IBM has abandoned a plan to make Apple's Swift programming into a big enterprise technology

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IBM has abandoned a plan to make Apple's Swift programming into a big enterprise technology

Craig Federighi

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  • IBM will be bowing out of its work with Apple's Swift programming language in 2020, the Swift organization revealed on Thursday.
  • Swift is a programming language created by Apple which was mainly geared toward iOS apps when first released in mid-2014, and since released as open source.
  • IBM's departure puts a cloud over work that was supposed to turn Swift into a powerhouse technology for corporate app development.
  • Click here to read more BI Prime stories.

IBM will no longer be working on Apple's Swift programming language in 2020, the Swift organization revealed last week.

IBM's departure puts a cloud over work that was supposed to turn Swift into a powerhouse technology for corporate app development.

Swift is a programming language first released by Apple in 2014 that eased development of iPhone/iPad apps. As such, it quickly became one of the most popular, fastest-growing programming languages ever. There are currently about 2.1 million Swift developers, Dice reports, and it is the ninth most-popular programming language, with 2.5% market share, according to the PYPL PopularitY of Programming Language index, a site that tracks such things.

But the top two most popular programming languages, Python and Java, (30% and 19% market share respectively, says PYPL) dwarf Swift's popularity. Those two languages are popular choices for enterprise apps, defined as the kinds of software employees use at work.

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IBM and Apple teamed up for Swift

And that's what IBM was trying to do for Swift. Back in 2015, Apple released Swift to the world as a free and open source project, meaning any developer with an interest could contribute features or bug fixes.

IBM signed up to help Swift in a big way. It adapted Swift to work with Linux, the most popular operating system for computer servers. It also launched a more specific project, called Kitura, which allowed Swift programmers to easily write applications that would run on Linux servers or in the cloud, rather than running on an iPhone or iPad.

The plan was simple and logical: With IBM's help, Swift was going to invade the enterprise, a market that spends over $e trillion a year on technology.

By way of a team-up with Apple, IBM hoped to gain access to millions of loyal app developers who would embrace IBM's Cloud for its superior Swift support, a feature that leading competitors like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure wouldn't be able to match.

Apple Senior VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi even said at the time the partnership was announced that Apple wanted Swift to be come "the language, the major language for the next 20 years of programming in our industry."

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But, five years in, Swift's popularity with enterprise apps hasn't really materialized. While the Swift community built out lots of tools that allows Swift-written apps to run in the cloud (they can work with popular developer technologies like Docker and Kubernetes, for example), for the most part, Swift remains a child of the iOS world.

The Red Hat connection

In the meantime, IBM bought Red Hat and now has access to an equally large ecosystem of dedicated developers and IT professionals, all of whom are already in the enterprise world and are more relevant to IBM's core audience. Red Hat says that as of 2019, its ecosystem supports 2.6 million people in Red Hat-related jobs.

Ergo, IBM no longer needs to try to make Swift become the next Python or Java in order to win developers and IT pros to its cloud.

And so, IBM let the Swift community know that "following a review by IBM of its open source priorities, it has been decided that they will not be continuing to work on Swift in 2020," Tomer Doron, a senior engineering manager at Apple and a leader in the Swift project, informed the Swift community with a post on Thursday.

It's unclear what will happen to Kitura, the Swift server project that IBM was spearheading. Even as late as January of this year, IBM was working hard to convince its enterprise customers to try Swift using Kitura, it said in a blog post at the time. And IBM's cloud already offers full commercial support for Swift apps using Kitura.

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However, Kitura is not the only Swift server project. The Swift Server Working Group is alive and well and producing tools for Swift server developers. Perhaps someone from that group will pick up Kitura.

It's also worth noting that IBM likely hasn't abandoned Swift wholesale: IBM does brisk business in helping companies build custom iPhone and iPad apps, and given Swift's place of prominence on those platforms, it seems likely that they'll keep some experts in the language around.

But it's unclear whether Swift will ever emerge as a true enterprise-grade language, especially without the sponsorship from a major enterprise player - the role that IBM used to fill. And that could be a setback to Apple's once-grand enterprise ambitions as well.

Neither IBM nor Apple immediately responded to a request for comment.

Get the latest IBM stock price here.

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