Apple open-sources Swift to draw more developers to iOS

Apple's plans are promising, but they're mainly about getting Swift into the hands of more developers

At its annual WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) today, Apple announced it will be making its Swift programming language -- widely regarded as a successor to Objective-C -- into an open source project.

The announcement went hand-in-hand with word of Swift 2, which is bristling with new features to make development faster and easier, and is available with the iOS 9 beta (to be released to registered developers today).

"We think Swift should be everywhere and used by everyone," said Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi at the WWDC keynote.

What Federighi didn't offer were concrete details about how Swift will be released as an open source project. It isn't clear if Swift will be stewarded directly by Apple or placed under the governance of a separate foundation.

If history is any guide, Swift's management as an open source project will follow the path of Apple's most recent major open source project, WebKit. While there's little question that Apple is the chief steward, contributors from outside the company are able to submit changes.

Arguments both pro and con have abounded for opening Swift. Open source has become the de facto mode for the current generation of developers, so it behooves Apple to free up its ecosystem -- provided it doesn't conflict with Apple's bottom line. (Microsoft's come to the same realization.) An open source Swift would be easy to port to multiple platforms and could theoretically take root in the same manner as Python or Google's Go.

What's not likely to happen: An open source Swift followed by any loosening of the controls over non-native libraries in iOS applications. Tight control of iOS's runtime environment is one of the ways Apple professedly maintains the end-user experience for its devices, and the restriction isn't likely to be relaxed for Swift.

An open source Swift would be more about bringing developers into the iOS fold from the outside, by way of a language they might be familiar with from elsewhere, rather than making iOS apps more open to outside technology.

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