Refine Objective-C frameworks for Swift

Description: Fine-tune your Objective-C headers to work beautifully in Swift. We’ll show you how to take an unwieldy Objective-C framework and transform it into an API that feels right at home. Learn about the suite of annotations you can use to provide richer type information, more idiomatic names, and better errors to Swift. And discover Objective-C conventions you might not have known about that are key to a well-behaved Swift API. To get the most out of this session, you should be familiar with Swift and Objective-C. For more on working with Swift and Objective-C, check out our Developer Documentation and take a look at “Behind the Scenes of the Xcode Build Process” from WWDC18.

swiftc's Clang Importer automatically generates interfaces for Objective-C frameworks, for example:

  • NSString and NSDate parameters are bridged into String and Date structs
  • all init methods are imported as initializers
  • all methods are rewritten into a style closer to Swift
    • methods that follow the Objective-C error handling convention are turned into throwing functions

For example, we go from:

// SKMission.h 

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>
#import <SpaceKit/SKAstronaut.h>
#import <SpaceKit/SKCapsule.h>
#import <SpaceKit/SKRocket.h>

@interface SKMission NSObject

- (instancetype)initWithName:(NSString *)name 
                  launchDate:(NSDate *) launchDate 
                      rocket:(NSString *)rocket
                     capsule:(NSString *) capsule;
- (instancetype)initWithContentsofURL:(NSURL*)url
@property (copy) NSString *name;
@property (strong) NSDate *launchDate;
@property (copy) NSString *rocket;
@property (copy) NSString *capsule;
@property (copy) NSArray *crew;

///\returns \c YES if saved; \c NO with non-nil \c *error if failed to save;
///         \c NO with nil \c *error' if nothing needed to be saved.
- (BOOL) saveToURL:(NSURL *)url 
             error: (NSError **) error;


open class SKMission: NSObject {
  public init!(name: String!, launchDate: Date!, rocket: String!, capsule: String!)
  public init (contentsOf url: URL!) throws

  open var name: String! { get } 
  open var launchDate: Date! { get }
  open var rocket: String! { get }
  open var capsule: String! { get }
  open var crew: [Any]! { get } 

  /// \returns \c YES if saved; \c NO with non-nil \c *error if failed to save; \c NO with 
  /// nil \c *error if nothing needed to be saved. 
  open func save(to url: URL!) throws 

  open func previousMissionsFlown(by astronaut: SKAstronaut!) -> SetAnyHashable>! 

There's room for improvements from the generated interface:

  • the API has many implicitly unwrapped optionals
  • The Any and AnyHashable types are vague
  • the throws method will sometimes throw when it shouldn't
  • some method names could also be more swifty
  • and more

Provide richer type information

Describe nullability to control optionals

When Swift imports an Objective-C pointer type, by default, it marks it as an implicitly unwrapped optional to tell you that this value could be nil.

Methods and Properties

Objective-C provides three nullability annotations, nonnull, nullable, null_unspecified, which let you say whether nil is a sensible value for a particular property, method parameter or method result:

// SKMission.h

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>

@interface SKMission : NSObject

@property (readonly, nullable) NSString *name;

- (nonnull instancetype)initWithName:(nullable NSString *)name;


Objective-C doesn't enforce these annotations. They just document your intent.

  • nonnull will be imported as a non-optional type in Swift
  • nullable will be imported as an optional type in Swift
  • null_unspecified will be imported as an implicitly unwrapped optional

Lastly, add the NS_ASSUME_NONNULL_BEGIN macro at the top of the header file and the matching end macro at the bottom, then delete all the nonnulls between them.

This is a convenience macro to save you typing nonnull in your headers.

// SKMission.h

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>


@interface SKMission : NSObject

@property (readonly, nullable) NSString *name;

- (instancetype)initWithName:(nullable NSString *)name;



Any Pointer

For other pointers that are not methods and properties, use _Nonnull, _Nullable, and _Null_unspecified.

// Misc.h

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>

NSString * _Nonnull const SKRocketSaturnV;

@interface ResourceValueContainer : NSObject

- (BOOL)getResourceValue:(id _Nullable * _Nonnull)outValue error:(NSError**)error;


nullability mistakes

What happens when Objective-C returns nil for a value Swift thinks can't be optional?

  • If it's an NSString or NSArray on the Objective-C side, you get an empty Swift string or array
  • If it's an Objective-C object, you might not even notice because Objective-C method calls ignore nils. But in some cases, you'll crash with a null pointer dereference or get other unexpected behavior

Use Objective-C generics for Foundation types

// SKMission.h

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>
#import <SpaceKit/SKAstronaut.h>


@interface SKMission : NSObject

@property (readonly) NSArray<SKAstronaut *> *crew;



NSArray<SKAstronaut *> will translate into [SKAstronaut]

Use Int for numbers

In both Objective-C and Swift, it's conventional to use unsigned types (e.g. UInt, uint8_t, UInt8) when an integer represents a collection of bits and you want to perform bitwise operations on those bits.

The main reason people use NSUInteger in Objective-C is to indicate that a number's value is never negative.

Objective-C enables this style with automatic conversions and carefully designed overflow behaviors, but these exact features can cause serious security bugs, so Swift doesn't include them.

Instead, Swift requires you to explicitly convert unsigned types to signed if you wanted signed arithmetic, and stops execution if unsigned arithmetic would produce a negative result.

Apple's recommendation (and what they do in their frameworks): turn all NSUIntegers into Ints when Swift imports them.

Strengthen stringly-typed constants

A typedef gets imported as a type-alias in Swift, and in both languages, that's just an exact synonym for the original type.

However, when we add the NS_STRING_ENUM macro after the typedef, this dramatically reshapes the Swift translation:
it now imports as a struct with the constants nested inside it, making something that looks and feels just like an enum with a raw string value.

// SKRocket.h

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>


typedef NSString *SKRocket NS_STRING_ENUM;

extern SKRocket const SKRocketAtlas;
extern SKRocket const SKRocketTitanII;
extern SKRocket const SKRocketSaturnIB;
extern SKRocket const SKRocketSaturnV;

NSInteger SKRocketStageCount(SKRocket);

public struct SKRocket: RawRepresentable {
  public var rawValue: String
  public static let atlas: SKRocket
  public static let titanII: SKRocket
  public static let saturnIB: SKRocket
  public static let saturnV: SKRocket

public func SKRocketStageCount(_: SKRocket) -> Int

Follow Objective-C conventions

  • use NS_DESIGNATED_INITIALIZER for the main initializer of a class (other initializers will automatically get be tagged as convenience in Swift)
  • use NS_UNAVAILABLE for initializers that you don't support (e.g. NSObject's init when you don't want to override it and want people to use your initializers instead)
  • use the Objective-C error convention correctly, use NS_SWIFT_NOTHROW otherwise
// SKMission.h
#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>


@interface SKMission : NSObject

/// \returns \c YES if saved; \c NO with non-nil \c *error if failed to save;
///          \c NO with nil \c *error` if nothing needed to be saved.

/// @param[out] wasDirty If provided, set to \c YES if the file needed to be
///   saved or \c NO if there weren’t any changes to save.
- (BOOL)saveToURL:(NSURL *)url 
         wasDirty:(nullable BOOL *)wasDirty 
           error:(NSError **)error;



Will turn into:

Class SKMission: NSObject {
  @available(*, deprecated)
  public func save(to url: URL, error: AutoreleasingUnsafeMutablePointer..)

  public func save(to url: URL, wasDirty: UnsafeMutablePointer<ObjCBool>?) throws
  • Use NS_REFINED_FOR_SWIFT when you re-define a method in Swift and want to hide the original objc implementation (when imported into Swift)
    • this macro adds two underscores to the beginning of the method's Swift name
    • When Xcode sees something with a leading underscore, it usually hides it from editor features like code completion and generated interfaces

Address missing APIs

Swift can't import:

  • C-style variadic parameters
  • Flexible array members
  • Forward declarations (like an @class or @protocol with a semicolon) that are never fully defined
  • declarations involving un-importable types
  • invalid redeclarations
  • complicated macros

Improve ergonomics in Swift

Fix method names with NS_SWIFT_NAME

Instead of

- (NSSet<SKMission *> *)previousMissionsFlownByAstronaut:(SKAstronaut *)astronaut;

that turns into:

func previousMissionsFlown(by astronaut: SKAstronaut) -> Set<SKMission>


- (NSSet<SKMission *> *)previousMissionsFlownByAstronaut:(SKAstronaut *)astronaut NS_SWIFT_NAME(previousMissions(flownBy:));

that becomes:

func previousMissions(flownBy astronaut: SKAstronaut) -> Set<SKMission>

NS_SWIFT_NAME is very powerful, for example it can be used to change a global function into a static/instance function of a type

Error code enums

Use NS_ERROR_ENUM to convert an Objective-C enum and an error domain constant into a Swift enum conforming to Error:

//  SKError.h

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>

extern NSString *const SKErrorDomain;

typedef NS_ERROR_ENUM(SKErrorDomain, SKErrorCode) {
    SKErrorLaunchAborted = 1,

..will turn into:

public let SKErrorDomain: String

public struct SKError {
  public enum Code: Int {
    case launchAborted = 1
    case launchOutOfRange = 2
    case rapidUnscheduledDisassembly = 3
    case notGoingToSpaceToday = 4

  public static var launchAborted: SKError.Code { get }
  public static var launchOutOfRange: SKError.Code { get }
  public static var rapidUnscheduledDisassembly: SKError.Code { get }
  public static var notGoingToSpaceToday: SKError.Code { get }

  public static var errorDomain: String { get }

extension SKError: Error {

Missing anything? Corrections? Contributions are welcome 😃


Written by

Federico Zanetello

Federico Zanetello

iOS Engineer with strong passion for Swift, minimalism, and design. When he’s not busy automating things, he can be found writing at FIVE STARS and/or playing with the latest shiny toys.