An Overview of SwiftUI

Now that Xcode has been installed and the basics of the Swift programming language covered, it is time to start introducing SwiftUI.

First announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in 2019, SwiftUI is an entirely new approach to developing apps for all Apple operating system platforms. The basic goals of SwiftUI are to make app development easier, faster and less prone to the types of bugs that typically appear when developing software projects. These elements have been combined with SwiftUI specific additions to Xcode that allow SwiftUI projects to be tested in near real-time using a live preview of the app during the development process.

Many of the advantages of SwiftUI originate from the fact that it is both declarative and data driven, topics which will be explained in this chapter.

The discussion in this chapter is intended as a high-level overview of SwiftUI and does not cover the practical aspects of implementation within a project. Implementation and practical examples will be covered in detail in the remainder of the book.

1.1 UIKit and Interface Builder

To understand the meaning and advantages of SwiftUI’s declarative syntax, it helps to understand how user interface layouts were designed before the introduction of SwiftUI. Up until the introduction of SwiftUI, iOS apps were built entirely using UIKit together with a collection of associated frameworks that make up the iOS Software Development Kit (SDK).

To aid in the design of the user interface layouts that make up the screens of an app, Xcode includes a tool called Interface Builder. Interface Builder is a powerful tool that allows storyboards to be created which contain the individual scenes that make up an app (with a scene typically representing a single app screen).

The user interface layout of a scene is designed within Interface Builder by dragging components (such as buttons, labels, text fields and sliders) from a library panel to the desired location on the scene canvas. Selecting a component in a scene provides access to a range of inspector panels where the attributes of the components can be changed.

The layout behavior of the scene (in other words how it reacts to different device screen sizes and changes to device orientation between portrait and landscape) is defined by configuring a range of constraints that dictate how each component is positioned and sized in relation to both the containing window and the other components in the layout.

Finally, any components that need to respond to user events (such as a button tap or slider motion) are connected to methods in the app source code where the event is handled.

At various points during this development process, it is necessary to compile and run the app on a simulator or device to test that everything is working as expected.

1.2 SwiftUI Declarative Syntax

SwiftUI introduces a declarative syntax that provides an entirely different way of implementing user interface layouts and behavior from the UIKit and Interface Builder approach. Instead of manually designing the intricate details of the layout and appearance of components that make up a scene, SwiftUI allows the scenes to be described using a simple and intuitive syntax. In other words, SwiftUI allows layouts to be created by declaring how the user interface should appear without having to worry about the complexity of how the layout is actually built.

This essentially involves declaring the components to be included in the layout, stating the kind of layout manager in which they to be contained (vertical stack, horizontal stack, form, list etc.) and using modifiers to set attributes such as the text on a button, the foreground color of a label, or the method to be called in the event of a tap gesture. Having made these declarations, all the intricate and complicated details of how to position, constrain and render the layout are handled automatically by SwiftUI.

SwiftUI declarations are structured hierarchically, which also makes it easy to create complex views by composing together small, re-usable custom subviews.

While the view layout is being declared and tested, Xcode provides a preview canvas which changes in real-time to reflect the appearance of the layout. Xcode also includes a live preview mode which allows the app to be launched within the preview canvas and fully tested without the need to build and run on a simulator or device.

Coverage of the SwiftUI declaration syntax begins with the chapter entitled Creating Custom Views with SwiftUI.

1.3 SwiftUI is Data Driven

When we say that SwiftUI is data driven, this is not to say that it is no longer necessary to handle events generated by the user (in other words the interaction between the user and the app user interface). It is still necessary, for example, to know when the user taps a button and to react in some app specific way. Being data driven relates more to the relationship between the underlying app data and the user interface and logic of the app.

Prior to the introduction of SwiftUI, an iOS app would contain code responsible for checking the current values of data within the app. If data is likely to change over time, code has to be written to ensure that the user interface always reflects the latest state of the data (perhaps by writing code to frequently check for changes to the data, or by providing a refresh option for the user to request a data update). Similar problems arise when keeping the user interface state consistent and making sure issues like toggle button settings are stored appropriately. Requirements such as these can become increasingly complex when multiple areas of an app depend on the same data sources.

SwiftUI addresses this complexity by providing several ways to bind the data model of an app to the user interface components and logic that provide the app functionality.

When implemented, the data model publishes data variables to which other parts of the app can then subscribe. Using this approach, changes to the published data are automatically reported to all subscribers. If the binding is made from a user interface component, any data changes will automatically be reflected within the user interface by SwiftUI without the need to write any additional code.

1.4 SwiftUI vs. UIKit

With the choice of using UIKit and SwiftUI now available, the obvious question arises as to which is the best option. When making this decision it is important to understand that SwiftUI and UIKit are not mutually exclusive. In fact, several integration solutions are available (a topic area covered starting with the chapter entitled Integrating UIViews with SwiftUI).

The first factor to take into consideration during the decision process is that any app that includes SwiftUI-based code will only run on devices running iOS 13 or later. This means, for example, that your app will only be available to users with the following iPhone models:

  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone Xs
  • iPhone Xs Max
  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone X
  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone 7
  • iPhone 7 Plus
  • iPhone 6s
  • iPhone 6s Plus
  • iPhone SE

Apple reported on October 15, 2019 that, based on App Store measurements, 50% of all iPhone devices were running iOS 13, a percentage that will continue to increase with the passage of time.

If supporting devices running older versions of iOS is not of concern and you are starting a new project, it makes sense to use SwiftUI wherever possible. Not only does SwiftUI provide a faster, more efficient app development environment, it also makes it easier to make the same app available on multiple Apple platforms (iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS) without making significant code changes.

If you have an existing app developed using UIKit there is no easy migration path to convert that code to SwiftUI, so it probably makes sense to keep using UIKit for that part of the project. UIKit will continue to be a valuable part of the app development toolset and will be extended, supported and enhanced by Apple for the foreseeable future. When adding new features to an existing project, however, consider doing so using SwiftUI and integrating it into the existing UIKit codebase.

When adopting SwiftUI for new projects, it will probably not be possible to avoid using UIKit entirely. Although SwiftUI comes with a wide array of user interface components, it will still be necessary to use UIKit for certain functionality such as map and web view integration.

In addition, for extremely complex user interface layout designs, it may also be necessary to use Interface Builder in situations where layout needs cannot be satisfied using the SwiftUI layout container views.

1.5 Summary

SwiftUI introduces a different approach to app development than that offered by UIKit and Interface Builder. Rather than directly implement the way in which a user interface is to be rendered, SwiftUI allows the user interface to be declared in descriptive terms and then does all the work of deciding the best way to perform the rendering when the app runs.

SwiftUI is also data driven in that data change drives the behavior and appearance of the app. This is achieved through a publisher and subscriber model. This chapter has provided a very high-level view of SwiftUI. The remainder of this book will explore SwiftUI in greater depth.