Swift

After playing with Swift in my spare time for most of the Summer and after now using Swift full time at Hopscotch for about a month now, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the language.

The number one question I hear from iOS developers when Swift comes up is “Should you switch to Swift?” and my answer for that is “Probably yes.” It’s of course not a black and white answer and depends on your situation, but if you’re an experienced Objective C programmer, now is a great time to start working in Swift. I would suggest switching to it full time for all new iOS work (I wouldn’t recommend going back and re-writing your old Objective C code, but maybe replace bits and pieces of it as you see fit).

(If you’re a beginner to iOS development, see my thoughts on Swift for Beginners)

Idiomatic Swift

One reason I hear for developers wanting to hold off is “Swift is so new there aren’t really accepted idioms or best practices yet, so I’m going to wait a year or two for those to emerge.” I think that’s a fair argument, but I’d argue it’s better for you to jump in and invent them now instead of waiting for somebody else to do it.

I’m pretty sure when I look back on my Swift code a year from now I’ll cringe from embarrassment, but I’d rather be figuring it all out now, I’d rather be helping to establish what Good Swift looks like than just see what gets handed down. The conventions around the language are malleable right now because nothing has been established as Good Swift yet. It’s going to be a lot harder to influence Good Swift a year or two from now.

And the sooner you become productive in Swift, the sooner you’ll find areas where it can be improved. Like the young Swift conventions, Swift itself is a young language—the earlier in its life you file Radars and suggest improvements to the language, the more likely those improvements will be made. Three years from now Swift The Language is going to be a lot less likely to change compared to today. Your early radars today will have enormous effects on Swift in the future.

Swift Learning Curve

Another reason I hear about not wanting to learn Swift today is not wanting to take a major productivity hit while learning the language. From my experience, as an experienced iOS developer is you’ll be up to speed in a week or two with Swift, and then you’ll get all the benefits of Swift (even just not having header files or having to import files all over the place makes programming in Swift so much nicer than Objective C, you might not want to go back).

In that week or two when you’re a little slower at programming than you are with Objective C, you’ll still be pretty productive anyway. You certainly won’t become an expert in Swift (because nobody except maybe Chris Lattner is yet anyway!) right away, but you’ll be writing arguably cleaner code, and, you might even have some fun doing it.

I’ve been keeping a list of tips I’ve picked up while learning Swift so far, like how the compatibility with Objective C works, and how to do certain things (like weak capture lists for closures). If you have any suggestions of your own, feel free to send me a Pull Request.

Grab Bag of Various Caveats

  • I don’t fully understand initializers in Swift yet, but I kind of hate them. I get the theory behind them, that everything strictly must be initialized, but in practice this super sucks. This solves a problem I don’t think anybody really had.

  • Compile times for large projects suck. They’re really slow, because (I think) any change in any Swift file causes all the Swift files to be recompiled on build. My hunch is by breaking your project up into smaller Modules (aka Frameworks) this should relieve the slow build times. I haven’t tried this yet.

  • The Swift debugger feels pretty non-functional most of the time. I’m glad we have Playgrounds to test out algorithms and such, but unfortunately I’ve had to mainly resort to pooping out println()s of debug values.

  • What the hell is with the name println()? Would it have killed them to actually spell out the word printLine()? Do the language designers know about autocomplete?

  • The “implicitly unwrapped optional operator” (!) should really either be called the “subversion operator” or the “crash operator.” The major drumbeat we’ve been told about Swift is it’s supposed to not allow you to do unsafe things, hence (among other things) we have Optionals. By using the implicitly unwrapping the optional, we’re telling the compiler “I know better than you right now, so I’m just going to go ahead and subvert the rules and pretend this thing isn’t nil, because I know it’s not.” When you do this, you’re either going to be correct, in which case Swift was wrong for thinking a value was maybe going to be nil when it isn’t; or you’re going to be incorrect and cause your application to crash.

Objective Next

Earlier this year, before Swift was announced, I published an essay, Objective Next which discussed replacing Objective C, both in terms of the language itself and, more importantly, what we should thirst for in a successor:

We don’t need a better Objective C; we need a better way to make software. We do that in two steps: figure out what we’re trying to accomplish, and then figure out how to accomplish it. It’s simple, but nearly every post about replacing Objective C completely ignores these two steps.

In short, a replacement for Objective C that just offers a slimmed down syntax isn’t really a real victory at all. It’s simply a new-old thing. It’s a new way to accomplish the exact same kind of software. In a followup essay, I wrote:

If there was one underlying theme of the essay, it was “Don’t be trapped by Instrumental Thinking”, that particularly insidious kind of thinking that plagues us all (myself included) to thinking about new ideas or technologies only in terms of what we’re currently doing. That is, we often can only see or ask for a new tool to benefit exactly the same job we’re currently doing, where instead we should consider new kinds of things it might enable us to do. […]

When talking in terms of Objective C development, I don’t mean “I’m dreaming of a replacement that’ll just let you create the exact same identical apps, it’ll just have fewer warts,” but I instead mean I’m dreaming of a new, fundamental way to approach building software, that will result in apps richer in the things we care about, like visual and graphic design, usability and interaction, polish, and yes, offer enhancements to the undercarriage, too.

This, unfortunately, is exactly what we got with Swift. Swift is a better way to create the exact same kind of software we’ve been making with Objective C. It may crash a little less, but it’s still going to work exactly the same way. And in fact, because Swift is far more static than Objective C, we might even be a little bit more limited in terms of what we can do. For example, as quoted in a recent link:

The quote in this post’s title [“It’s a Coup”], from Andrew Pontious, refers to the general lack of outrage over the loss of dynamism. In broad strokes, the C++ people have asserted their vision that the future will be static, and the reaction from the Objective-C crowd has been apathy. Apple hasn’t even really tried to make a case for why this U-turn is a good idea, and yet the majority seems to have rolled over and accepted it, anyway.

I still think Swift is a great language and you should use it, but I do find it lamentably not forward-thinking. The intentional lack of a garbage collector really sealed the deal for me. Swift isn’t a new language; it’s C++++. I am glad to get to program in it, and I think the more people using it today, the better it will be tomorrow.

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