-C’s code has a complex structure
Based on the C language, Objective-C’s code structure is complex. Coding with the language requires heavy use of symbols such as “@,” semicolons, and parentheses conditionals.
The parentheses conditionals are used with internal “if” and “else” statements while the @ symbol helps differentiate types from C types and segment one keyword from another.
English-like syntax makes Swift stand out
On the other hand, Swift’s easy to read and write syntax is driving its popularity in the iPhone app development world.
Objective-C is complicated, while Swift allows developers to avoid the use of symbols such as @. It implements a list of parameters within the parenthesis through a comma-separated list.
Moreover, Swift’s fewer code strings reduce the likelihood of coding error and help create clean code while resembling the English language, which is becoming the industry standard with modern languages such as Kotlin.
Code length, Complexity and Time-efficiency
Maintaining and updating a verbose string of code takes more time, and finding bugs is more complicated. Updating apps and maintaining them is easier if you have clean and concise code and this is where Objective-C and Swift differ from one another.
Objective-C is code heavy and verbose
When you analyze a code written in Objective-C, it requires extensive coding, with long text strings. In development, the usage of special string tokens like %s is needed, and developers have to provide a list of variables to replace each of the tokens individually.
Any error in the structure or order of these tokens can lead to the app to not function or crash when opened by end-users. This complexity hurts both businesses and developers with no way around it.
Swift allows for concise coding
On the comparative, Swift requires much less code to execute the same tasks. String handling is done quicker on Swift as it allows developers to add two strings together using the “+” operation.
Interpolating strings are utilized to eliminate the need to memorize tokens allowing for the use of variables directly, which are placed inline to the strings such as a label.
This helps reduce the number of crashes since it reduces coding. It consequently also reduces the chances of error in repetitive statements or token placement due to a lapse in memory, which is a commonly occurring problem.
Memory Management in Objective-C vs. Swift
When coding with Objective-C, the support developers get with the Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) is within the object-oriented code. This limits its ability to access code written in C or other APIs.
With Swift, large memory leaks are not possible because it is a direct improvement of Objective-C’s limitation. Swift’s ARC is designed for both object-related paths and procedural paths. This ensures that Swift is far more robust and compact in comparison to Objective-C
Objective-C’s memory management and it’s limitation to Cocoa API
In its essence, ARC is for both Swift languages and Objective-C, which helps memory management without any manual labor from the programmers.
Objective-C’s ARC is limited in functionality only to support the Cocoa API, which is Apple’s native application programming interface for macOS. For developers who use Core Graphics, the code does not access these APIs. This is a limitation that really hurts Objective-C developers as opposed to Swift developers.
Swift supports ARC across varying APIs
While Swift also uses ARC, it supports the use of ARC for all APIs that is streamlined in a manner that is similar to Cocoa Touch’s memory management.
Swift was developed to solve this problem that arose with Objective-C. By making ARC compatible with object-oriented code paths, Swift solves this problem that has existed with Objective-C since the start.
In practice, this allows developers to focus more on other tasks and create better quality iPhone apps that waste time stressing about memory management.
Dynamic Libraries vs. Static Libraries
There are a few fundamental differences between dynamic libraries and static libraries. While dynamic libraries can be linked to an app directly, static libraries are linked during the last step of the compilation process, which comes after its placement in memory.
Dynamic libraries are linkable to a program during run-time, and the shared code that is loaded can be utilized by a large number of programs. This allows developers to update, change, and recompile the code without having to recompile the entire application.
Moreover, dynamic libraries allow the updating of the code directly in an application while static libraries are updated alongside other updates such as a new OS update or version that is released.
Objective-C’s is dependent on static libraries
Objective-C developers do not enjoy the support of dynamic libraries within their development process. This is a huge disadvantage that they operate with.
Dynamic libraries are significantly smaller in size due to the way they are stored in memory. When used, only one copy of a dynamic library is stored, while Objective-C files are larger due to their use of static libraries, as external programs have to be in-built with the executable files.
This impacts the performance of your application, and for businesses or enterprise platforms, this is incompatible with both the modern trends and industry standards that help them outperform competitors.
Swift works with dynamic libraries
On the flip side, dynamic libraries can be directly loaded into an app’s memory. These libraries can help optimize your app’s performance and reduce file size.
Since these libraries are supported by Swift, this direct connection with an application lets them update without dependency on the Operating System.
In essence, it makes your app stay updated with modern trends, reduce file size, and speed up its overall performance, such as loading speed.
The Future of These Two Programming Languages
Since the 1980s, Objective-C enjoyed a non-competitive monopoly in the iOS app development world.
With the arrival of Swift, Objective-C took a massive hit as it dropped down in popularity amongst iOS developers. Since Swift was developed by Apple itself, one can see why it is projected to grow and has grown over the last 5 years.
Apple’s team is continually supporting iOS development on Swift by rolling out new features and releasing newer versions of the language, but the Objective-C community is not necessarily disappearing.
Young developers are more likely to learn Swift rather than Objective-C, and it seems like that’s the direction Apple intends them to move towards.
Objective-C is an old and consistent race-horse
The Objective-C community is strong and has stretched across many generations of iOS developers.
These developers have spent hours both learning and mastering Objective-C and wouldn’t necessarily look forward to transitioning to a new language that they’ll have to learn.
Since Apple hasn’t revealed any plans to drop support for the language, the community will most likely continue to grow and mature even further as time goes on.
Swift is modern and enjoys premium support from Apple
Swift is still in its infancy when compared to Objective-C’s legacy. The swift community is growing and is an integral part of its formation and future.
What is also very interesting about Swift is that it isn’t just limited to Apple’s OS. It supports development on Linux, which signals a fast growth rate and exhibits signs of its rising popularity in the app development ecosystem.
Without a doubt, Swift will benefit from continuous support for Apple, with more tools being developed for its optimization. At the end of the day, as a modern language, its potential for growth is enormous and the current trends suggest that Swift is here to stay.
When Do You Choose Objective-C or Swift?
To decide which side of the Objective-C vs. Swift debate your business should be on, there are a few considerations that you need to keep in mind.
From team experience to project details, choosing either of the languages or migrating to Swift can pose a challenge for your team. For this reason, here are a few questions I asked myself when deciding to choose the programming language for my business’ iPhone app development team.
- What language does your team already know?
- How much time do you have before the project starts?
- How big is your project?
- Do you have the budget to spend on hiring new developers?
- What do you plan to do in the future with this project?
In practice, these questions are more technical in nature than they appear to be. Let’s take a look at 5 use cases, to understand where and when you should use these languages.
Maintenance for an old application
If your application is developed using Objective-C, then it is a good idea to update it using the same language.
Though much like Java and Kotlin, Objective-C and Swift are interoperable and you can use both the programming languages for the same app without any problems, what you will require are developers who understand both the languages since they will have to work with both of them.
Here, you need to see if your developers have this skillset or if you can hire someone who can operate both the programming languages. If not, then it’s better to go with the old and trusted Objective-C for any maintenance or updates that you make to the app.
- Need help with Swift-based Iphone app development?
When developing on C Language
Objective-C is the superset of C since all valid C programs can be compiled with Objective- C.
If you’ve undertaken a project that requires the use of C language, then using Objective-C is the best option for you with regards to that project.
When you’re short on time
While Swift is easy to learn, for teams that are not proficient in its use, it can still take time to learn and implement in a short time span.
In a time crunch, if your team is not well-versed with the language, using Objective-C is the more feasible option. It is better to learn Swift while continuing to work with Objective-C rather than force using the language, which could hinder your progress.
Wrapping Up the Swift vs. Objective- C Debate
Without a doubt, Swift is the industry standard in the iPhone app development community and our premium choice programming language for iOS development. The best iPhone app development companies across the world are either already using Swift or transitioning towards it.
For your business, you need to consider the readiness of your team to migrate to Swift. Gradual learning and transition is perhaps the best strategy to execute. Give space to your developers to learn the new language or hire developers that have already mastered development with Swift.
Swift Playgrounds is a fantastic development environment to learn the language and execute it. Apple has provided developers the opportunity to learn and use the language, making it accessible for future use, and you should make the most of this for your iPhone app development projects.
About the Author
Shah Anas is a Business Development Executive who believes in the responsibility of businesses to give back to society. Away from the office, Shah loves to talk about sports and politics and is always ready to post a long status on trending topics.
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