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A developer's week working from the iPad

Marco Tabini | Feb. 6, 2014
Everybody knows the iPad is only good for consumption—but contributor Marco Tabini somehow missed the memo and used it as its primary development device for a week.

I was a little less impressed with Atlassian's HipChat, which we use for live chat among the team's members. While the app ultimately did its job, I couldn't get it to stay online while running in the background on iOS, and this meant that my colleagues would see me drop in and out of conversations when I—even briefly—switched to other apps while looking for a particular bit of information. To make matters worse, the service sends me an email every time I receive a message while I'm not online; you can imagine what my inbox looked like after a few hours of chatting.

Code, maestro

Most of my programming work involves server-side code—the kind that powers webpages, for example. For all practical purposes, this reduces my software needs to a good text editor and the ability to test the code I write.

While there are a few developer-oriented editors in the App Store, running server-side code on an iPad is out of the question due to Apple's sandboxing restrictions. Fortunately, solving this problem turned out to be very easy: I rented a virtual server from Digital Ocean, installed all the software I needed there, and then connected remotely to it via a secure terminal.

For the crazy price of $0.007 per hour (that's $5 for a full month, in case you're wondering), this gave me a working (albeit old-school) text-based environment in which I could edit and run all my code. I used iSSH to connect to the server from my iPad, and after a brief adjustment period in which I had to learn to use the venerable Vim all over again—which gave me repeated urges to chuck the tablet and keyboard out the window—I was able to work in more or less the same way I would have at home.

Browser schmowser

It wasn't until I needed to test something in Safari that I hit my first real wall. Apple used to equip iOS's built-in browser with a rudimentary debugging environment charitably called "Web Inspector." This wasn't nearly as sophisticated as the actual Web Inspector that you'd find in the OS X version of Safari, but it was good enough in a pinch.

Starting with iOS 6, sadly, the company has done away with the Inspector altogether, and the only way to debug Safari on iOS is to connect to it from a version of Safari running on a Mac. As you can imagine, this makes debugging any kind of browser code—particularly the kind you find in a complex Web app—essentially impossible.

I did come up with solution, though it's one I'm far from satisfied with: I used LogMeIn Ignition to connect to my Mac back at home and run things there. This approach turned out to be both laborious and frustrating, but I only had to do it once, and I did manage—barely-—to get the job done.


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