One of the biggest news items to come out of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) keynote speech on Monday was the announcement that the company will make its Swift programming language open source later this year. Apple hasn’t exactly been known for its openness, so this announcement was welcome news to many. However, the decision to open-source Swift is just the latest in a recent series of moves that suggest that Apple is becoming more open, at least when it comes to developers.
The news of Swift being made open source was applauded by several iOS developers that I contacted. Erica Sadun, an iOS developer and author of the recently-released book The Gourmet iOS Developer's Cookbook: Even More Recipes for Better iOS App Development told me that the decision to open-source Swift was positive and exciting, adding, “I’m really just seeing this as a terrific, forward-looking move on their part.”
“Swift going open source is great news!” Kevin Ballard, iOS developer at Black Pixel, told me via email. “Being able to read the source will make our jobs as third-party developers easier, but we'll be able to contribute patches back to the compiler/library when appropriate,” he wrote. Ballard also saw advantages to Swift being made available for use on Linux. “Being able to use Swift on the server means we can use the same language to develop both client-side and server-side software,” he told me.
A newer Apple
Sadun feels that this decision isn’t the beginning of Apple becoming more open but, rather, the continuation of a process that’s been going on since before the initial release of Swift last year. “I really do think this is a newer Apple,” she told me. Aside from open-sourcing Swift, Sadun cited Apple’s revision of its NDA policy last year to allow developers to openly discuss technical information (e.g., APIs) disclosed at WWDC. “You saw the genesis last year,” she said. “It had to do with Apple’s willingness to say to developers, ‘OK, you can discuss this in public, you can create newsletters, you can create websites, you can go out and discuss the technology openly, and we’re not going to send our lawyers after you.’”
Sadun also noted that Apple, responding to developers concerns, reversed its position and agreed to let the AltConf conference stream the WWDC keynote and platform state-of-the-union speeches this year. “We’re talking about a big corporation, but a big corporation that is self-correcting in a way that we didn’t see several years ago,” she noted.
These types of moves, in her opinion, have gone a long way to changing how developers feel about Apple. “It’s been a renaissance. You’re really seeing an entire developer community become reinvigorated and not have to talk behind closed doors anymore,” Sadun told me. She sees the decision to open-source Swift as an expression of Apple's desire to create a more open and supportive developer environment.
Expect Apple to follow through
Some developers, though, might be forgiven if they’re a bit skeptical that Apple will ever open source Swift. At WWDC 2010 Steve Jobs said that they were going to “make FaceTime an open industry standard,” which never happened. If Apple reneges again on such a promise, expect some pretty angry developers.
However, Sadun expects Apple to follow-through, since the upsides, such as getting Swift into the Linux community, are so great. “I see no reason for them not to because there’s so much of a win if they do,” she said. “It just seems likely that Apple will follow through.”
Open source advocates, then, should sleep tight and look forward to the day, not too far off, when Swift is officially open-sourced. That's something which, Sadun told me, “couldn't have happened to a nicer language.”