Swift is like Visual Basic

I’m trolling a little with the title. But it is in a way. Let me explain myself.

My first job out of college at the end of the 90s was writing Visual Basic GUIs, along with C++ DLLs underneath them. That was quite a culture shock. I went from coding in Scheme and Haskell (or C and assembly, depending on the class I was taking), to writing basic. Basic! The kiddy language! The C++/MFC developers down the hall called us “paint monkeys”.

Except after a few months, under the patient tutelage of a couple of experienced devs who took my immature scorn for their language in their stride, I realized I actually enjoyed it. More importantly, I was productive in it. It was so much quicker to express business logic in VB than C++. I started writing my DLLs in VB as well, except when the problem demanded something more powerful, and when it did, it was the power of the STL it demanded rather than the C++ language. When I did have to go back and forth with C++, it was easy to switch – my VB and C++ interoperated so easily that I could pick my language on a class-by-class basis.

The interop was smooth for a few reasons. First, VB was compiled to binary executables,1 rather than bytecode to run on a VM. You could call C functions directly from your VB code, passing in the addresses of raw VB Integers or Arrays or Strings. This meant most of the Win32 API was directly available without any extra wrappers or native interface hoops to jump through.

VB was also reference counted rather than garbage collected. COM objects could be instantiated in C++ or VB and passed directly back and forth between the two languages. Most VB devs didn’t know about the ref counting, and it rarely mattered, but understanding the need to break reference cycles was our stock screening interview question.

Any of this sound familiar?

Swift’s easy interop with its platform’s older established language makes trying it out a fairly painless experience (or it should once the beta ends and the language and compiler stabilizes). My feeling is, once interested Objective-C developers try writing real code in it, and get accustomed to type inference and cleaner syntax and see some of the other benefits it brings like generics and functional paradigms, it’ll be a one-way trip. But without the downside of having to port old codebases.

The similarities with VB are only superficial. Just enough to give me a vague feeling of déjà vu. Swift is way more powerful, picking the best of the innovations in programming languages from the last 20 years. It does this while making the language as accessible as VB was. Despite their academic superiority, a new generation of developers are not going to adopt Haskell or Clojure or F# as their language of choice.

VB was still Basic of course. Those Begin, End, and Dim keywords are hard to live down. When Java took the Enterprise development world by storm, Microsoft did their knee-jerk reaction thing and shipped a garbage-collected Java/JVM clone.2 As a sop to the existing developers, they gave us Visual Basic.NET which was just a stupid cousin to C#.

Those that adopted it plunged themselves into a world of interop pain as they tried to make their CLR code work with non-CLR C++ (or even worse, tried to convert that to “managed” C++). The MFC developers that laughed at us paint monkeys stuck with C++, and plenty are still using it today. Microsoft can’t make up its mind what to back, continuing to make a hash of things with Silverlight or their weird HTML5 proposals for Windows 8 app development. I’m certain Apple won’t make the same mistake. In 5 years time, Swift will be the language you write apps in.

There are still some die-hard VB6 developers out there, god bless them, and Microsoft’s obsession with backwards compatibility means they can keep using the version of Visual Studio that was released in ’98. I gave up on Microsoft in disgust and switched to C++ on Linux. Part of why I’ve been enjoying writing Swift is because it reminds me of the old times. Now if only I could figure out how to be in my 20s again, I’d be set.

  1. Assuming you chose the compiled rather than the interpreted route. VB code could also be interpreted in a script mode. All our batch files were written in VB. 
  2. Yes, I know C# has been way more innovative than Java in recent years. But at the beginning it was just a pale imitation.