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10 December 2015

Open source Swift could see cross-platform iOS/Android apps

One of the most significant announcements at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June was the plan to open source the firm’s Swift programming language. This would have been entirely unremarkable for most companies, but for one whose business model relies so heavily on walled gardens, it was a major sign that even Apple has to adapt to the realities of modern software and open systems.

The company has kept its promise, and this could open the floodgates for cross-platform applications written in Swift. While Apple is not straying so far from its roots as to port Swift itself to Android, Linux or Windows, open source availability of the standard Swift library and compiler, on the website, will enable third parties to run the code on any operating system – and many are likely to do so.

This is a sea-change from the traditional Apple developer world. Before Swift was announced in mid-2014, the firm used Objective-C, which did not allow any modifications at all by developers. Swift offered a little more flexibility, and then came the news that it would be open sourced, and that developers could submit their own improvements.

This should greatly increase the usage of Swift, which has been well received by the iOS community and could now support apps for other mobile platforms as well as for Linux servers and Apple’s other operating systems.

Also at WWDC earlier this year, Swift 2 was pre-announced, promising new features which could attract further users to the language.

Apple’s WebKit is also an open source development project, and it’s likely that Swift will follow a similar path in terms of its governance. In both cases, developers can make outside contributions, but it is rather more unlikely that the company will allow Swift programmers to tweak the underlying runtime environments in OSX and iOS in ways that are more familiar to Android developers.