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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

A wild idea for WWDC: Developer Mode for iPadOS

Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.

iSH running on iPad
iSH will give you a command line on iPad, but it’s Linux running on a virtualized Intel processor.

With less than a week between us and WWDC, it’s a great time for wild ideas about what Apple could do, even though the conventional wisdom says they won’t ever do that thing. In most cases, these wild ideas never come true—but sometimes they do. Because Apple has never lost its capacity to surprise us.

So let me pitch a wild idea. For a few years now, there’s been discussion about how one day iOS, or at least the iPad, will need to become a full-fledged app development platform in order to become a Real Computer. I have never really bought into this rather arbitrary line of thinking, but if Apple truly believes the iPad has all the real-computer power most people need, at some point it needs to bring professional-level apps to the party. And one of those would be a tool for software developers.

I don’t expect Apple to ever roll out full-bore Xcode on the iPad. But a tool that goes way beyond Swift Playgrounds and lets developers build iPhone and iPad apps right on the iPad? Sure, I can see that. I won’t say it would bestow magical Real Computer powers on the iPad, but it certainly would send a better message about the iPad being a professional device than an update to Pages would.

Elsewhere, I’ve advocated for other features that would allow the iPad to approach the functionality of my Mac. Most of the automation I do on my Mac takes advantage of the Unix command line that lurks beneath the surface, most commonly manifested via the Terminal app. While plenty of developers have experimented with bringing command-line power to iOS in ingenious ways like emulating Intel x86 devices, this is really a Pandora’s Box that Apple should open, in the most secure and appropriate way possible.

But these two observations really go together. Developing software isn’t always about writing iOS apps. Xcode comes with a whole host of command-line tools. Sometimes you need to compile source code, or cryptographically sign a file, using command-line tools on the Mac. Why not make those tools available on the iPad, too?

So here’s my wild idea: Apple should introduce a Developer Mode to iPadOS. Like ChromeOS’s Developer Mode, this should be a feature that’s off by default and that requires users to enable several scary options in order to get access to the power of developer tools, including access to the command line and the ability to compile and run all sorts of software on your device.

Do I think this will ever actually happen? No, not really. I suspect Apple will eventually release a software development app and will never offer anything resembling a command-line prompt. But you know what? Sometimes Apple does surprise us. And adding a whole bunch of features developers use every day to the iPad would be one great WWDC surprise.

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