fiji airways

Coding on a plane… on an iPad

The project

In my ongoing efforts to up my development game, I’m currently working on learning how to create an app that has user authentication. Adding authentication to the web app is completely new to me and as always I’m time-constrained. So when I found myself in a plane on the runway for over an hour thanks to a mechanical issue I thought why not try and get some study done on my iPad.

I had previously downloaded all my courses content on the Udemy iPad app. This was some luck on my part as streaming video content over a 4G data connection would quickly blow through my data cap which wouldn’t be ideal. I also had a bunch of dev apps I’d downloaded ages ago but hardly ever used.

The setup

I wasn’t sure how much I would really be able to do given I had a set of tools that I guess you’d call “non-traditional” from a web development perspective. Here’s what I used:

  • iPad Pro 10.5 – This continues to be a great machine for me. The screen size gives me a lot of flexibility without the bulk of the 12.7. It does have its limitations of course but increasingly iPad is filling more and more of my needs
  • iPhone 6s – My iPad doesn’t have LTE so I used my phone as a hotspot to connect to the internet
  • Textastic – While of course I wish had a text editor with all of the power of a desktop app, Textastic is the best I’ve found so far on iOS. The code highlighting is nice, it comes with a range of themes and custom fonts and works seamlessly with my iOS GitHub client of choice, Working Copy
  • Working Copy – This is one of those apps that constantly amazes me. It feels like this is an application that just shouldn’t be able to work on iOS but somehow it does. I had absolutely no issues connecting to my GitHub repos, downloading the latest build of the project I was working on, making changes in Textastic, then pushing those changes back to GitHub. Perfect!
  • Udemy – The work I was doing was part of the Udemy course I’ve been working through and thankfully the app supports downloading the course content to the device.

What works well

The fact this was possible at all feels sort of amazing. For the most part, the applications I used (listed above) did a great job at the basics and in some cases were far more. I think the thing that really stood out to me most was how the single view full-screen apps made me less likely to switch between apps and, as a result, help me focus on what I was doing more. That focus altered my workflow quite a bit. I’m not sure it was better or worse, but it was certainly different. Thinking about it I think I was far more likely to stay in my text editor and write code from my own mind rather than relying on the content of another window.

I also think the lack of some of the power features of a desktop text editor meant I was paying more attention to everything I typed. Not having the code editor automatically format my text for example really made me pay attention to how I was laying out my code because I knew it wouldn’t be reformatted on save. It will be interesting to see the differences between my handwritten code and what my normal beautified code looks like.

What could be better

Screen real-estate – Whenever you’re doing web development you need a few windows open at a time. You really can’t have too much screen real estate in this sort of work so a 10.5-inch screen is always going to be tight. Having said that it wasn’t horrible either.

Testing – The iPad doesn’t have a terminal nor can it run a node or mongo server so I wasn’t able to test my code. While it’s not a big deal given I was just following a tutorial I wouldn’t want to spend to much time working on something without being able to see the results of my efforts. That would run the risk of building issues on top of issues and it might lead to a lot of wasted effort. I could have used Panics excellent Prompt but the app I’m working on isn’t running on anything other than my local dev environment on my Mac. Sorting that from my iPad was more effort than I was prepared to make, although it probably could be done.

Textastic – I like the look and feel of Textastic but compared to my normal desktop setup it feels a li bit like coding in the dark. These may be features I’m oblivious to but I couldn’t see any form on code completion, code beautifying, or much beyond code highlighting. Not a deal-breaker of course but it’s another little thing that makes you less productive.

Udemy app doesn’t support split-screen – This really means a lot of switching back and forth between apps. Picture in the picture did work but because of the screen size, it made the screencast unreadable so that was of limited value.

I’m really interested to see how iOS continues to evolve as a part of my development workflow. With Apple splitting iPad off into its own OS (iPadOS) it’s difficult to imagine a future in which the iPad doesn’t become an even more capable development machine. With the increasing levels of support for external displays, full-blown safari support and other extended capabilities it’s not impossible future iPads might become fully capable dev environment. At least in some use cases.

The thing I’d like the most that would make the biggest difference is a terminal app. It’s a bit of a pipe dream as I can’t see Apple going that way, but I can dream, right?