The new vanity plate for tech’s mega-vendors is a programming language. It could also become an effective lock-in strategy.
As Scott Rosenberg writes, “In war … the winners write the history books. In tech, the winning companies are writing the programming languages.” Hence today we have Hack (Facebook), Go (Google) and Objective-C/Swift (Apple), just as Microsoft had C#.
Such languages aren’t simply a different way to write applications. They’re a way for the mega-vendors to keep developers corralled within the vendors’ walled gardens. Should we be concerned?
Open But Proprietary?
Maybe, maybe not. After all, while language lock-in can constrain a developer community for a time, eventually it breaks, as we’re seeing with C#:
The problem, however, is that the future is being written in increasingly proprietary programming languages. Not necessarily proprietary in the sense that you can’t access their innards—Hack and Go, for example, are both open source. But proprietary in the sense that the language derives from one company, with all its idiosyncrasies baked in.
This is very different from the past decades of the open Web, as Rosenberg suggests:
The Internet was built on open standards and code, but the era of social networks and the cloud is dominated by corporate giants. And they are beginning to put their unique stamps on the thought-stuff of digital technology — just as inevitably as William the Conqueror and his Normans imported tranches of early French into the nascent English tongue, in ways that still shape our legal and financial language.
Gentle, Loving Overlords
Which isn’t to say these languages are being imposed on the world by evil overlords. In the case of Go, which Redmonk analyst Donnie Berkholz styles the “emerging language of cloud infrastructure,” it’s taking off because of “its mastery of concurrent operations and the beauty of its construction,” as I’ve written.
It’s a great programming language for modern-day development, in other words.
But the problem, following Rosenberg, is that declaring allegiance to one language tends to block you from others. Developers simply don’t have time to master a number of competing development platforms:
For developers, then, choosing a language is like choosing citizenship in a country. You’re not only buying into syntax and semantics. You’re buying into economics and culture, the rules that shape how you earn your livelihood and the forces that channel your hopes and dreams.
This is very clearly seen in mobile development, as VisionMobile’s Developer Economics report illustrates:
Open Sourcing A Way Out?
To their credit, Google and Facebook have open sourced their respective languages, making the likelihood of them becoming open standards more likely. Apple, however, has not, and almost certainly will not.
Open isn’t really in Apple’s DNA.
Which is why it’s almost certainly true that Apple may be discussing open sourcing Swift, as Chris Lattner offers. But it’s equally true that if Apple really cared about Swift being open, this would have been top of its list of to-dos, not an afterthought.
Maybe it won’t matter. Java-happy Android, after all, is increasingly the default for mobile developers. Yes, iOS still pays the biggest developer paychecks, but iOS, the Swift programming language and the entire Apple mobile ecosystem are closed, which should give developers pause before they opt to enlist in the Apple army.
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