In this post, we will walkthrough how we can use the -why_load flag in the Apple ld linker to understand which symbols are being shipped (and why) as part of the final binaries we ship with an app.

Then we’ll use this flag to iteratively reduce the number of symbols we ship, which should help reduce the binary size of the app extensions we ship with an iOS app. The less symbols we ship with a binary, lesser the binary size.

These app extensions can be NotificationServiceExtensions, TodayWidgetExtension, WidgetExtensions and more.

We can apply these techniques for the main app binaries as well, but we have to be careful while removing the -ObjC flag for main app binaries. (Refer Caveats section at the end for more details)

Introducing the -why_load flag

Apple’s ld linker has support for various features to help us debug and understand which symbols are being included in a binary/app and why.

One of these is the -why_load flag. Here’s a brief excerpt about this flag from the man pages for ld.

$ man ld
Options for introspecting the linker
        Log why each object file in a static library is loaded. That is, what symbol was needed.  Also called -whyload for compatibility.
    -why_live symbol_name
        Logs a chain of references to symbol_name.  Only applicable with -dead_strip .  It can help debug why something that you think should be dead strip removed is not removed.  See -exported_symbols_list for syntax and use of wildcards.

In summary, when we invoke the linker with this flag, it will print information about why each symbol was “loaded” (included) as part of the final binary.

Generally, the default linker settings also include “dead code stripping”, which is an optimisation done by the linker (generally on release builds) to prevent dead code from being included as part of the binary. When this works, it should help keep our binary size in check as any symbols related to dead/unused code will be automatically stripped out.

(We can see the symbols being shipped with a binary using the nm tool which ships by default with macOS. You can find more info around this tool by reading it’s man page.)

If we still see symbols from dependencies which should have been stripped out as dead code, then this post should help.

Example Case Study

Let’s say we have an app with an app extension which depends on the CleverTapSDK. And internally CleverTapSDK depends on SDWebImage.

Now assuming, our app extension does not show any images and isn’t concerned with caching images. Then one would expect that the linker would remove as many references to SDWebImage as possible right?

But, when we print all the symbols shipped as part of the binary using nm, we may still seeing many symbols from SDWebImage in the app extension binary, then that means the linker isn’t able to remove this dead code.

This is where the why_load or why_live flag will come in handy. It will help us build up a chain of references, to understand which particular piece of code is still referencing SDWebImage symbols and preventing the linker from stripping/deleting it.

The ‘-ObjC’ flag and its impact

Upon invoking the linker with the -why_load flag, we may notice a lot of references to -ObjC in the output, especially if any of the following conditions apply to our project:

  • We are including any dependency using cocoapods into the target/app/extension.
  • If we are using xcodegen, static libs, and we haven’t marked “requiresObjCLinking: false” for any static library dependency to our main app/extension. Refer Xcodegen docs

If you are seeing -ObjC references in the logs from ld then the following sections would apply.

An excerpt from this blog post about the -ObjC linker flag:

This is the flag that is typically passed when using static libraries that contain Objective-C code.
Keep in mind, this flag means that ALL Objective-C code that is passed to the linker will be added
to the executable binary regardless of if it gets used or not.

Helping the linker strip more dead code

From the ld -why_load output we now know that a lot of dead code which could be stripped, is not being stripped because of the presence of -ObjC flag.

If the -ObjC flag is present in the linker command, we would see multiple lines mentioning -ObjC forced load of ...:

-ObjC forced load of ~/DerivedData/.../Alamofire.framework/Alamofire(SessionDelegate.o)
-ObjC forced load of ~/DerivedData/.../Alamofire.framework/Alamofire(Alamofire-dummy.o)

Now before we try integrating this as part of our apps build process, I would recommend a quick approach to measure impact to the binary size and then decide if the gains are worth the risk and efforts or not:

  • Copy the linker command from the build logs of your app extension.
  • Look for the -ObjC flag in the command. If it exists, remove it.
  • Execute the linker command in a new terminal instance, without the -ObjC flag, and compare the binary sizes before and after to identify possible app size savings.

Optionally, also have a look at the linker -why_load output to check if we are shipping unnecessary extra symbols, say due to an unused dependency. Removing the unused dependency can help reduce binary size considerably.

Removing the ObjC flag from our project

I will list down the changes required for a project which integrates dependencies using cocoapods and generates the xcodeproj file using xcodegen:

  • For all static library dependencies of the app extension, which are defined using xcodegen, ensure requiresObjCLinking: false is present. Repeat this process until we notice that the OTHER_LDFLAGS build setting for the app extension target doesn’t include -ObjC anymore.
  • In the Podfile we need to add a post install hook to remove the -ObjC flag manually:

      post_install do |installer|
      installer.pods_project.targets.each do |target|
          objc_strip_targets = ["TodayWidgetExtension", "NotificationServiceExtension"]
          if objc_strip_targets.include?(
              target.build_configurations.each do |config|
                  xcconfig_relative_path = "Pods/Target Support Files/#{}/#{}.#{}.xcconfig"
                  file_path =
                  configuration =

In case our project is not using xcodegen to generate projects on the fly, and instead has a xcode pbxproj checked into git, it may be possible to remove the -ObjC flag from OTHER_LDFLAGS manually and commit it into git.

It might also be worthwhile to integrate a danger rule to ensure that the -ObjC flag isn’t reintroduced in a future pull request.

Impact for our apps

  • For our production app, we were able to reduce app size by 5MB from an app of 200MB in size, i.e. a 2.5% decrease.
    • For us the tradeoff around the increased complexity with the scripts was worth it so that we could keep our app below the 200MB OTA update limit (on mobile data) enforced by iOS.


  • If your app is mostly built up using dynamic frameworks and the app extensions do not depend on static libraries, then the -ObjC flag may already be not included in OTHER_LDFLAGS for your app extensions. In which case, dead code stripping should already be working as expected.
  • In our testing, we noticed that Xcode 13 builds with bitcode and the objc flag removed, returned comparatively smaller app size reduction than Xcode 14 builds without bitcode. YMMV.
  • Be careful while removing the -ObjC flag from the main app binary, as that could break the objective-c selector functionality, such as IBActions from storyboards/xibs.

Brief note around Xcode 14

In Xcode 14, Apple deprecated Bitcode and no longer accepts builds (generated using Xcode 14) to appstore with bitcode enabled.

For our app, after updating to Xcode 14, we discovered an issue where in our app size increased by 25MB 😱.

Thankfully, the community also faced this issue and one of the fixes from this StackOverflow answer is to integrate a custom strip binary script as part of the build process, to help reduce app size considerably. This emergetools blog post explains the issue in depth.

So to be safe, measure your app size before and after the Xcode 14 update before releasing the update to your customers.