“Swift is much better than Objective-C!”
“Nonsense! C++ is the way to go!”
If you’re a developer, or if you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the company of developers, you’re no stranger to these types of conversations.
Arguing which programming language is best is one of the timeless arguments among developers.
But the truth is that there is no single best language. Each has pros and cons that make it suitable for some situations but not all.
So, the question is—how do you pick which language to use for your next iOS project?
To help answer that question, let’s run through the possible programming languages you can use to develop an iOS app.
Swift is currently the de-facto programming language for
iOS development, replacing the older Objective-C.
It was developed in secrecy by Apple programmer Chris Lattner in 2010 and was officially released by Apple in 2014.
The idea behind Swift was to, in
Lattner’s words, “draw ideas from Objective-C, Rust, Haskell, Ruby, Python, C#, CLU, and far too many others to list.”
As a result, Swift became a powerful, modern programming language that Apple now uses to create native apps and even iOS itself.
One of the biggest advantages of Swift is that it’s
easy to learn and use. It has a clear syntax that is close to human language and thus reads naturally.
You can appreciate this more properly when you compare Swift and Objective-C code side-by-side.
Notice how you can instantly get the logic of the Swift code thanks to its English-like structure.
This is vital for writing and debugging code quickly, thus leading to faster development times. It’s also advantageous for programmers switching to iOS from Android.
Swift also has a fantastic learning tool called Swift Playgrounds. It’s an iPad app that allows you to write code and see the results in real time.
This interactivity can make learning Swift effective and fun.
Swift is also one of the
faster iOS languages.
Apple conducted a study where they ran a common search algorithm in Swift and other languages.
They found that
Swift performed 2.6 times faster than Objective-C and 8.4 times faster than Python, another language also touted as fast and easy to learn.
One of the reasons for this speed is that Swift uses compile-time type checking, which helps improve its performance.
It also uses ARC (Automatic Reference Counting), which automatically manages memory, so you don’t have to code it manually.
This frees up resources that are no longer needed, thus speeding up your app. Moreover, it prevents memory leaks that lead to app crashes.
The only real drawback of Swift is that it has poor backward compatibility.
It only works on devices running iOS 7 or later, which means it can’t be used for apps intended to run on these older devices.
Nevertheless, Swift is still a strong language and a good choice for almost every iOS app.
Objective-C is the OG of iOS programming—the original tool used to build the entire Apple ecosystem, including many iOS libraries.
But the language wasn’t actually developed by Apple. That credit goes to
Brad Cox and Tom Love, who devised the language in the early 1980s.
This longevity is one of Objective-C’s biggest strengths.
The language is mature, relatively stable, and reliable. It’s backed by a strong community and extensive resources to help you with issues.
It’s also great for backward compatibility. Objective-C is the only language that’s
compatible with all iOS versions. That makes it great for updating legacy apps.
However, Objective-C has many drawbacks.
One of these is the complicated code structure. Objective-C is a superset of C, which means it inherits many of the latter’s complex syntax.
Because of this, Objective-C code can be difficult to write, read, and debug. It also has a steep learning curve that can deter beginners from getting into the language.
Another pitfall is that Objective-C doesn’t have automatic memory management. The developer is responsible for allocating and deallocating memory manually in the code.
And it’s easy to screw this up (especially for beginners), which leads to memory leaks and other errors.
Because of these reasons, Apple is now slowly replacing Objective-C with Swift as the official iOS language.
Nevertheless, Objective-C still has its uses, especially if you need to deal with older apps written in the language.
C++ is perhaps one of the most well-known languages, especially among veteran programmers.
It’s a high-level, general-purpose, object-oriented language created in the 1980s as an extension of C.
C++ isn’t an
official language that many iOS developers use, as most stick with Swift or Objective-C. However, it can be a powerful choice in the right situations.
One common approach is to write the backend of your app in C++.
That’s because it’s one of the fastest and most powerful programming languages and thus can handle thousands of concurrent transactions.
C++ is also among the best languages for computationally-intensive applications such as finance or mobile games.
3D mobile games, for instance, are best done with C++ due to its performance.
Another situation is when you want to port an existing C++ application into iOS. This is possible and actually quite easy, as C and C++ are both interoperable with each other.
The opposite is also true—an iOS app written in C++ can be easily ported into other platforms like Android, Windows, or Mac OS.
This is a good option if you plan to have cross-platform software.
C++ also has an extensive library, which provides functions for almost every task imaginable.
An iOS developer can thus use C++ to access these libraries instead of writing the functionality from scratch in Swift or Objective-C.
The biggest drawback of C++, however, is its steep learning curve. It’s notorious for its complicated syntax, that’s a challenge to get used to.
As you can see below, the format doesn’t read naturally like Swift.
But the biggest hurdle with C++ is also its strength—memory management.
While the ability to manually manage memory allocation/deallocation is great, it’s also prone to errors. Errors can lead to crashes, performance slowdowns, or even security vulnerabilities.
Nevertheless, C++ can be a powerful tool for iOS app development if used properly and in the right situations.
c-sharp) is another C variant created by Microsoft in 2000. Like its cousins C++ and Objective-C, it’s a high-level, general-purpose, object-oriented programming language
The language can be used to create iOS apps, but not directly in XCode like the others on this list.
Instead, C# is the default language for Xamarin, a cross-platform development tool integrated into the .NET framework. Also, you use Microsoft Visual Studio instead of Apple’s IDE.
C#, unlike C++ and Objective-C, is far more user-friendly thanks to its natural language syntax. This makes the language a great entry point for beginners.
The main draw of C# is that it allows .NET developers to build iOS directly within Visual Studio.
This means they don’t need to learn new languages like Swift and Objective-C or move to a new IDE. This cross-platform capability can save you plenty of time and cost.
C#-based apps will also benefit from the community’s strong support behind the language. Plus, you can utilize Microsoft’s libraries, frameworks, and debugging tools in your project.
However, the trade-off is that using C# doesn’t produce a
native app, unlike Swift or Objective-C.
Xamarin-based apps could suffer from performance dips and large app sizes. Thus, it’s best used for simple apps with no complex algorithms or UI.
Dart is a programming language used to develop cross-platform apps, similar to C# and Xamarin.
It’s part of Flutter, a
cross-platform app development kit developed by—surprisingly—Google.
As part of Flutter, Dart inherits some of the platform’s advantages, making iOS development easier than other languages.
One of them is hot reloading, which means that developers can edit the code and see the changes they’ve made in real time.
Dart-based apps also run faster than their fellow cross-platform languages like C#. Of course, they still can’t compare to a true native app.
However, there are several drawbacks to consider. One is that Dart is a relatively new language compared to C++, C#, or Objective-C, so support for it is still limited.
Also, apps made with Dart tend to have large file sizes.
Nevertheless, Dart is ideal if you want to build high-performing, cross-platform iOS apps.
Which is the best language to use for your project?
Even though we’ve run through the iOS programming languages here, you might still be confused about what to use.
And that’s normal. Deciding on your tech stack is one of the most challenging aspects of app development. Making the right choice requires plenty of expertise and experience.
Coincidentally, that’s something that the DECODE team has.
With dozens of successful app projects under our belt, we can help you decide on the best programming language to use on your next app project.
Schedule a consultation with us today, and let’s talk!