Mitchell Hashimoto

Integrating Zig and SwiftUI

May 27, 2023
Table of Contents

Building a native GUI for a cross-platform application is a decades old problem. Nowadays, most people just don't and fallback to using a non-native experience such as Electron instead.

One approach to building a native GUI for a cross-platform application is to write all of the business logic in a cross-platform language (C, Rust, Zig, etc.) and then write the platform-specific GUI code. This is the approach I take with my my terminal emulator and it works really well. As of the current date writing this post, 93% of my repository is business logic in Zig and C, and 4% is macOS-specific GUI code in Swift.

As a result, my terminal emulator is truly native: you get native Mac windows, Mac GUI components (buttons, text fields), etc. It looks and feels great. But its also still cross-platform: I support Linux (using GTK) while sharing ~90% of all code. In this post, I'll share details about how this setup works and why I approached GUI programming this way.

I'll be using Zig as the example shared-logic language, but this general pattern should apply to any systems language that can compile to a C-compatible library, such as Rust.

This post will not teach you to Zig or SwiftUI programming. However, you also don't need to be familiar with either. As long as you understand that Zig is a programming language and SwiftUI is a native GUI toolkit, then my explanations in this post are going to be more generally applicable.

High Level Idea

The high level idea:

  1. Write your business logic in any language that supports exporting a C-compatible library. This is just about any systems language (Rust, Zig, C, C++, etc.). You could use a higher level language (JavaScript, Ruby, Python) but the architecture changes since you need a runtime.

  2. Compile your cross-platform logic into a static library that exposes the C ABI as the primary interface (acts like a "typical" system library).

  3. Write your GUI logic in whatever native language and toolkit is recommended for your platform, such as SwiftUI in XCode.

  4. Link the GUI to your cross-platform library. 🎉

Exporting a C API with Zig

Zig makes it easy to export a C API. By prepending export to a function, the function uses the C calling convention and is available for other programs to call via standard linking. Here is the real exported function for initializing the global state for my terminal:

export fn ghostty_init() c_int {
    return 0;

The signature of an exported function (or more specifically: functions using the C calling convention) is limited to parameters and return values that are supported by C. This means you can not use comptime parameters, generics, error sets, arbitrary bit width integers, etc. This restriction only applies to the signature. You can use all of those features inside the function body.

From there, you can write your own header file and it quacks just like any other library written in C. Note, you actually must write a header file, because this is how Swift is going to know what the API is for your library.

# ghostty.h

int ghostty_init(void);

Finally, to build a static library, we can use the native Zig build tooling. The build.zig ends up looking something like this. The result is that you should see a file named something.a in your zig-out directory.

const lib = b.addStaticLibrary(.{
    .name = "ghostty",
    .root_source_file = .{ .path = "src/main_c.zig" },
    .target = .{
        .cpu_arch = .aarch64,
        .os_tag = .macos,
        .os_version_min = target.os_version_min,
    .optimize = optimize,
lib.bundle_compiler_rt = true;

Zig version. I am using the 0.11 nightly build for all the examples in this post. Zig APIs are still regularly changing as the language matures so I don't expect the code in this blog post to remain valid for very long, but it should only require minor tweaks if you're close to 0.11.

Merging All Dependencies

Static libraries do not also embed their static dependencies. For example, if your Zig code linked to libcurl, then any user of your static library would still need to provide a static version of libcurl as well.

Note: this is only required if you have non-Zig library dependencies. If you're compiling all your code and dependencies into a single unit, then this step is not necessary.

Since we're only building our static libraries to integrate with our GUI and not as general purpose static libraries, let's go ahead and package up all our dependencies as well. To do that, we have to use libtool(1).

The build.zig code looks like this:

var lib_list = ...;
try lib_list.append(.{ .generated = &lib.output_path_source });
const libtool = LibtoolStep.create(b, .{
    .name = "ghostty",
    .out_name = "libghostty-aarch64-bundle.a",
    .sources = lib_list.items,

The LibtoolStep is a custom step I wrote and the source can be found here. LibtoolStep requires a list of all the dependencies, which we build up in lib_list (including adding our own library we just wrote). The result of the libtool run is a "bundled" library which contains our library and all of its dependencies.

Making a Universal (Multi-Arch) Library

macOS is still in the midst of its transition from Intel to Apple Silicon, so we must build a library that works with both the x86_64 and aarch64 architectures. Mac supports what they call "Universal Binaries" which work on both systems by just copying the final machine code for both architectures into one file.

To build a universal binary, we have to build the static library for each specific architecture, then use the lipo tool to merge them together.

In build.zig, that looks like this:

const static_lib_universal = LipoStep.create(b, .{
    .name = "ghostty",
    .out_name = "libghostty.a",
    .input_a = static_lib_aarch64.output,
    .input_b = static_lib_x86_64.output,

The LipoStep is a custom step I wrote to call lipo and the source can be found here. The static_lib_aarch64 and static_lib_x86_64 are the results of the addStaticLibrary or libtool calls in the previous sections. The final result is a universal library!

Creating an XCFramework

Finally, we need to build an xcframework file. An xcframework is a single bundle that contains the library, headers, and other associated files that XCode can use a single unit to easily integrate libraries.

I'm not going to explain xcframework files in detail. This blog post should give you enough information for you to accurately Google search and find the answers you need. This was the hardest part for me: just figuring out what I needed to know. I'm hoping this blog post gets you there!

I wrote a custom step for this too, called XCFrameworkStep. In build.zig it looks like this:

// The xcframework wraps our ghostty library so that we can link
// it to the final app built with Swift.
const xcframework = XCFrameworkStep.create(b, .{
    .name = "GhosttyKit",
    .out_path = "macos/GhosttyKit.xcframework",
    .library = static_lib_universal.output,
    .headers = .{ .path = "include" },

This step takes our final library output along with a path to our headers directory (that has the ghostty.h file) and builds our xcframework.

IMPORTANT: You need a modulemap. You need to create a module.modulemap file in your include directory. This is used by XCode with the xcframework file to properly build your library. Put the module.modulemap file alongside your C header:

// This makes Ghostty available to the XCode build for the macOS app.
// We append "Kit" to it not to be cute, but because targets have to have
// unique names and we use Ghostty for other things.
module GhosttyKit {
    umbrella header "ghostty.h"
    export *

Integrating with an XCode Project

Our library is finally ready to be used by XCode. This step is thankfully very easy: just drag and drop the built xcframework file into the "Frameworks" section of your XCode project and select "Do Not Embed" as the embedding option. That's it, your Swift code can now import it:

import SwiftUI
import GhosttyKit

struct GhosttyApp: App {
    var body: some Scene { ... }

The import name must match the name in your modulemap (previous section). After you import, autocomplete will have all of your functions and types from your header file, and they'll be automatically converted to Swift types (the types they use for bridging to C).

At this point, you'll probably run into some challenges around C numeric types, C booleans, C pointers, etc. and interoperating with Swift. But these are all very Google-able problems.


I admit, there are a lot of concepts to get to the promised land with this idea: exporting a C API, building a static lib, libtooling dependencies, lipoing for universal binaries, generating an xcframework, writing a C header and modulemap file, then importing it into your XCode project.

But, each of these steps isn't doing anything cutting edge or esoteric. All of the steps are tried and true -- usually decades-old -- operations and tools for working with system libraries. They're unlikely to to be brittle going forward.

For my terminal application, I've used this technique for a little over a year including over one major macOS update so far, and nothing broke at all. Going forward, I don't expect things to break, either.

And I think the payoff is worth it: you can get a truly native GUI experience while keeping almost all of your application logic cross-platform. To repeat from the introduction: for my application 94% of my code is in Zig and is used cross-platform, and only 4% is platform-specific GUI code for macOS. Admittedly, a terminal emulator doesn't have that much GUI interactions, but that implements native tabs, splits, preference pane, etc.

I know that this blog post doesn't have a turnkey, copy-and-paste solution to integrating Zig with SwiftUI, but I hope it gives you the knowledge basis necessary to follow this pattern.

Appendix: Why Not Objective-C?

One approach on macOS is to go lower level and try to use Objective-C directly to interact with the system libraries such as AppKit or Foundation. Objective-C has a native C API so most programming languages can interact with it directly. I took this approach first, but I don't think its practically viable.

The major issue is that it is painfully clear that the future of Apple device programming is Swift. While some core libraries are available in ObjC, a majority of modern integrations require Swift to some extent (or jumping through some absolutely-not-worth-it hoops to make something work).

A lot of this comes down to convenience: the convenient GUI integrations are in Swift nowadays (such as SwiftUI). But sometimes, it comes down to actual functionality. For example, if you want to integrate with the iPhone Dynamic Island, you have to export a SwiftUI view as far as I know. I'm sure there is some cursed way to use pure UIKit but... you'd be really fighting what Apple wants you to do.