Apple says you can build apps on iPad now, but reality is trickier

Apple’s newest iPad Professional is its strongest pill but. And going into WWDC 2021, many viewers (myself included) had lengthy wishlists of options we had been hoping we’d lastly get to see — multiuser assist, a extra superior Recordsdata app, native assist for Remaining Lower and Photoshop, higher compatibility with exterior shows.

We didn’t get a lot of these dream options, however we did get one thing of a shock: Apple introduced Swift Playgrounds 4, the latest model of its Swift Playgrounds sandbox, a program Apple SVP Craig Federighi claimed will convey “an entire new dimension of productiveness to iPad.” It was a fast announcement that was straightforward to overlook within the flurry of latest instruments that crossed the stage. However builders say it’s going to drastically decrease the barrier to entry for brand new iOS builders — and will gesture at extra thrilling iPad options to return.

Right here’s a lesson in Swift Playgrounds.
Picture: Apple

Swift Playgrounds isn’t a brand new app. It’s been obtainable on the iPad for years, and it lately got here to macOS as effectively. Prior to now, although, it’s largely been an academic program focused at kids. It introduces new coders to Swift by way of a pleasant and colourful collection of puzzles. It hasn’t, prior to now, been seen as a instrument to develop actual apps.

A screenshot of Swift Playgrounds 4 on an iPad. Code is on the left side. On the right side is a preview of a simple to-do list app.

Code on the left, preview on the proper.
Picture: Apple

However Swift Playgrounds 4 is the primary iteration of Swift Playgrounds that would perform as a standalone developer instrument. There are some new options that may make the method of constructing apps simpler. Notably, you possibly can view a stay preview of the app you’re constructing on the aspect of your display as you’re engaged on it, which adjustments once you change your code. You’ll be able to run the app full-screen to check it as effectively. However the greatest information is: not solely are you able to create apps in Swift Playgrounds 4, however when the replace is offered later this yr, you’ll be capable of submit them to the App Retailer immediately from inside Swift Playgrounds.

This can be a massive deal as a result of it permits builders to bypass the lengthy, concerned course of that’s at present required to distribute software program. Apps for the Apple ecosystem are usually not at present inbuilt Swift Playgrounds or something practically as enjoyable and colourful; they’re largely constructed and distributed in Xcode, an enormous and complex utility that solely runs on Macs. It’s famously troublesome to study.

A screenshot of Xcode on a MacBook Pro.

Right here’s an Xcode interface on a MacBook.
Picture: Apple

As well as, the method of getting an app from Xcode to the App Retailer has numerous advanced steps and requires a developer account, different applications to be put in, and an entire slew of movies, screenshots, graphics, and different property to be uploaded to Apple’s platform referred to as App Retailer Join. It’s a barrier to entry for brand new builders. App Retailer Join is a ache within the neck for even professionals to navigate, says Matt Weinberg, co-founder of digital company Blissful Cog, who has been constructing apps for over 15 years.

“Xcode’s highly effective, it’s nice, but it surely’s very sophisticated,” Weinberg tells me. “There’s lots of people who’ve the thought to code, have the thought for an app, after which understand there can be 50 steps on App Retailer Join. We do that professionally, and it’s exhausting for us to even determine App Retailer Join. This can assist them actually get apps up.”

Tucker Haas, co-founder and CEO of the finance app Quo, who has constructed over a dozen iOS purposes, feels equally: “After I was first studying to program iOS apps over 10 years in the past, it was a frightening job stuffed with hurdles simply to get the event setting arrange,” he tells me. The brand new Swift Playgrounds, he says, will make issues “100 occasions simpler for brand new builders.”

Weinberg additionally thinks the real-time preview function will assist preserve new builders engaged. “It’s sort of exhausting to overstate how massive of a deal that’s, that you might be writing in your iPad and as you’re writing code you’re getting a preview of your precise app,” he says. “That second the place you write a chunk of code and also you hit ‘run’ and it really works, and also you see one thing, I keep in mind that, and it was 25 years in the past. I believe Apple is doing a extremely good job making that second rather a lot faster and rather a lot simpler for individuals.”


Builders have been calling for an Xcode equal for the iPad for years now, and the the explanation why are apparent. As Verge author Paul Miller argued again in 2018, such a program would give new coders who acquired their footing by way of Swift Playgrounds a technique to graduate into “true utility builders” with out having to purchase a brand new system.

iPads are additionally extra inexpensive than Macs, and Xcode for the iPad may make app improvement extra accessible for small companies and new builders who need to keep on with an iPad as their main driver. “That is most important for these studying programming who need to keep away from that increased barrier to entry of getting a Mac,” Haas says. “The price of constructing a easy utility app and getting it on the App Retailer has now dropped a number of hundred {dollars}.” And even for skilled coders, an iPad could possibly be helpful as a secondary system to be used on the go and for passing round amongst collaborators.

However Swift Playgrounds 4 isn’t the massive announcement the developer neighborhood was ready for. It has vital limits and lacks a number of superior instruments — debugging and profiling instruments, versioning, storyboard integration, assist for third-party packages, and so on. “Swift Playgrounds is nice for experimenting and debugging code, however it’s lacking most of the options … required to make fuller-fledged apps,” Haas explains. He says this system is “good for creating small utility purposes, comparable to a to-do record, however at present incapable of constructing the subsequent Offended Birds.”

And for some builders, the comfort of the iPad’s type issue is outweighed by the restrictions of its software program — which persist, regardless of the brand new energy of its chips. “Software program improvement is not only code typing,” says Serg Krivoblotsky, technological R&D lead on the software program improvement firm MacPaw. “It’s additionally tons of searching, studying, fast switching between totally different instruments and purposes. All these items remains to be extra handy on the desktop.” And naturally, loads of applications builders use on Macs, like code analyzers, debugging instruments, and system profilers, aren’t but obtainable for iPadOS.

That doesn’t imply Swift Playgrounds 4 is ineffective to professionals. Many individuals I spoke to had been excited by the real-time preview perform, which can assist customers visualize their code as they’re writing it and current it to shoppers and collaborators in a extra accessible format. Weinberg thinks it may be useful for real-time brainstorming. “I may simply think about throughout prototyping, sitting there with shoppers, sitting there with companions, they usually have some concepts, and us simply actually constructing variations of their concepts,” he says.

A screenshot of a simple to-do list and journal app being run as a preview in Swift Playgrounds 4 on an iPad.

Right here’s a stay preview of an app inbuilt Swift Playgrounds.
Picture: Apple

“I can not wait to get my fingers on Swift Playgrounds 4,” says Chris Wagner, an engineer on the software program company MartianCraft. Wagner plans to make use of it to “iterate on options in isolation — that’s, write elements on iPad and convey them into bigger Xcode tasks.”

In fact, some professionals might use it for enjoyable. “I may see myself writing an app on the aspect,” says Cory Bohon, one other MartianCraft engineer who makes use of a Mac for work, however an iPad Professional as his private system.

However essentially the most vital factor about Swift Playgrounds 4, to the builders I spoke to, is what it signifies about Apple’s imaginative and prescient for the way forward for the iPad. To many, it’s a trace that coding on iPads is a precedence for Apple — and that “Xcode on iPad,” and maybe a person interface that higher enhances it, may be on the way in which.

“I deal with the brand new function as an essential first step in direction of bringing Xcode to the iPad,” says Vira Tkachenko, CTO of MacPaw. “The talks about Xcode coming to iPad have been occurring for some time. It seems to be inevitable with the M1 processors on Macs, and Apple is steadily laying the groundwork for merging macOS and iOS.” Tkachenko tells me she “can’t wait to see actual Xcode on iPad.”

When Apple introduced the M1 iPad Professional, I argued that Apple ought to permit the system to run macOS. In spite of everything, the iPad has {hardware} that makes up for the MacBook Air’s best weaknesses, and loads of Huge Sur’s options would take good benefit of its touchscreen functionality. And it looks like we’re reaching some extent within the evolution of Apple’s {hardware} the place the MacBook can do the whole lot the iPad can do, whereas the iPad can nonetheless solely do iPad issues (despite the fact that loads of “MacBook” duties may take good benefit of its distinctive type issue, {hardware}, and touchscreen).

A screenshot of a notification that says “Upload Succeeded!” overlaid over a coding interface in Swift Playgrounds on an iPad.

Add succeeded!
Picture: Apple

So after watching this keynote and after talking to the individuals who use these items day in and day trip, I’m optimistic. Shifting app improvement to the iPad is an indication that Apple (opposite to its personal insistence) is considering of the iPad on this manner. It’s considering of the iPad as a MacBook different. It’s beginning to convey over duties that will by no means have been potential earlier than. Perhaps we will count on Xcode or one thing related suited to its type issue. Perhaps we will count on an iPadOS higher suited to app improvement down the road. Regardless, it looks like we’d see extra the place this got here from — a minimum of, I definitely hope we are going to.