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Not all aspiring iOS developers own a Mac, which makes the struggle for iOS development on Windows quite tough. For a long time, iOS development wasn't possible on any computer device that didn’t run on macOS. In the past, many other third-party cross-platform solutions like PhoneGap and Titanium promised high-performance and alternative development environments, but they did not really deliver much. Today, you cannot use a Windows PC out of the box for iOS development, but you can develop, deploy, debug, and test your iOS application on Windows using different techniques.
Cross-platform solutions have limited capabilities and can be good enough for business applications. They do not use Swift or Objective-C at all and therefore do not need macOS or Xcode. If your app will use low-level hardware sensors like shooting 4K videos using AVFoundation like the Filmora app, or you want AR integration or highly responsive customized UI, your choices will be limited.
Xcode is Apple's IDE for the development of iOS and macOS applications. Xcode is a Mac-only application and not available for use on any other computer operating system. iOS developers using Windows PCs face a real challenge when trying to find an alternative for Xcode.
Yes, you can develop, but you cannot test and publish it without a Mac. You can opt for cross-platform solutions like Xamarin, React Native, Flutter, Ionic/PhoneGap, and more for development. Here are some of the most popular cross-platform mobile development frameworks which you can use on Windows:
There are now some applications that can be used to replace Xcode and get the job done, but none of them offer the experience that Xcode does. One of the most commonly used alternatives is Xamarin.
Xamarin is a third-party open-source framework to develop cross-platform apps using C# by Microsoft. Previously, it had a standalone IDE called Xamarin Studio but now it can be added as a plugin in Microsoft Visual Studio. Originally based on Mono, Xamarin is now fully integrated within the .NET framework, allowing users to benefit from memory allocation and garbage collection.
Xamarin enables developers to program cross-platform apps in a single language, C#, which can then be compiled into native assembly code. So far, Xamarin may sound like a great option with loads of features, but there's a limit to it.
One limitation is designing the UI of iOS apps. Xamarin deprecated its Xamarin Designer a few years back, depriving developers of using Xcode for creating layouts. Such steps have increased more dependency on Macs than Windows.
Xamarin does allow you to create iOS apps on Windows, but you would need a Mac to test it. It would be best to ensure that the Visual Studio IDE you are using for Xamarin development on Windows is paired to a Mac build host. The reason is obvious, to run an app you need an iOS SDK which bundles all the needed libraries and frameworks. This is not available outside Xcode developer tools. You cannot use it to run on a simulator unless you are connected to a Mac for testing.
A new feature called "Hot Restart" provides a very basic possibility to let you run an iOS app on the iPhone from Windows. It has its own set of limitations like it does not support static libraries or storyboards. It could be a breakthrough, but only time will tell.
React Native does provide what they call 'Native Components'. These are some UI components that developers can write using React but at runtime, it creates corresponding native iOS views. After completing your application, you can run and test it on your Windows PC using an emulator of your choice but not iOS. The official docs clearly state that you can launch your app on an Android Virtual Device or iOS Simulator using macOS only.
React Native still doesn’t have a big enough Native Components library and still, you would need a Mac to run it on iDevice, upload your apps on the App Store and reach out to the market of Apple users.
So far, the furthest we can go on a Windows PC is coding an app. But that is not all. There are a few ways you can go beyond these limitations and test apps on iOS simulators and publish them on TestFlight or the App Store if you don't have a Mac computer.
Now, this can solve some serious problems! What if you keep developing an app on Windows and occasionally use a macOS environment in Windows to test and deploy? You can do that with Hackintosh or Virtual machines. There is an ugly truth that you really need a high-end computer - like Intel Xeon - to run a Hackintosh or Virtual machine and even then provide a fraction of performance. Here are few options you would like to spend some effort on:
A Hackintosh is a system that runs Apple's macOS on the computer using unauthorized means. Apple's license for macOS only allows the operating system to be used on Apple devices.
The computer architecture used for Macintosh is similar to what most Windows laptops use. This leaves behind low or no chances of compatibility issues when running a macOS on a different computer. Lately, Hackintoshes have been famously prepared on AMD processors because of the introduction of the powerful AMD Ryzen and Threadripper. As Apple transitioned to Intel long back, Intel processors are preferred for Hackintoshes.
It is important that you are using a Windows machine with the required specs as mentioned on the official website. Preparing a Hackintosh can be time-consuming but it saves you a lot of money compared to buying a Mac. Here is a great source guiding from scratch on how to prepare a Hackintosh.
Many users have been posting their Geekbench scores showing the performance loss they bear. You may need to make sure you own enough computing power, SSD, and a huge memory.
Once your Hackintosh is ready, you are able to move past all the limitations of iOS development on a Windows PC. You are now no longer using Windows OS, but Macintosh itself. You can perform all the actions from using Xcode, preparing, developing, debugging, running, compiling an application, and finally uploading it on the App Store.
There is still another way of running macOS on your Windows PC. it might be faster than Hackintosh but it has its limitations as well. Yes, a virtual machine can run macOS.
A virtual machine creates an environment on the device where the OS runs like it's running on the original hardware. To create a virtual machine, you need to use software like VirtualBox or VMWare. This process is called virtualization and can help you run different operating systems, including Windows, Linux, macOS, etc.
Apart from the virtual machine tool, you need a disk image of macOS with you to be able to make the OS work on a virtual machine. There is no official way to run macOS on a virtual machine in Windows. You can download the OS from Apple itself and make a disk to mount in a virtual machine. You may need to do some unlocking and configuration, you can find a good solution here.
Once you have macOS running on your virtual machine, you can perform all the actions like using Xcode and upload your app on the App Store. VirtualBox is open source but the VMWare license costs you a hefty amount of money, so only go with this option if you are already set with virtual environments.
iOS developers that use macOS often rely on the built-in simulator that comes with Xcode. However, iOS developers using Windows have to pick the right option from a few. You cannot run iOS simulators on Windows.
One great emulator is Appetize.io. This is a web-based application that you do not need to download to bother what OS you are using. All you have to do is upload your app and test run it. Developers can use Appetize according to their needs. The software allows hundred minutes of free testing for your app per month. It is further followed by paid plans costing you from $40 to $2000 per month.
If you are developing an app using non-native hybrid platforms based on web technologies like Ionic or React you can use any browser to see the look and feel of the app. Only a handful of emulators allow you to run an app on your Windows PC and see how it works. Again you can just test on Android during the development and then may use CI/CD services like CodeMagic and Travis to test your app on iOS devices via Cloud. Would that be good enough if your app is going to be used by millions of users?
While there are a number of ways you can try to develop an iOS application on Windows, it is still not recommended. The biggest reason is to test your app you cannot run an iOS simulator on Windows straight away.
You can continue developing an app using ReactNative or similar cross-platform, test it on any other simulator like Android, and use Mac rarely to deploy apps for testing. Still, you could face a thousand issues before you successfully manage to complete one of these ways and get started with your development. But then again, you will still have other worries about uploading the app on the App Store.
It would be easier if you managed to purchase an older version of a Mac and directly started using Xcode on that. Old Macs run really fast and are a great value for money. You will have no trouble compiling your code and testing it on the Xcode emulator. You won't have to worry about making it on the App Store as well. Plus, you can always use a Mac to develop other great languages like Java, Kotlin, C#, C++, Python, PHP, etc.
Many people still use Windows devices to develop iOS applications but they go through a series of challenges before their devices are capable of delivering the results they need. It may feel cool to accept the challenge, but you will be fed up after some time as a developer.
Do you think we missed out on an important approach to iOS development? Share your views in the comment section below.
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