Tools of the Trade: AppCode, a breath of fresh air from the Xcode monoculture.

If you are a Mac or iOS developer for better or for worse there is no way around Xcode.

Xcode is free and full-featured, so why would you ever want to use anything else? This is the main reason why there are practically no other Mac OS X or iOS developer tools on the market today. There just isn’t any room for third parties for it to make economic sense to develop expensive developer tools.

The only other serious IDE for Mac OS X and iOS development is JetBrain’s AppCode and I’d recommend that every serious Apple developer should own a copy. While Xcode has evolved into a powerful and mostly stable tool, Apple has a lot of blindspots and Xcode is in many areas (at least) 15 years behind the top of crop. AppCode isn’t.

JetBrains is the powerhouse of Java development tools and they represent everything that Apple does not. Where Apple is closed, secretive and has a very paternalistic approach to its developer community, JetBrains is open, transparent, friendly and as cross-platform as it is possible to be.

The advantages for an Apple developer such as myself is that you get a peak at the world beyond Apple’s strictly enforced white room monoculture. Using AppCode is as much about growing as a developer as it is about efficiently developing software.

JetBrains offers IDEs that support nearly every language that is available and the more outrageously new and niche a language is, the more likely that JetBrains has a tool for it. This means that once you get used to the basic IDE concepts, you can take that expertise and use it for developing in other languages, on other platforms (Android, Windows, Web) and with other technology stacks.

I use WebStorm for my own website development, RubyMine for web app stuff and IntelliJ IDEA for learning functional programming in Scala. If I ever wanted to learn CoffeeScript, Dart or Haskell I know I’d be covered there too. On top of this JetBrains’ plug-in technology makes adding support for the latest and greatest open source technologies a breeze and JetBrains are very good at keeping an eye open for exiting new technologies. There’s a good chance that the first you hear about a new technology is by looking at JetBrains’ product release notes.

The AppCode IDE itself is very much in the mold of other Java development environments. The IDE can do everything and more, but it is also very busy and a long way from the pared-down minimalistic Apple aesthetic. It’s a nerdy power tool more than a philosophical statement.

JetBrains is rightly famous for their language parsing and refactoring acumen, so their IDEs are chock full of “intelligent” features. Not the kind of “intelligent” that makes everything harder, but the actual intelligent kind.

Navigating in AppCode is much more powerful than in Xcode. The gutter contains a myriad of options that will take you from method implementation to declarations and vice versa. You can also click and hold from class definitions to jump to super- and sub-classes, get in-line help and auto-fixing for commons problems. The as-you-type code analyzer finds potential problems and standard fixes, the code reformatting options are powerful and easily accessible. The intelligence extends to seamlessly into finding all places a piece of code is actually used rather than having to rely on text searches.

Best of all, however, AppCode can make changes to associated files without leaving the current file. The annoying roundtrip between implementation and header files that keeps interrupting your train of thought in Xcode can be wholly avoided. You write the implementation for a method and AppCode just offers you the ability to declare said method in the header with a single click without ever taking your eyes of the code you are busy writing.

Working in AppCode you constantly find yourself wondering why Apple can’t just do this. If it seems obvious, it’s in AppCode. Unfortunately this is rarely true for Xcode.

Refactoring is part and parcel of the AppCode experience and backed so far into the IDE that it becomes a nearly invisible part of your development. If you are used to refactoring in Xcode, you are likely to be non-plussed by AppCode’s refactoring support. Where Xcode makes a huge deal out of every refactoring: taking a snapshot, making you validate a thousand changes and more likely than not failing bang in the middle of the refactoring, AppCode just makes the changes with no fuss whatsoever. The first time I used the renaming refactoring in AppCode, I was wondering what I was doing wrong. I typed the new name into the red highlighted area and nothing happened! How do you terminate the editing? In fact, AppCode had already done the project-wide refactoring. Why make a fuss about it? Why could it fail? Why beach-ball for a few seconds? Why indeed?

AppCode enables you to work in a completely different manner to Xcode. Say you are into Test-Driven Development. Write the test cases first. When you instantiate your target class in the test class, AppCode will tell you that the class does not yet exist. A single click solves the problem by creating the class for you. As you write your tests, you can one-click to add method declarations and empty implementations. When you’ve finished with your test cases, there’ll be .m and .h files with complete stub implementations all without you ever leaving the test case implementation file.

Another big differences with Xcode is that where Apple knows everything best and either offers no customization or forces you to comply with their guidelines, JetBrains puts you in charge. Almost every aspect of the IDE is fully customizable: you can define your own coding style, which will cause AppCode to use your specific style to create stubs. You can even decide to reformat your code automatically before checking it into source control. You can (obviously) choose your own source code management system, add CocoaPods support, edit and preview HTML, CSS, Compass, TypeScript, JavaScript, files or add your own selection of plug-ins. In short, JetBrains is for grown-ups that like taking their own decisions.

Similarly, if you’ve ever felt the frustration of never being able to talk to anybody at Apple about Xcode, you will find the JetBrains support team a breath of fresh air. Something not working? Something not supported? Something you’d like to see added? Just drop them a line and an actual person will reply to you; better yet that person will be an approachable, open-minded fellow developer intent on helping you out. With JetBrains you’re the customer and you know best.

Seriously, just give it a shot. If only for a breath of fresh air.