Creating Multiple Scenes in a SwiftUI App

Updated on February 13, 2021

The latest iPad and iPad Pro devices are ripe and ready for more powerful business solutions. SwiftUI 2 has changed the application model but didn’t really explain how to support some of the features specific to iPads. In this post, I will describe how to use SwiftUI 2 to create multiple scenes in iPad applications.


One of the reasons for the success of modern mobile platforms such as Apple’s iOS and iPhone has been the simplicity of the application model. Since the beginning, iOS always provided a simple application model. The application would start by launching. At a certain point, it may move to the background. If the user switched back to the application, the application comes back into the foreground and starts running again. At some future time, if iOS needs to remove the application from active memory, it will safely terminate the application if it’s in the background. This model works so well because complexity is limited. There’s only ever one instance of the application running. There’s no need to synchronize shared resources between multiple copies of the application. Applications are sandboxed and containerized and don’t share resources with other applications, so conflicts between applications are pretty much non-existent.

From the introduction of the original iPad, we could all see where Apple was headed. The iPad is a fantastic consumer device and fills a need for users between having a lightweight phone for travel and a desktop or laptop computer. The iPad is the everything inbetween portable solution that enables us to read our email, read books, or browse social media while sitting in bed, or on the couch, or while eating at a restaurant or at the dinner table. The iPad is also portable enough to take to the park and work outside. But the original iPad led to the iPad Pro with Apple’s Magic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio, and Smart Keyboard. Apple’s goal wasn’t just to make a better portable device, but to provide a better platform for doing real work.

Applications for iPad also got stronger. Apple introduced split screen functionality letting two applications share the screen. Apple introduced drag-and-drop allowing sharing data from one application to another application. Imagine dragging an image from your photo library and dropping it into an email or a document. Microsoft produced full versions of Microsoft Office 365 that take advantage of the keyboard for typing in Microsoft Word, managing spreadsheets in Excel, or building presentations with PowerPoint. A number of editing tools such as Ulysses, IA Writer, Bear, Evernote, and others popped up to turn iPads with keyboards into full productivity machines.

With iOS 13, not only did Apple introduce a new way to build applications with SwiftUI, but Apple also introduced their first major revision to the application model directly for use in iPad applications. We still have the single application instance model that has been present in iOS since the start, but with iOS 13, Apple introduced the concept of scenes. Using scenes, iPad applications can present multiple tasks or windows concurrently. iPad applications are no longer limited to a single window and navigation tools such as split views or tab views to switch the user between tasks. Now iPad applications can display different scenes to allow users to perform different tasks concurrently, and the scenes can run side-by-side using the iPad split window interface.

In iOS 14, Apple expanded SwiftUI to support scenes as well. Up until iOS 14, iOS developers needed to implement their own application delegates and scene delegates in iOS 13. With iOS 14, SwiftUI gained its own application model, and its own way to manage scenes. While the SwiftUI support for multiple scenes works for about 80% of scenarios, there’s sometimes a need to handle something in the remaining 20%, and fortunately Apple’s developers left us with a hole to extend the SwiftUI application model.

In this post, I will show you how to use iOS 14 and SwiftUI to create iPad applications that support multiple scenes. I will show you how to launch new scenes, close existing scenes, and I will take you down the rabbit hole of routing external stimulus events such as push notifications and universal links to the correct scene to be handled.

The Application Model

External Displays
This post is going to assume the presence of a single screen, the device’s screen. In a future post, I will describe how to support external displays such as a television, computer monitor, or projector attached to an iPhone or iPad device.

Prior to iOS 13, the application model was pretty simple. iOS starts a single instance of the application and provides the application with a window that is connected to the device’s screen.

Pre-iOS 13 Application Model

At WWDC 2019, Apple introduced a new concept into the application model: scenes. Apple also introduced a split of the iOS operating system. While they’re still nearly identical, iOS was being targeted for use on the iPhone and the new iPadOS was introduced to provide iPad-specific features. While the APIs and the core kernels of the operating systems are identical, there are some features present in each that aren’t available on the other device form. While scenes are present in modern iOS applications, they’re really only utilized on iPadOS for iPad applications.

Scenes refactor and remove responsibilities from the UIApplication class and UIApplicationDelegate protocol and move those into the new UIScene class and UISceneDelegate object. The application delegate is still present and manages the application lifecycle events such as launching and termination, and manages global application state. Scenes and scene delegates take on more of the UI responsibilities and handle the application’s user experience being activated or moved to the background.

On an iPad, scenes also allow applications to provide multiple user interfaces for different tasks. Imagine a document editor similar to Microsoft Word. Instead of needing to manage a single user experience and provide a navigation mechanism to allow a user to switch between different documents, the application can now launch multiple scenes, hosting one document per scene. Each scene has its own window and can present its own user experience. Apple also added a new way to see all of the scenes that the application has created for the user.

Application menu showing the Show All Windows option

The new application model is shown in the diagram below. The application still has the single UIApplication instance that manages the application execution. Each application can have one or more scenes. Each scene has its own window with its own root view controller. Each scene can present and manage its own user experience.

Multiple Scene Application Model

Each scene does not need to present a unique user experience. For example, Safari on iOS presents the same tabbed interface for each window that it creates. An example of where alternative user experiences can be presented might be an email application. An email application may host the main email interface in one scene, but might allow the creation of new windows and scenes for viewing or creating an email.

Can We See Some Code Already?

Software Requirements
The rest of this post uses features in SwiftUI 2. The sample code in this post will only work on iOS 14 and newer. All of the code should work in the simulator as well as on a device.

Enough of the theory and explanation of multiple scenes. How do we implement multiple scenes using SwiftUI? I’m going to start by creating a new SwiftUI application in Xcode using the new SwiftUI lifecycle.

The new application will use the new SwiftUI lifecycle

By default, Xcode generates an application with a single scene:

The App protocol in SwiftUI replaces the presence of a UIApplicationDelegate object in UIKit and SwiftUI applications. SwiftUI will provide a default UIApplicationDelegate implementation that will work for most basic application cases. In this example, MultipleSceneApp implements the App protocol and implements the body property that returns a Scene value. The current implementation has a single scene, represented by WindowGroup that presents its user experience using the ContentView SwiftUI view.

The trick to understand in this implementation is that the App.body property is decorated using a special function builder named SceneBuilder. This function builder will allow multiple scenes in the body implementation and will wrap them all up in a composite scene that will be given to the application. The SceneBuilder function builder is the key that we need to implement support for multiple scenes for an iPad application.

Let’s start this exploration of multiple scenes by adding code to create a new scene. I’m going to remove the default implementation of ContentView and will replace it with a Button that when tapped will launch a new scene:

When I run the app initially in the iPad simulator, SwiftUI creates my main scene and hosts my ContentView in the scene:

Initial Scene

Tapping on the Create Scene button will cause the new scene to be created. The new scene is created by splitting the device screen and showing the new scene in side-by-side mode:

Multiple scenes running side-by-side

If we go back to the Home Screen, perform a long touch on the application icon, and choose the Show All Windows menu option, we’ll see both scenes appear and allow us to tap to resume the scene.

Sample application in Show All Windows

iPadOS and SwiftUI handle the creation of the initial scene automatically. Creating additional scenes is handled in the UIApplication object using the requestSceneSessionActivation function. When the application calls requestSceneSessionActivation and passes a nil reference for the first parameter, we’re telling UIApplication that we want to create a new scene instead of reusing an existing scene. The end result of this call is that UIApplication creates a new instance of the single WindowGroup that I defined in the MultipleSceneApp struct.

What if I wanted to create a scene with a different user experience? How can I achieve that? The answer leads us into an exploration of the NSUserActivity class and target content identifiers.

If you’ve been programming for iOS for a while and have been paying attention, then you should have noticed how NSUserActivity has been becoming more and more prominent on iOS. NSUserActivity was originally introduced in iOS 8 and powered such activities like Handoff, Siri Shortcuts, and Spotlight search. With scenes, NSUserActivity also became the basis of implementing state restoration by allowing scenes to store their state in an NSUserActivity object and restore it later (stay tuned for a blog post on that down the road). NSUserActivity is fundamental to the ability to create new scenes.

Typically an application is not going to create a new scene just because it can. Scenes will get created to perform a specific task such as editing a document, browsing a web page, editing a video, creating a new email, or performing some other kind of activity. In order to communicate the intent of what the new scene should be doing, the requesting scene can use an NSUserActivity object to transfer information to the new scene to use to start its execution.

In iOS 13, Apple enhanced the targetContentIdentifier property to NSUserActivity. NSUserActivity already supports an activity type which is intended to identify the data contained by an NSUserActivity object. The targetContentIdentifier property was added specifically to support multiple scenes by helping UIKit to route external events to the correct source. We’ll come back to this later in the post.

For the purposes of creating a new scene, we can also use targetContentIdentifier to tell UIApplication and SwiftUI which scene that we would like to create. To start off with, I need the content view for my second scene, which will be pretty simple:

Next, I will update MultipleSceneApp to create a new WindowGroup to host SecondSceneView:

Notice the addition of the handlesExternalEvents modifier on WindowGroup. The handleExternalEvents modifier allows me to specify the set of target content identifiers that the WindowGroup knows about. By default, a WindowGroup can handle all target content identifiers. In this case, I’m limiting the new WindowGroup to the target content identifier matching me.michaelfcollins3.MultipleSceneApp.SceneTwo target content identifier.

When I run the application, you’ll notice that the original scene is created first. When multiple scenes are provided in the App implementation, SwiftUI will always use the first scene specified as the default initial scene to use. When I request a new scene to be created and provide a target content identifier, then SwiftUI will look at all of my scenes and will try to find a match.

In order to create the second scene, I have to update ContentView to pass an NSUserActivity object to UIApplication.requestSceneSessionActivation. When I do this, I make sure to set the targetContentIdentifier property to me.michaelfcollins3.MultipleSceneApp.SceneTwo. When I create the new scene, SwiftUI creates a new scene using my second WindowGroup definition:

The new second scene is shown in side-by-side-mode

Closing a Scene

For some applications like the Safari web browser, creating a new scene and window for an application is all that you need and the user can use the Show All Windows view to dismiss windows that aren’t needed anymore. For other scenes that are more task-based such as creating an email or typing a note, you may want the application to dismiss the scene when the scene is no longer necessary. To do that, you need to understand the concept of the scene session.

If you think about the application that you are building, basically you are building a specification. Your application specifies the user experience and the behaviors and operations and how the application will react to user touches and data entry. When you or your customers run your application, iOS is creating an application instance that is based on this application. The application instance executes the specification and it is really the application instance that the user is interacting with. The application instance can terminate and the user can start a new application instance to interact with.

Scenes operate the same way. A scene is basically a specification and you are let SwiftUI and UIKit know what your default or initial scene is. If you create secondary scenes, you specify what the user experience is that should be presented for that scene and what target content identifiers the scenes can handle, as we have done previously. But when iPadOS creates and runs the scene, it is actually creating and running a scene session backed by the UISceneSession object that is running on your device and that the customer is interacting with.

When a new scene is started, iOS and iPadOS will create a new UISceneSession object and will tell your application that the scene session is starting. If you have a UIApplicationDelegate object, iOS and iPadOS will call the application delegate object to get the configuration settings for the new scene. If you define a UISceneDelegate object for the scene, iOS and iPadOS will call the scene delegate to let the scene delegate know that it is connected to a scene session.

If your application wants to terminate a scene, it needs to tell the UIApplication object to destroy the scene. The application can pass the UISceneSession object to the UIApplication.requestSceneSessionDestruction(_:options:errorHandler:) function and UIApplication will terminate the scene session.

With SwiftUI, there’s a little wrinkle in the plan here. The problem is that with SwiftUI 2’s new application model, there are no scene delegates. If you have examined SwiftUI, you have probably seen the UIApplicationDelegateAdaptor property wrapper. UIApplicationDelegateAdapter allows your application to specify and use a custom application delegate object to handle application lifecycle events such as starting analytics collection when the application launches or initializing the Core Data services. However, there’s no UISceneDelegateAdaptor property wrapper that you can use.

It’s not documented anywhere that I have found, and I found this out by submitting a question through Feedback Assistant to Apple, but if you configure a scene delegate either in Info.plist or in code in the UIApplicationDelegate.application(_:configurationForConnecting:options:) function, then SwiftUI will use it. If you do not implement the UISceneDelegate.scene(_:willConnectTo:options:) function will use the scene definition in the App type to initialize the presentation and this would be great for a multiple scene experience such as Safari where you leave it up to the customer to dismiss windows when they are no longer necessary. But if you want your application to be able to dismiss a scene, then you need to implement UISceneDelegate.scene(_:willConnectTo:options:) yourself to pass the reference to the scene session to your SwiftUI code.

To pass the UISceneSession object to my SwiftUI code, I will inject it as an environment variable in my root SwiftUI view for my scene. I will start by creating the custom EnvironmentKey type for the scene session:

Next, I’ll create the custom scene delegate for my second scene:

Because I am implementing the scene(_:willConnectTo:options:) function on my custom scene delegate, I don’t get the default SwiftUI implementation and I therefore need to create and configure the UIWindow object and the root SwiftUI view for the scene. Notice on line 17 how I am setting the sceneSession environment variable for the root view. This will make the UISceneSession object available to any SwiftUI view in the view hierarchy.

I will update my SceneTwoView to add a button to destroy the scene:

I will need to create the custom application delegate type to configure the scene with the custom scene delegate:

Instead of configuring the new session in code, I could define the delegate in the scene manifest in Info.plist. You always have that option. I did it here in code to make it easier to understand what’s happening instead of referencing the Info.plist magic.

Finally, I have to reference my custom application delegate in my MultipleSceneApp struct:

You’ll notice that I removed the second WindowGroup from the body property. Since I’m creating the scene in code in the scene delegate and configuring the activation conditions, there’s no point in having the second WindowGroup here. When I run the sample application now and create a new scene, I get the button to allow me to destroy the second scene:

The second scene is closed by destroying the session


SwiftUI 2 brings a very simple application model that at first appearance is very deceiving. The new application model isn’t as well documented as it should be and doesn’t initially answer a lot of questions. But in reality, SwiftUI is extremely extensible when it comes to adding custom application logic and supporting multiple scenes in an iPad application. In future posts, I’ll dive deeper into explicit use cases such as Home Screen quick actions, push notifications, universal links, and Handoff to show how to take full advantage of the multiple scene support of SwiftUI and the ability to use custom scene delegates to customize scene behavior.