Apple Goes Open-Source

This could be big news for the company’s relationship with developers, if the details turn out right

Key Speakers At The Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC)

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president for software engineering, speaks at Monday’s keynote presentation.

Photographer: David Paul Morris

For the second straight year, Apple drew a huge round of applause at its Worldwide Developers Conference for news related to its nascent computer programming language. Swift was introduced at last year’s conference and enjoyed unprecedented success, mostly because people want to write apps for iPhones. On Monday the company said it would make Swift open-source by the end of the year. This could pave the way for the language to reach far beyond Apple’s walled garden.

“We think Swift is going to be the next big programming language,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president for software engineering.

This could mean developers will be able to use Swift on non-Apple devices to write programs that run on platforms that compete with Apple’s own products. That could be a big deal if Apple really wants to extend its reach. Computer science programs tend to focus on teaching languages that are open and widely applicable, and some developers are loath to spend time learning languages whose use is limited to one platform, even one as important as Apple’s. If the company wants Swift to develop from a fairly popular language into one of the primary tools used by coders worldwide, it probably had little choice but to go open-source.

Apple WWDC: Three Things You Need to Know

The impact of the news is likely to be immediate, says Stephen O’Grady, co-founder of Red Monk, an analytics firm for developers. “By standing up at WWDC, Apple is publicly committed to this,” he says. “For developers that may have been reluctant to commit before, because it wasn’t an open-source language, that obstacle has been removed.”

Apple has a reputation among developers for being aloof, and Monday’s announcement was taken in some corners as a pleasantly uncharacteristic move.

“People were hoping they would open-source Swift, but I don’t think people were expecting it,” says Colin Eberhardt, technology director for Scott Logic, a software development company.

Swift might have gotten to this point without Apple’s help. There have already been independent efforts to create the capability to use Swift for non-Apple devices without Apple’s explicit cooperation, by companies like RemObjects. But having Apple on board will likely smooth the process.

Until all the details emerge, there will be skepticism about Apple’s intentions and its ability to follow through. On developer forums on Monday, people quickly invoked the case of FaceTime, which Apple said would be become an open-industry standard but got bogged down in the effort.

“When I look at swift, the only thought I have is that it is the new iOS language. I don’t believe they’ll be able to deviate from that. I don’t see myself making iOS apps, so I don’t see myself every [sic] writing a single line of the language,” writes “nickysielicki” on Hacker News, a popular news site and forum for computer programmers.

What an open-source Swift actually means will become clearer as Apple discloses more details about its approach. There are many flavors of open-source licensing, all of which allow developers to do slightly different things. Monday’s announcement is best seen as an interesting first step.

“It at least gives Apple the framework for developers it hasn’t had before. Historically the developer experience has been very locked down,” says Red Monk’s O’Grady, adding that the specific license will be a strong indication of how committed the company is: “What Apple chooses here tells us a lot about how they are going to interact with developers.”

Read this next:

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE