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Apple Swift Playgrounds admit robots

Gated community sees life beyond its borders

Taking another tentative step toward openness, Apple says it will tweak its Swift Playgrounds educational coding app to interface with programmable toys, drones, and musical instruments.

The Swift Playgrounds 1.5 update is scheduled to drop on Monday, June 5, in Apple's App Store. That happens to be the first day of the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, where Swift will figure prominently.

According to Craig Federighi, Apple's senior veep of software engineering, more than a million people around the world have explored Swift programming through the Swift Playgrounds app. He contends that the ability to create remote control code for devices has significant educational value.

It's almost as if he's observed the possibilities that have been playing out for years between devices like the Raspberry Pi and programming languages like Python and JavaScript.

Swift Playgrounds will be able to connect to Bluetooth-enabled robots, such as Lego Mindstorms Education EV3, Sphero SPRK+, several Parrot drones, Ubtech's Jimu, Wonder Workshop's Dash, and Skoogmusic's Skoog instrument.

Apple needs to seed the next generation of Swift developers because it has been losing to Google in schools. It saw its iOS US K-12 market share drop from 19 per cent in 2015 to 14 per cent in 2016, according to Futuresource Consulting. Its macOS educational market share meanwhile slipped from 6 per cent to 5 per cent. At the same time, Google's Chrome OS saw its share of the US education market grow from 50 per cent to 58 per cent.

Since its introduction in 2014, Swift has risen faster in popularity than any other programming language since Redmonk, a consultancy, began tracking such data. But its meteoric rise has slowed somewhat.

"While the language appears to be entering something of a trough of disillusionment from a market perception standpoint, with major hype giving way to skepticism in many quarters, its statistical performance according to the observable metrics we track remains strong," Redmonk co-founder Stephen O'Grady wrote in March.

Part of the pause may be related to Swift's unsettled foundation. Swift 4, expected this fall, is scheduled to include breaking changes, which keeps Objective-C in the picture for libraries and frameworks. And Google's recent adoption of Kotlin as a first-class language could strengthen the headwinds.

Kotlin provides a modern, approachable syntax like Swift, but because it can run atop the Java Virtual Machine or be compiled into JavaScript, it already has an installed base, in the form of Java/Android developers.

Swift's fans may be hoping for further lift from corporate backers outside Apple, like IBM. But IBM's extensive support for Java suggests it wouldn't mind if Kotlin ends up outshining Swift.

Opening Swift Playgrounds up to outside devices makes sense, but Apple should look beyond raising the profile of its newfound favorite programming language. The company's caution with regard to interoperability – exemplified by its HomeKit strategy – leaves it looking like a laggard. ®

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