Objective-C vs Swift: iOS Comparison [2024 Update]

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Aleksander Popko

Oct 26, 2023 • 18 min read
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Ever found yourself in the middle of a heated debate between Objective-C and Swift?

In 2023, this classic rivalry continues to divide developers in the world of iOS app development. In this blog post, we’ll dive into a comprehensive comparison of these two programming languages, exploring their strengths and weaknesses in various aspects - Objective C vs Swift. Are you ready to find out which language comes out on top?

Any iOS app development project starts with a key decision: choosing the right programming language. When it comes to native iOS app development, there are two possibilities: Objective-C and Swift. What are the differences between Objective-C and Swift, the pros and cons of each, and which one is the best choice for your project? Let’s find out.

What is Objective-C?

Objective-C is a well-established programming language that was created by Stepstone company in the early 1980s. As an object-oriented programming language, it enables developers to tackle complex structures and tasks with ease. However, Objective-C’s syntax can be quite intricate, making it challenging for newcomers to the language.

Despite being an older programming language, Objective-C remains relevant today, thanks to its compatibility with both Swift and C languages. Although Objective-C lacks some modern features that its younger counterpart, Swift, offers, it still boasts a stable and established community.

One significant challenge faced by Objective-C developers is manual memory management. Proper memory management can be cumbersome and time-consuming, but it’s essential to keep apps running smoothly. The comparison between Objective-C and Swift will elucidate how Swift resolves this issue and enhances memory management.

Objective-C features

Objective-C brings together features from two programming languages: C and Smalltalk. As a result, it has a complicated, verbose syntax. The object syntax is derived from Smalltalk, while the syntax for non-object-oriented operations is the same as C.

Objective-C uses dynamic typing and message passing, and its classes are divided into two code blocks: the interface and the implementation, which live in separate files. Objective-C is a powerful language, but its heritage makes it feel antiquated and cumbersome compared to Swift.

What is Swift?

Swift is a relatively new programming language that was created by Apple employee Chris Lattner in 2010 and introduced to the public in 2014. It’s an advancement of Objective-C, designed to make writing and maintaining code easier.

Swift quickly gained popularity among developers for its simplified syntax, modern features, and automatic memory management. This robust and efficient language has become the go-to option for iOS app development, dethroning Objective-C as the language of choice for many developers.

The general-purpose programming language offers an effective way to write software for desktops, mobile phones, and servers. It suits performance-sensitive coding and provides quick bug recognition and fixing.

With its clean and concise syntax, Swift is particularly accessible to those accustomed to other modern programming languages, including JavaScript or Python. In fact, Swift can be considered one of the two programming languages, along with Objective-C, that has gained popularity in recent years. Swift’s innovative features, such as optional and type inference, contribute to shorter, neater code, leading to fewer bugs and crashes compared to Objective-C.

Alongside Apple platforms, Swift is also compatible with Linux. Overall, it’s a rapidly growing programming language with a great potential.

Swift features

Because of its modern syntax and improved safety features like type inference, Swift simplifies the iOS app development process.It also offers many of the qualities today’s developers expect from a programming language: generics, optionals, type inference, and higher-order functions.

In September 2022, Swift 5.7 was released, introducing “major additions to the language and standard library, alongside enhancements to the Swift compiler for a better developer experience, improvements to tools in the Swift ecosystem, such as SourceKit-LSP and the Swift Package Manager, plus refined Windows support”.

Syntax Comparison: Objective-C vs Swift

Objective-C’s syntax is notorious for its complexity and verbosity. The language is filled with square brackets and semicolons, making it difficult for developers to focus on the core of the code. On the other hand, Swift offers a cleaner, more concise syntax that resembles plain English, making it easier to understand and learn.

Developers can write code more efficiently and concisely with Swift, thanks to its simplified syntax. This not only speeds up the development process but also reduces the likelihood of coding errors, leading to more stable and secure apps.

Additionally, Swift’s modern syntax introduces innovative features, such as type inference and optional, that help developers create cleaner, safer code. These features streamline the development process and contribute to Swift’s growing popularity among developers.

Swift vs Objective-C: performance

The features of a programming language have a huge impact on the business aspects of iOS app development, primarily around speed. When comparing Swift vs Objective-C, app development with Swift is faster.

Why? Swift’s use of generics and higher-order functions result in cleaner, more reusable code, while optionals and type inference transfer responsibility for code safety from the programmer to the compiler. Additionally, since Swift offers a more concise syntax and there’s no need to create two code blocks for the interface and implementation of an object, programmers can write fewer lines of code with the same result.

Combined, these factors make app development faster with Swift. Speaking from my and my iOS developer colleagues’ experience, I can confirm that it’s not just a theory, but an observable fact. There are comparisons for the speed of the applications themselves, with Apple claiming that apps written with Swift are up to 2.6 times faster than Objective-C!

Of course, language performance during iOS app development can also be affected by factors such as optimizing RC and using the same iOS SDK and LLVM compiler. However, Swift’s modern features and efficient structures make it the faster and more efficient choice for app development overall.

Objective-C advantages

  • It’s existed for over three decades and is well-tested. Indeed, there are millions of lines of code written in Objective-C, as well as many well-documented, third-party frameworks. Moreover, there’s an answer for nearly every Objective-C-related question: Stack Overflow shows over 321,899 Swift questions, and 292,632 of them are marked with the Objective-C tag.
  • Good compatibility with C and C++. Because Objective-C is a superset of C, it works relatively smoothly with C and C++ code.
  • The Objective-C language is stable. If you develop an application using Objective-C, it's unlikely you'll need to spend money on migrating the app to a new language version after a few months.

Objective-C disadvantages

  • Its age can also be a disadvantage. Since Objective-C has been somewhat superseded by Swift, many of its libraries and tools aren’t maintained anymore.
  • Objective-C is harder to learn. It differs significantly from modern programming languages. For example, aspects like memory management are harder to grasp than with Swift. That makes it easier for beginners and Objective-C developers to learn Swift, as opposed to the other way around.
  • The number of developers who know how to use it is decreasing. Because Objective-C is harder to learn and use, most new iOS developers start their careers by exclusively learning Swift. On the other hand, experienced developers who are acquainted with Objective-C are usually familiar with Swift, or at least ready to learn it.
  • An app developed in Objective-C may be easier to hack than its Swift alternative. Objective-C is well-known and has existed for decades, meaning reverse engineering tools are also well-developed.

Advantages of Apple’s Swift programming language

    • Swift is safer. Because of its features (like generics, optionals, and type inference), apps developed in Swift are less prone to bugs and crashes than apps developed using Objective-C.
    • Apple is focused on Swift’s development. Apple constantly develops this language, adding new features regularly, while actively supporting the developers that use it. At every WWDC (Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference), there are technical talks about Swift, and there’s a thriving developer community built around the programming language. There are even frameworks enabling developers to use Swift as a backend language.
    • It has the SwiftUI framework for building interfaces. SwiftUI was introduced by Apple in 2019 – a framework enabling developers to build captivating user interfaces with ease and speed, unmatched by UIKit (the only UI framework available to Objective-C). While it’s still on the road to being the main tool for UI building in iOS, it has many strong points and can be used interchangeably with UIKit. If you need a small demo app just to see how your idea would look, SwiftUI is a match made in heaven.
    • Developers simply prefer using Swift. According to the 2022 Stack Overflow Developer Survey, 63% of iOS Developers love using Swift, while over 76% dread Objective-C. Needless to say, a motivated developer works better than the one filled with dread!
    • Swift Package Manager. This is a tool for easy management of dependencies, third-party libraries, resources, etc. It’s relatively young (released in September 2016) and has replaced tools like CocoaPods and Carthage, which were previously the default choices of developers.

Disadvantages of the Swift programming language

    • It’s still relatively new. While stable and safe to use, frequent Swift updates can introduce features that aren’t compatible with older versions of iOS. That can be a driving force for updating your apps to a newer version of iOS, but it may also mean you drop support for old devices (usually older than six years).
    • Cross-platform support is incomplete. While Swift supports all Apple platforms, Linux, and Windows (since 2020), cross-platform apps are best left to React Native, Xamarin, and Flutter. There’s a potential to use Swift with Kotlin Multiplatform Mobile, but it’s still in the early stages of development.

Swift vs Objective-C: Important differences

Below, we compare and contrast Swift vs Objective-C by looking at a range of metrics, including typing, mutability, and statement terminators.

Metric

Objective-C

Swift

File structure of a class declaration.

Interface is separated from implementation. The first lives in the header file (Filename.h), while the implementation resides in the “.m” file. It’s possible to have both in the same file, but this is the usual convention.

Interface and implementation aren’t separated – they’re both in the same file.

Typing

A mix of static and dynamic typing, with most things (like types, or dispatching) being dynamic.

Statically typed (types are checked at compile time).

Mutability

Properties are all variables (you can mark them as constants, but in reality, few people do this).

By default, all objects are mutable.

Mutability in base classes like String is controlled by the class name you use – i.e. NSString is always immutable, while NSMutableString is always mutable.

Mutability is controlled by using var or let.

Booleans

You can use true or false, YES or NO, and write the type in uppercase BOOL or lowercase bool. Follow whatever coding convention you find in the project, which is usually a combination of BOOL, YES, and NO.

Type is declared in title case Bool and values are in lowercase true and false.

Statement terminator

A semicolon (;)

You must put the terminator at the end of each statement (usually at the end of each line).

No such thing is needed with Swift.

Memory Management: Objective-C's Challenges vs Swift's Solutions

Manual memory management is a tedious and time-consuming challenge that developers using Objective-C must confront. In contrast, Swift uses Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) for more efficient memory management, freeing up developers from the burden of manually managing memory.

ARC in Swift handles memory management automatically, allowing developers to focus on other aspects of app development, leading to better-quality iPhone apps. It’s worth noting that Objective-C’s ARC only supports the Cocoa API, which can be limiting for developers working with Core Graphics.

This difference in memory management systems gives Swift a significant advantage over Objective-C. Swift’s ARC not only simplifies the development process but also contributes to the language’s superior performance and speed.

When to choose Swift vs Objective-C

In most cases, Swift is a better choice over Objective-C for building iOS apps. Most – if not virtually all – new iOS apps are built using Swift. Indeed, Swift’s maturity and production readiness are confirmed by the fact it powers apps like LinkedIn, Lyft, Khan Academy, Airbnb, Eventbrite, Sky Guide, Wikipedia, Coursera, Slack, and VSCO.

However, there are at least two scenarios where it’s beneficial to use Objective-C:

  1. If you have a large codebase written in Objective-C and need to maintain it or add just a few new features, it may be better to continue using Objective-C. While Swift is interoperable with Objective-C, meaning you can use both languages in one project, maintaining such an app can cause problems. For example, there may be edge cases where you need a developer who’s proficient in both languages. On top of that, switching between two languages will most likely impact a developer’s productivity.
  2. If you regularly use C or C++ third-party frameworks, Objective-C is worth considering, because Swift needs a separate wrapper to be created, which is often more problematic than going ahead with Objective-C.

If you’re creating an app from scratch and don’t have to think about the above limitations, it’s definitely better to use Swift code because it has all the aforementioned qualities.

Objective-C vs Swift: programming language’s popularity

Is Objective-C still relevant in 2023? According to the 2022 Stack Overflow Developer Survey referenced earlier, in the “Most popular technologies” category, Swift is the preferred language of 4.91% of respondents, while Objective-C is favored by just 2.39%. Meanwhile, for those learning to code, just 0.99% chose Objective-C (versus Swift’s 3.35%).

Research by JetBrains revealed that 76% of developers are skilled in Swift, 13% are proficient in Swift and Objective-C, and just 11% are adept at Objective-C alone.

Looking at the TIOBE Index for January 2023 – an indicator of a programming language's popularity – Swift ranks at number 11, with Objective-C way down at 23. That being said, according to the PYPL PopularitY of Programming Language Index, Swift comes in at number nine, with Objective-C just one place below.

Popularity of programming language 2023

According to Career Karma, as well as Apple, companies such as Eventbrite, Facebook, IBM, LinkedIn, Lyft, and Uber use Swift. At the same time, StackShare references enterprises such as Pinterest, Slack, and Instagram using Objective-C.

Community Support and Resources

Objective-C boasts a large, established community that has accumulated a wealth of resources and tools over the years. This makes it easier for developers to find solutions to common problems and learn from the experiences of others in the Objective-C community.

However, Swift is quickly gaining traction and support among developers and Apple alike. As the language of choice for many new iOS app development projects, Swift’s community is growing rapidly, with more resources and tools becoming available for developers to take advantage of.

The backing of Apple has significantly contributed to the growing popularity of Swift and the support it enjoys from the developer community. As Swift continues to evolve and gain momentum, it’s likely that its community and resources will continue to expand, offering even more support and assistance to developers.

Swift’s popularity has been on the rise ever since its introduction in 2014, with more developers adopting the language and Apple actively supporting its growth. Swift is now the 9th most popular programming language, with 4.91% of developers using it, while Objective-C lags behind at number 10 with 2.39%.

This trend is expected to continue, with Swift projected to overtake Objective-C in popularity and become the language of choice for iOS app development by 2023. The mobile market’s expected growth to $165 billion further solidifies Swift’s position as the go-to language for developers.

The growing popularity of Swift can also be attributed to its modern features, simplified syntax, and strong support from Apple. As Swift continues to evolve and mature, it’s likely that even more developers will embrace this powerful language for their app development projects.

iOS Swift vs Objective-C: summary

When it comes to starting a new iOS app development project, the programming language you choose is crucial. It impacts other choices down the line, such as architecture and frameworks. Building apps in Swift is faster, safer, and more enjoyable. However, it’s important to remember that decisions are made in a specific context. Swift is a modern and powerful programming language, but no option is a silver bullet.

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Aleksander Popko

After graduating Computer Science and Econometrics, Aleksander spent some time working as a...

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