Apple claims that anyone may now develop apps on the iPad, but the truth is more complicated

Apple’s New IPad Pro Is Its Vision for the Future of the Laptop

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.

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.

Here’s a lesson in Swift Playgrounds. Image: Apple
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.

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 right. Image: Apple
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.

A screenshot of Xcode on a MacBook Pro.
Here’s an Xcode interface on a MacBook. Image: Apple
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.”

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