Swift vs. Objective-C: What is Best for Building an iOS Chat App
So you want to build an iOS chat app?
One of the first decisions you have to make is to choose which programming language you’re going to use. Luckily, if you’re opting to build a native iOS app, you only have two choices: Swift or Objective-C.
Which begs the question—“Should I use Swift or Objective-C for native iOS app development?The answer?
Most likely Swift, unless you’re in one specific situation (more on that later).
This article will dig deep into the Swift vs Objective-C debate, comparing aspects such as developer experience, performance, key features, and much more. If you make it to the end of the article, you’ll know exactly what programming language will suit your needs best.
Before we compare Swift and Objective-C, let’s go over the basics of each programming language.
What is Objective-C?
Objective-C is an old language. It was created in 1984 by Brad Cox and Tom Love as a superset of the C programming language. As the name implies, Objective-C adds object-oriented class syntax to the C language. It also adds other features, such as language-level support for object graph management
Objective-C is primarily used in the Apple ecosystem. However, this was not its original purpose. NeXT, Inc., the company that Steve Jobs founded after Apple forced him out, selected Objective-C for its operating system. Later, NeXT, Inc. was acquired by Apple for its technology. And, since then, Objective-C has been the primary language for software at Apple.
It's important to note here that Objective-C is a proprietary language, which means that only Apple can make core changes to the language. This also means that if Apple suddenly disappeared tomorrow, so would all the support and knowledge around Objective-C. For these reasons, Objective-C isn't used much outside of the Apple ecosystem.
Most of the core iOS and MacOs software is still written in Objective-C, though Apple is pushing for new updates to be written in Swift.
What is Swift?
In 2014, Apple announced the release of Swift at the Worldwide Developers Conference. Swift is an open-source, modern programming language for the Apple ecosystem. Many believe that Apple created Swift with the intention of replacing Objective-C. Whether or not that's true, Swift does seem to provide a solution to many of Objective-C's limitations. For example, Objective-C is a verbose language with a lot of baggage from its C-based heritage. With Swift, Apple aimed to overcome that verbosity with a modern programming language that simplifies development and attracts new developers to the ecosystem.
Swift grew in popularity very swiftly (pun intended), and big companies such as Google, Facebook, Medium, and LinkedIn quickly migrated to using Swift for their iOS apps.
Objective-C vs. Swift: Key Feature Comparison
Each programming language has its benefits and its drawbacks. Let's look at the key differences between Objective-C and Swift’s feature sets.
Key Feature Comparison
Easy-to-Learn & Interactive Development
Developer Experience & Community
Objective-C and Swift are interoperable with each other. This means you can have a codebase for an app that includes both languages. This makes migrating a codebase from purely Objective-C to Swift or vice-versa very easy and iterable.
Objective-C, since it’s a superset of C, is also interoperable with C and C++. The C language offers many useful libraries and features which Objective-C can leverage. While Swift isn’t directly interoperable with C or C++, it can still leverage those languages through Objective-C.
When it comes to interoperability, Swift and Objective-C are tied.
Namespacing is a system that controls the uniqueness of class names to prevent conflicts.
Since the C programming language doesn’t have namespaces, neither does Objective-C. In Objective-C, you have to manually prefix class names to prevent namespace conflict. It is explicit, which is why you see prefixes such as “NS,” “UI,” and “CA” everywhere when working with different Objective-C libraries.
Swift offers implicit namespacing. This means that all variables and types are automatically scoped by the module. You don’t need to use a module prefix to access an externally scoped variable. If there is a name collision between a local variable and an external variable, Swift will automatically resolve it and use the local variable. However, if there is a name collision between two external variables, you have to import the variable from the module you plan to use to resolve it.
Swift’s implicit namespacing support allows developers to improve code structure by grouping relevant elements into local scopes and makes code more self-documented. Swift wins this category.
One of Apple’s goals was to make Swift a modern language. This required getting rid of many of Objective-C’s clunky syntax nuances.
For example, in Swift, variable types are inferred. In comparison, variable types in Objective-C have to be explicitly defined. Swift's inferred variable types make writing code faster and easier. Another huge upgrade is Swift’s simple string manipulation:
As you can see, concatenating strings is much simpler in Swift vs. Objective-C.
Another big plus for Swift is a tool called Playgrounds. It’s an interactive development app that helps you learn to code and build apps using Swift. The interactive environment gives you instant feedback on the code you’re writing—which is one of the fastest ways to learn.
Swift wins this category also.
Swift vs. Objective-C: Performance
One of the most critical points of comparison between two programming languages is performance. Performance takes into account factors such as compile time, memory usage, and much more.
Apple’s official website claims that Swift is up to 2.6 times faster than Objective-C. They named the language “Swift” for a reason. Swift’s simpler syntax and compile-time type checking help increase its performance. But the most significant boost in performance comes from its memory management and scalability.
Swift uses ARC (Automatic Reference Counting) to track and manage your app’s memory usage. Unlike some other languages, where you have to manually manage memory through garbage collection, you don’t need to think about memory management yourself. Memory management in Swift “just works.” ARC automatically frees up memory used by class instances when those instances are no longer needed. In Swift, ARC works throughout the entire codebase, both for procedural and object-oriented code paths.
Objective-C also uses ARC for memory management. But, unlike Swift, it only supports ARC within the Cocoa API (Apple’s native desktop API). Other commonly used APIs within Objective-C, such as Core Graphics, don't support ARC. This means that you have to manually manage memory which, if not done correctly, can cause huge memory leaks that have the potential to crash your app.
An app is considered to be scalable when it doesn’t need to be redesigned to maintain effective performance after a large increase in workload.
Swift provides a bunch of functionality that makes scalability second nature. Its clean syntax, code reusability, and object-oriented conventions make it easy to build and add new features to your existing app very quickly.
Swift’s support for dynamic libraries also increases scalability and performance. This feature allows you to dynamically load in external libraries where needed, which decreases your initial app size and speeds up the loading time of external libraries.
While Objective-C also offers features such as object-oriented programming conventions, it’s missing a lot when it comes to scalability. When scaling an Objective-C app, you may experience difficulties, including a hard-to-read syntax, clunky external library inclusion, and no ARC support for non-Cocoa APIs.
Since Swift is such a new language, we can expect Apple to be working on updates to further optimize performance. Objective-C will likely never get another update.
Because of all these factors, Swift is the clear winner when it comes to performance.
Swift vs. Objective-C: Developer Experience & Community
Developer experience consists of the interactions and feelings that a developer has when working with a technology (or, in this case, a programming language). The better the developer experience, the more developers will enjoy working with that technology. The biggest factors that play a role in developer experience are the associated developer community and available support.
There are multiple indicators that can show how strong the developer community around a programming language is, including:
Stack Overflow tag trends measures how many questions get asked about a specific language every month on Stack Overflow. Comparing Swift vs. Objective-C, we see that quickly after Swift was released, it surpassed Objective-C. And while both are in decline at the moment, Swift still holds a heavy lead.
Given these measurements, we can conclude that Swift has a much larger and stronger developer community and a better developer experience than Objective-C.
Swift vs. Objective-C: The Future
This Swift vs. Objective-C comparison wouldn’t be complete without taking a few educated guesses at what’s to come.
While Objective-C is still supported by Apple and will likely not be deprecated anytime soon, there will be no updates to the language. Objective-C is as good as it's ever going to get. Apple may patch a severe vulnerability if one is found, but it won't make optimizations ever again.
Swift is the exact opposite. It’s a newer, open-source language that continuously receives updates, improvements, and bug fixes. They are already on version 5 of the language with a clear roadmap ahead of them for future versions. Moving forward, Apple has three main goals for the Swift programming language:
Accelerate the growth of the Swift software ecosystem
Create a fantastic developer experience
Invest in user-empowering language directions
With the community’s involvement, these goals are definitely attainable, and we are excited to see what the future of Swift will hold.
It’s clear that Swift is the future of iOS and MacOS programming, and while Objective-C is still relevant, it will continue to die a slow death.
Swift vs. Objective-C: The Verdict
To summarize, here’s an overview of Swift vs. Objective-C:
Official Release Date
Popular apps built with this language
LinkedIn, Asana, WordPress, Firefox, Lyft
Most Older iOS Apps
So which is better? Swift or Objective-C? Well, given all the advantages of using Swift, we recommend using Swift—especially if you’re starting your app from scratch. But if you’re still unsure, here’s how to decide between the two:
Choose Swift if:
You want to use a modern language
You’re not already familiar with either language
Readability and conciseness are important to you
Performance is important to you
Choose Objective-C if:
You’re an expert in Objective-C
You’re inheriting a codebase written in Objective-C
As we mentioned in the intro, there’s really only one scenario in which you would want to pick Objective-C as your programming language. And that is if you’re an expert in Objective-C and you’ve inherited a codebase already written in Objective-C. If that’s not the case, you should heavily consider using Swift vs. Objective-C.
We hope this Objective-C vs. Swift comparison helps you identify which programming language is best for you. Keep in mind that at the end of the day, a successful iOS app can be built with either programming language. However, if you’re looking to future-proof your app, Swift is the better choice.
Cosette Cressler is a passionate content marketer specializing in SaaS, technology, careers, productivity, entrepreneurship and self-development. She helps grow businesses of all sizes by creating consistent, digestible content that captures attention and drives action.