Apple says you can build apps on an iPad now, but devs say the reality is trickier

Apple’s latest iPad Pro is its most powerful tablet yet. And going into WWDC 2021, many viewers (myself included) had long wishlists of features we were hoping we might finally get to see — multiuser support, a more advanced Files app, native support for Final Cut and Photoshop, better compatibility with external displays.

We didn’t get many of those dream features, but we did get something of a surprise: Apple announced Swift Playgrounds 4, the newest version of its Swift Playgrounds sandbox, a program Apple SVP Craig Federighi claimed will bring “a whole new dimension of productivity to iPad.” It was a quick announcement that was easy to miss in the flurry of new tools that crossed the stage. But developers say it will drastically lower the barrier to entry for new iOS developers — and may gesture at more exciting iPad features to come.

Swift Playgrounds isn’t a new app. It’s been available on the iPad for years, and it recently came to macOS as well. In the past, though, it’s largely been an educational program targeted at children. It introduces new coders to Swift through a friendly and colorful series of puzzles. It hasn’t, in the past, been seen as a tool to develop real apps.

But Swift Playgrounds 4 is the first iteration of Swift Playgrounds that could function as a standalone developer tool. There are some new features that will make the process of building apps easier. Notably, you can view a live preview of the app you’re building on the side of your screen as you’re working on it, which changes when you change your code. You can run the app full-screen to test it as well. But the biggest news is: not only can you create apps in Swift Playgrounds 4, but when the update is available later this year, you’ll be able to submit them to the App Store directly from within Swift Playgrounds.

“Xcode’s powerful, it’s great, but it’s very complicated.”

This is a big deal because it allows developers to bypass the long, involved process that’s currently required to distribute software. Apps for the Apple ecosystem are not currently built in Swift Playgrounds or anything nearly as fun and colorful; they’re largely built and distributed in Xcode, a massive and complicated application that only runs on Macs. It’s famously difficult to learn.

In addition, the process of getting an app from Xcode to the App Store has a number of complex steps and requires a developer account, other programs to be installed, and a whole slew of videos, screenshots, graphics, and other assets to be uploaded to Apple’s platform called App Store Connect. It’s a barrier to entry for new developers. App Store Connect is a pain in the neck for even professionals to navigate, says Matt Weinberg, co-founder of digital agency Happy Cog, who has been building apps for over 15 years.

“Xcode’s powerful, it’s great, but it’s very complicated,” Weinberg tells me. “There’s a lot of people who have the idea to code, have the idea for an app, and then realize there would be 50 steps on App Store Connect. We do this professionally, and it’s hard for us to even figure out App Store Connect. This will help them really get apps up.”

Tucker Haas, co-founder and CEO of the finance app Quo, who has built over a dozen iOS applications, feels similarly: “When I was first learning to program iOS apps over 10 years ago, it was a daunting task full of hurdles just to get the development environment set up,” he tells me. The new Swift Playgrounds, he says, will make things “a hundred times easier for new developers.”

Weinberg also thinks the real-time preview feature will help keep new developers engaged. “It’s kind of hard to overstate how big of a deal that is, that you could be writing on your iPad and as you’re writing code you’re getting a preview of your actual app,” he says. “That moment where you write a piece of code and you hit ‘run’ and it works, and you see something, I remember that, and it was 25 years ago. I think Apple is doing a really good job making that moment a lot quicker and a lot easier for people.”

Developers have been calling for an Xcode equivalent for the iPad for years now, and the reasons why are obvious. As Verge writer Paul Miller argued back in 2018, such a program would give new coders who got their footing through Swift Playgrounds a way to graduate into “true application developers” without having to buy a new device.

iPads are also more affordable than Macs, and Xcode for the iPad could make app development more accessible for small businesses and new developers who want to stick with an iPad as their primary driver. “This is most significant for those learning programming who want to avoid that higher barrier to entry of getting a Mac,” Haas says. “The cost of building a simple utility app and getting it on the App Store has now dropped several hundred dollars.” And even for professional coders, an iPad could be useful as a secondary device for use on the go and for passing around among collaborators.

“The cost of building a simple utility app and getting it on the App Store has now dropped several hundred dollars.”

But Swift Playgrounds 4 isn’t the big announcement the developer community was waiting for. It has significant limits and lacks several advanced tools — debugging and profiling tools, versioning, storyboard integration, support for third-party packages, etc. “Swift Playgrounds is great for experimenting and debugging code, but it is missing many of the features … required to make fuller-fledged apps,” Haas explains. He says the program is “perfect for developing small utility applications, such as a to-do list, but currently incapable of building the next Angry Birds.”

And for some developers, the convenience of the iPad’s form factor is outweighed by the limitations of its software — which persist, despite the new power of its chips. “Software development is not just code typing,” says Serg Krivoblotsky, technological R&D lead at the software development company MacPaw. “It’s also tons of browsing, reading, quick switching between different tools and applications. All this stuff is still more convenient on the desktop.” And of course, plenty of programs developers use on Macs, like code analyzers, debugging tools, and system profilers, aren’t yet available for iPadOS.

That doesn’t mean Swift Playgrounds 4 is useless to professionals. Many people I spoke to were excited by the real-time preview function, which can help users visualize their code as they’re writing it and present it to clients and collaborators in a more accessible format. Weinberg thinks it might be helpful for real-time brainstorming. “I could easily imagine during prototyping, sitting there with clients, sitting there with partners, and they have some ideas, and us just literally building versions of their ideas,” he says.

“I cannot wait to get my hands on Swift Playgrounds 4,” says Chris Wagner, an engineer at the software agency MartianCraft. Wagner plans to use it to “iterate on features in isolation — that is, write components on iPad and bring them into larger Xcode projects.”

“I cannot wait to get my hands on Swift Playgrounds 4.”

Of course, some professionals may use it for fun. “I could see myself writing an app on the side,” says Cory Bohon, another MartianCraft engineer who uses a Mac for work, but an iPad Pro as his personal device.

But the most significant thing about Swift Playgrounds 4, to the developers I spoke to, is what it indicates about Apple’s vision for the future of the iPad. To many, it is a hint that coding on iPads is a priority for Apple — and that “Xcode on iPad,” and perhaps a user interface that better complements it, might be on the way.

“I treat the new feature as an important first step towards bringing Xcode to the iPad,” says Vira Tkachenko, CTO of MacPaw. “The talks about Xcode coming to iPad have been going on for a while. It looks inevitable with the M1 processors on Macs, and Apple is gradually laying the groundwork for merging macOS and iOS.” Tkachenko tells me she “can’t wait to see real Xcode on iPad.”

When Apple announced the M1 iPad Pro, I argued that Apple should allow the device to run macOS. After all, the iPad has hardware that makes up for the MacBook Air’s greatest weaknesses, and plenty of Big Sur’s features would take good advantage of its touchscreen capability. And it seems like we’re reaching a point in the evolution of Apple’s hardware where the MacBook can do everything the iPad can do, while the iPad can still only do iPad things (even though plenty of “MacBook” tasks could take good advantage of its unique form factor, hardware, and touchscreen).

So after watching this keynote and after speaking to the people who use this stuff day in and day out, I’m optimistic. Moving app development to the iPad is a sign that Apple (contrary to its own insistence) is thinking of the iPad in this way. It’s thinking of the iPad as a MacBook alternative. It’s starting to bring over tasks that would never have been possible before. Maybe we can expect Xcode or something similar suited to its form factor. Maybe we can expect an iPadOS better suited to app development down the line. Regardless, it seems like we might see more where this came from — at least, I certainly hope we will.

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