Why I don’t want Xcode on the iPad — macOS and iPadOS

With the impressive announcement of the latest iPad Pro’s now being available with the M1 chip, seems like a whole lot of people (in the communities I follow) are talking about the announcement with a general theme of “WTF are we going to do with that chip in there?” Often they’re Apple-platform developers and saying “Boy, wouldn’t it be freakin’ awesome if we could use Xcode on the iPad?!”. I don’t want Xcode on the iPad. I used to think I did, or that it might be useful, but I’ve reconsidered. My reasoning stems from the different underlying constraints of iPadOS vs. macOS – some physical, some philosophical. I don’t want to these constraints to go away. I value each in their own context. And I hope that these various different operating systems aren’t ever fully merged, exclusively choosing one set of constraints over the other.

Personal vs Multi-user

iOS — and its younger, larger sibling iPadOS — are all about being a personal device. I love these kinds of devices, using them regularly. These devices are, very intentionally, single-user. My iPhone is MINE, and while I might hand it to someone else, everything on it is associated with me. Any accounts, all the related permissions – they’re all about me or echo’s of me. There’s no concept of a “multi-user” iOS device*.

(*) Yes, I know there’s unix deep under the covers which fully supports a multi-user Operating System. The way the device is exposed to me – a developer and consumer of it – is all about a single individual user.

macOS, on the other hand, is built from the ground up as a multi-user system. It supports, if you want to use it, multiple people using the same device at the same time. You “log in” to macOS, and “your account” has all the details about who you are and what permissions, constraints, etc – you can do. In practice, this ends up mostly being a single person working on a single macOS device, at any given time. The underlying concepts that allow for multiple users are there, dating back to the earliest UNIX shared-system semantics with multiple users. As a side effect of that fundamental concept, macOS supports multiple programs running in parallel as well, which segues into what I think is the major philosophical difference between these two kinds of devices: focus.


Somewhat related to the personal vs. multi-user difference is an element of “focus”. I also tend to think of this as overlapping a bit with a concept of “foreground” vs. “background” applications. iOS and iPadOS are fundamentally more focused devices. The expectation, and design, of the device and operating system is that you’re doing one thing – and all of your focus is on that one thing. Everything else is off in the background, or more likely put on a side-shelf out of view and quite possibly paused.

Yeah, there’s the iPadOS split screen setup that makes my previous statement a hasty generalization. I think it’s a weak-ass stab at doing more than one thing at once, a worthy attempt to see if would be sufficient , but near useless in most of the scenarios I’ve tried. The iOS family (iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and watchOS) all seem to share this concept of “doing a single kind of task”, and translating that into “focused on a single application”.

macOS, with it’s multi-user background, does a bunch of stuff in parallel. There is still a concept of foreground and background, and more usefully a concept of one application that’s focused and primary. Almost more importantly is how the operating handles the parallel stuff that you might talk about being in the background. The key is that what runs in the background is (generally) under the control of the person using the device. If I want to run half a dozen programs at the same time – that’s cool – the system time-slices to try and give all of them relatively equal waiting and effort. With iOS, you’re either in the foreground – and king of the world – or background – and extremely limited in what you can do, and often on a clock for the time remaining to do anything. The iOS based operating system can potentially kill a background app at any moment.

Multiple Windows

The other way the macOS “focus” and “parallel apps” concept shows itself is in windowing. On iOS, your app isn’t resizable, and for all practical purposes, you’re working in a single window — that takes over all the screen real-estate — to do whatever you’re working on.

In comparison, macOS has multiple windows, that you can resize and place however you choose. Well, mostly however you choose – there are limits. The ability to control the size of a window and place it allows you to prioritize the information contained with it. I end up setting window size and location, almost unconsciously, based on what I’m doing. You can have a front and center focus, but still have other information — updating and live — easily available with almost no context switching needed. You can choose what you’re mixing and when. The multiple window paradigm expanded years ago to include the acknowledgement of multiple kinds of spaces – even switching between them – as well as multiple physical displays.

Integrating Knowledge

The multiple windows — with different apps in various windows, all more-or-less resizable — is why I prefer macOS over iPadOS for almost all of my “producing” work. I use multiple programs at once, very frequently because I want to bring together lots of information from disparate sources and use it together. It’s almost irrespective of what I’m doing – being creative, reviewing and analyzes, following up on operational tasks, etc. For me it all boils down to the fact that most of the work I do on a computer is all about integrating knowledge.

Often that combination is a browser, editor, and something else such as a terminal window, spreadsheet, or image editor (such as the super-amazing Acorn). Sometimes it’s multiple separate browser windows and an email program. When I’m developing and working in Xcode, I frequently have multiple browser windows, a terminal, and Xcode itself all up and operational at the same time. I use the browsers for reading docs, searching Google (or StackOverflow). I often keep others apps running in parallel – Slack, email, and sometimes Discord. With these apps nearby, but not intrusively visible, I get updates or I can context switch into them to ask a “WTF am I doing wrong” question of cohorts available through the nearby applications.

I can’t begin to do this on iPadOS without a huge amount of friction. Switching contexts and focus on iPadOS and iOS is time consuming and you’ve got to think about it. It takes so much time and effort, that you’re breaking out of the context of what you’re trying do. On top of that, you can’t really to control the size of the windows on the screen to match the priorities of what you’re working on – it’s more of an “all or nothing”.

I think its obvious, by when I’m doing something that’s more “consuming” focused – reading, watching, etc – then iOS based devices can excel. No distractions, and I can focus on just what I’m trying to read, learn, understand, etc.

What I have found to be effective is using an iPad in addition to macOS. Using the features of Continuity and Universal Clipboard, an iPad becomes a separate dedicated screen for a single purpose. It’s not uncommon for me to have slack, email, marking up a PDF, or a scribble/sketching program (such Notability or Linea Sketch) running on my iPad as almost another monitor for the same system. Then there’s the even-more personal use of watchOS to interact with the Mac. Authenticating that I’m there and unlocking macOS, or using it to verify a system permission for doing something. I don’t know the name of that feature, but I use it all the time.

Not all of my tasks are about integrating knowledge, but almost all my technology or creative work certainly is. In the cases where I’m working on a single thing and want to exclude all distractions and other information, iOS and iPadOS are beautiful. But that’s comparatively rare; almost always when I’m doing something that’s purely solo-creative such as drawing, writing, taking photo’s, or filming. Anything where I need, or want, to mix information together, especially any form of collaboration, begs for the multiple windows, sized for their individual tasks, and background programs running on my behalf.

So thanks, but no: I don’t want Xcode on the iPad.

Published by heckj

Developer, author, and life-long student. Writes online at https://rhonabwy.com/.

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