News Column

Pay attention, business world - Apple's Swift is huge news

June 3, 2014



Apple's Swift could make programming more accessible and innovation much easier, which could thrust forward an industry held back by old baggage.

Much like genetics, programming is developed cumulatively, with all innovations built on top of the old ones. Just as how, when scientists study the biology of a species, they can see the genetic history of all the animals that came before and all the ways that the species has improved over millions of years, so too can one look into today's programs and see the same basic coding structure that was developed before technology had grown exponentially to the almost inconceivable level that it has reached today. Take for instance, the programming language C. C, upon which so much of what we use today was built, was developed by Dennis Richie in the AT&T Bell Labs in the late 60s and early 70s. From there, he went on to develop the UNIX operating system with his colleague Ken Thompson, which are monumental developments on the path of modern computing. C, in fact, in the form of Objective-C, a variation, is still used as the basis for all programming across many platforms, including all apps developed in the world of Apple. Though C was developed initially for much more simple tasks that were in line with the simple computing done in the early 70s, deep down inside, that same coding language is being used, albeit in a much more complex way, to power many of the applications we use every day.

In technology, there is a concept known as 'lock-in'. In his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, programming pioneer Jaron Lanier illustrated the issue with this concept elegantly using the example of MIDI. Those familiar with digital music in any capacity know MIDI, and even those who aren't aware of it hear it every day. MIDI is the basic form on which all music made digitally is built.

MIDI, in fact, was developed in the early 1980s by a music synthesizer named Dave Smith. Smith created MIDI as a way to represent the structure of a keyboard digitally, so that he could have different synthesizers interact with each other. This was incredibly clever and useful at the time—the problem is, not all music works in the organized and structured way that the keyboard does. In fact, much of the music across the world exists not in a limited note structure, but rather exists in the vast in betweens. Music was never a perfectly structured thing. It is then very troubling that all digital music technology was built off of Dave Smith's innovation. Soon, complex instruments went from being three dimensional and unpredictable to being as rigidly defined as a keyboard. We locked ourselves into this outdated technology and simple language, and as a result, made music itself simpler, in an unfortunate and restrictive way.

Similarly, the problem with basing modern programming on the C language developed 40 years ago is that because programming has grown exponentially more complicated, the language itself is too dated and cumbersome to keep up with how programmers today work. In fact, C is so tremendously bloated and problematic that there is an entire industry that exists just to teach people how to use it to develop apps for Apple's iOS.

The difficulty of programming in C doesn't mean that people won't do it, of course. Developing apps is often fantastically lucrative. It could lead to huge profits, or, in the case of programs like WhatsApp and Instagram, lead to reaping billions in a buyout over night. But it is difficult. Tasks take far longer than they in fact should, because C requires tasks to be programmed in much greater detail than they need to be, make it impossible to preview in real time to check your work, and, along with other problems, can cause massive bugs and challenges that slow down the process of development.

At Monday's WWDC, or Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple, along with introducing new iterations of its operating systems OS X and iOS, also introduced Swift, a much simpler programming language on which its apps can now be built. Swift takes the best aspects of the more modern ways that programmers write code today, while also still keeping the best of what was already available in C language, making it compatible with that programming in the process.

The change to Swift will now let programmers speak the language that comes much more naturally to them—they can now program iOS apps in their own tongue, at their own speed, rather than adorning tattered robes and reciting Latin in a dark basement. Predictably, programmers completely flipped out. Writer John Gruber described the moment on his Twitter: "Media badge people are silent, attendees going nuts. This is huge huge news, the future of all Apple development."

That first point is the most amusing, and also the most problematic—'media badge people are silent.' This has carried into coverage of the event across media all over the world—a lot of talk about the new OS developments, and not much talk about this new programming language Swift. The New York Times, for instance, added the Swift development almost as an afterthought at the end of their story. This is most likely the case because only those that work in programming understand absolutely anything about programming. In fact, there is a pervasive illiteracy when it comes to programming throughout the world. (I myself am probably the equivalent of someone who, rather than knowing nothing at all, picked up a few useful phrases in a guidebook the week before a trip to a foreign country to survive the trip from the airport to the hotel). Given that coding has become not only a key aspect of our everyday lives, but also our economy, it's quite alarming that knowledge of the subject is lost on the vast majority of the world, and that this isn't being taught as a basic subject in schools when much less relevant subjects are (ok, I'll stop there on that fact, that's a whole other story best left for another time).

It shouldn't just be tech journalists who are leaping from their seats at this development—those in and interested in business should as well. There is always vast talk of the ease of doing business—cutting out impediments that could stifle innovation, or stop new businesses from starting up. There is a worldwide acceptance that the system should be made as easy as possible for new businesses to start in order to help grow our economies for the future. So why shouldn't making programming easier—surely a huge part of all innovation going forward in our modern world—be just as big of a deal?

Making the basic language of coding simpler for developers will not only make it easier for experienced coders to try new things and innovate more quickly and more brilliantly, but also will make it more accessible for those who might have been scared off by the difficulty of the language. If Apple is making it easier for people to develop apps, this will most certainly lead to innovations that wouldn't have happened before. Perhaps now even n00bs like me can pick programming up more easily and make the next billion dollar app. Anything that will help translate ideas into action more easily should be applauded. And this could be a huge deal for not only current businesses that are affected by programming, but also great businesses of the future that have yet to be built. This could change everything—and it, undoubtedly, it shouldn't just be the guys in Silicon Valley cheering—the rest of us should leap out of our seats as well. 


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Source: CPI Financial


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