Skip to content

So you don’t like your IDE

There are many different tools for writing Objective-C code, though of course many people never stray much beyond the default that’s provided by their OS vendor. Here are some of the alternatives I’ve used: this isn’t an in-depth review of any tool, but if you’re looking for different ways to write your code, these are tools to check out. If you know of more, please add to the comments.

In most cases, if you’re writing Mac or iOS apps, you’ll need the Xcode tools package installed anyway in order to provide the SDK frameworks (the libraries and headers you’ll be linking against). The tools basically provide a different user interface to the same development experience.

A word on IDEs. The writers of IDEs have an uphill struggle, in that every user of an IDE assumes that they are a power user, though in fact there are a wide range of abilities and uses to which IDEs are bent. My experience with Eclipse, for example, ranges from learning Fortran 77 to developing a different IDE, in Java and Jython, using the same app. Visual Studio is used to write single screen line-of-business apps in Visual BASIC, and Windows. Different strokes for different folks, and yet most IDEs attempt to accommodate all of these developers.


CodeRunner is not a full IDE, rather it’s a tool for testing out bits of code. You get a syntax-highlighting, auto completing editor that supports a few different languages, and the ability to quickly type some code in and hit “Run”. Much simpler than setting up a test project in an IDE, and only a handful of denarii from the App Store.


AppCode is the engine from well-respected IDE IntelliJ IDEA, with Objective-C language support. Its language support is actually very good, with better (i.e. more likely to work) refactoring capabilities than Xcode, useful templates for creating new classes that conform to protocols with default implementations of required methods, and quick (and useful!) navigation categories.

AppCode uses Xcode project files and workspaces, and uses xcodebuild as its build system so it’s completely compatible with Xcode. It doesn’t support XIBs, and just launches Xcode when you try to edit those files.

It’s also important to notice that AppCode is currently available under an “early access” program, with expiring licences that force upgrade to newer builds. There’s no indication of when AppCode will actually be released, and what it will cost when it gets there. For comparison, the community edition of IDEA is free while the “Ultimate” edition costs anything up to £367, depending on circumstances.


Emacs’s Objective-C mode is pretty good, and it can use ctags to build a cross-file symbol table to provide jumping to definition like a “real” IDE. In fact, it would be fair to say that emacs is a real IDE: you can interact with version control directly, do builds (by default this uses Make, though you can easily tell it to run xcodebuild instead), run your app through gdb and other goodies.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that emacs is only a powerful tool in the hands of those who are comfortable with Emacs. It’s only because I’ve been using it forever (I actually started with MicroEmacs on AmigaOS, and wrote LISP modes in my Uni days) that I even consider it an option. It’s nothing like an app on any other system: Cocoa’s field editor supports a subset of emacs shortcuts but otherwise emacs feels nothing like a Mac, UNIX, Windows or anything else app. (Before the snarky comments come in, vim is just as odd.)


There are more ways out there to write your Objective-C code than just Xcode. These are a few of them: find one that works well for you.