2021-02-27

Brad Cox, Creator of Objective-C, Dies at 77

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From an obituary published January 8:

The late Steve Jobs’ NeXT licensed the Objective-C language for
its new operating system, NeXTStep. NeXT eventually acquired
Objective-C from Stepstone. Objective-C continued to be the
primary programming language for writing software for Apple’s OS X
and iOS.

What a lovely story:

He and his wife, Etta, enjoyed traveling for leisure, as well, and
visited the Caribbean often as they both enjoyed scuba diving.
Belize especially held fond memories for them. On one scuba diving
excursion while in the compound having lunch, Brad engaged a
couple from Germany in conversation. Brad asked about the fellow
traveler’s occupation and discovered he was a computer programmer.
Likewise, Brad was asked about his life’s work and stated “I am
also a computer programmer.” “What do you do?” Brad was asked. “I
wrote Objective-C.” Astonished, the gentleman said, “No, Brad Cox
wrote that.” “Hi, I am Brad Cox”, was the response and the
introduction. Needless to say, much conversation ensued after the
scuba diving concluded.

It’s simply impossible to overstate how influential Cox and his masterpiece, Objective-C were. I wouldn’t begin to claim to be an expert on Objective-C, but I know enough to see how it was more than a language. It was a language — a thin layer of syntax on top of C — but also embodied the idea of a dynamic runtime. The result was a language that ran fast like C but enabled programmer expressiveness and introspection like Smalltalk. Running fast like C is always a good thing, but it was essential on the slow desktop hardware of the ’80s and ’90s — and then, once again, on the slow mobile hardware of the early iPhone era. Smalltalk-inspired expressiveness is what makes Objective-C great for writing nontrivial applications. No other language of the era achieved such a balance.

Great programming languages are great for writing certain types of software. Objective-C is great for writing apps and app frameworks. Turns out that made for a great language — and an enormous competitive advantage for the one company that banked its entire software stack on it.