How to Get Started With iOS App Development on Windows
The mobile marketplace opens up abundant opportunities for developers today, but access to this market isn’t always straightforward. Gaining a presence on the iOS app store relies on specific hardware, software, and licenses that are distinct from those necessary for Android and generalized software development. Getting these without experience and investment in Mac and iOS technologies has been tough in the past. However, today there are options available that make iOS app development on Windows a real possibility for developers.
By providing access to a wider audience for developers and opening up new ways to market and distribute apps, mobile development has been a game-changing shift for development teams. Highlighting these changes, our article on the pros and cons of mobile app development takes a deep dive into what the marketplace and technology can currently achieve.
Since the iOS store was first launched in 2018, routes to reaching the application marketplace have often been opaque and cost-prohibitive for developers. How then, can we open up this marketplace with fewer technical hurdles and reduced operational costs?
Here, we take a look at the options currently open to developers aiming to build iOS applications from a Windows desktop environment. Sorting out the legitimate and practical advice from some of the more dubious options suggested online, we’ve gathered together the best options for building an iOS app store presence that will thrive for years to come.
The biggest hurdle to undertaking iOS app development on Windows lies in the setup of the technology itself. Publishing to the iOS marketplace requires developers to sign code in a macOS environment to produce a binary that can then be verified and deployed to the app store. A licensing restriction of gaining access to the iOS marketplace creates a hurdle that can be tricky and costly to overcome for teams.
From a technology standpoint, there’s little standing in the way of developers writing iOS code anywhere they like. Both Swift and Objective-C can be written, run, and tested using any code editor, environment, or platform an engineer prefers.
Using modern tools and IDEs, developers can even test and run iOS apps on their own devices from any platform they choose. The technical hurdles of iOS development on Windows are most prevalent when it comes to deploying apps to the iOS app store.
Deployment is a task that requires the use of Apple’s own IDE, Xcode. Containing the tools necessary to sign applications for the app store, Xcode’s app signing tools are a requirement for apps to be approved for release. Some additional limitations come with these licensing requirements such as the types of apps you can deploy, how you manage transactions, and a $99 annual developer license.
Since these restrictions came in with the launch of iOS, developers have been searching for ways around them, as well as looking for alternate ways to build and deploy applications within their existing workflows. Some of the methods currently employed to undertake iOS app development on Windows include:
1. Deploy a Virtual macOS Environment
A virtualized environment is one of the first options developers look at to host macOS on their current machine. The advantages of this approach allow for the environment to be rolled back as issues arise, shared with other developers, and deployed to continuous integration tools for testing.
In many organizations, this is a common way for developers to work on multiple projects across multiple environments and software ecosystems. When it comes to iOS development, however, this isn’t a viable option for professional engineering teams.
In its terms of service, macOS explicitly prohibits its use in virtual environments on non-macOS machines. A restriction that puts an instant pause on the idea for software vendors looking for a long-term legitimate presence in the marketplace.
2. Hackintosh Computers
There is a rich community of developers, enthusiasts, and users dedicated to installing macOS on non-Apple hardware. Affectionately labeled as ‘hackintosh’ computers, these devices come with more challenges and difficulties than you might imagine.
Hardware compatibility with devices outside of Apple’s ecosystem is awkward and patchy at best. Additionally, getting the software itself to do something it’s not designed for adds another significant layer to the challenge.
None of these technical challenges are the primary obstacle standing in the way of software vendors leaning on hackintosh machines to deploy software, however. Again, just like virtualizing macOS machines, it’s Apple’s EULA that prohibits this use case. Installing macOS on non-Apple hardware is explicitly against its terms and conditions and not a realistic option for software vendors.
3. Cloud-Based macOS Services
Having ruled out our first two options on licensing terms, let’s take a look at options that are both technically feasible and permitted by the Apple EULA.
The first is a service that provides access to macOS hardware and software remotely. Cloud-based macOS as a service allows remote connection from any Linux, Windows, or even macOS desktop machine for app development and deployment.
By running on macOS hardware, these services offer direct access to Apple-approved hardware and comply fully with Apple’s EULA. Prices start at around $25 a month and create an easy-to-use and affordable way to approach iOS app development on Windows. Three services commonly used by developers for just this reason include:
Offering comprehensive macOS development solutions, MacInCloud provides developers with dedicated and managed cloud mac servers. Starting at $25 a month, this solution suits developers learning iOS application development, building cross-platform applications, and deploying software for use in the marketplace from other environments.
A related solution that offers physical mac hardware as a service, MacStadium offers a reliable platform for developers to lean on to reach the iOS marketplace. Used extensively for DevOps, development, and testing—each of these services offers secure and scalable services to help developers deploy their applications.
One of the most trusted names in cloud computing, Amazon EC2 has extended its elastic compute cloud to include on-demand macOS workloads. This offers developers the scalability and flexibility to include Apple development in their existing workflows and processes—a notable advantage to those already invested in AWS technologies.
4. Cross-Platform Tools for Improved iOS Development
Our final solution for undertaking iOS app development on Windows does not rely on using a third-party service or breaking the EULA. Cross-platform application development is regularly used by firms to target building exceptional mobile applications to target each of the major mobile operating systems available.
These solutions allow developers to produce iOS apps without leaning on Xcode for functionality or interface design. There may still be a requirement, however, to use these tools for final publication depending on the type of app and method of distribution you plan to use.
If the app you are deploying is limited to users in a single organization, or just for learning how to build on iOS, then a Mac device might not be necessary at all when loading to a limited marketplace or when an individual device is available.
Some of the most productive and most user-friendly cross-platform frameworks appearing on our ultimate guide to mobile app frameworks include:
Microsoft’s industry-leading cross-platform framework is capable of targeting both Android and iOS as well as Windows, cloud, and smart-device platforms with C# code. When targeting iOS application development, Xamarin is capable of producing highly performant native apps that work across multiple ecosystems and devices.
For undertaking iOS app development on Windows, Microsoft’s tools include device simulators and resources that make debugging, testing, and writing iOS code as easy as any other platform.
The most popular cross-platform framework for the last two years running, React Native allows developers to build iOS apps in any development environment that fits with their workflow. As a powerful resource for app development teams, we’ve prepared a related article that compares React Native to another highly productive framework, Flutter, in our guide: Flutter vs React Native.
Titanium SDK (Formerly Appcelerator)
Building iOS App Workflows
There’s little doubt that undertaking iOS app development on Windows is outside of Apple’s original vision for how developers might use the platform. There’s a convincing school of thought, however, that tools should be built and deployed to suit the developer’s workflow rather than the other way round.
Each of these methods is commonly used to deploy iOS apps for hobbyists, independent developers, and organizations at various scales. Whether using cross-platform tools with Xcode to finalize and deploy apps, or a cloud-based mac solution for application development, there are methods to connect your apps to the iOS marketplace that don’t have to break the bank or interrupt your existing workflows.
Q1. Is Xcode available for Windows?
No, Xcode only works on macOS. There are many solutions published online to install Xcode on a Windows machine with varying degrees of complexity, compliance, and success. These include:
- Virtualizing a macOS environment on Windows. A solution that is technically valid and will provide developers with a macOS environment hosted on a Windows machine that Xcode can be installed to. This is explicitly against Apple’s terms of service, however, and not an option for professional software vendors
- Installing macOS on non-apple hardware. This solution is more technically challenging, fraught with potential pitfalls, and also against Apple’s EULA
- macOS as a cloud-based service. Developers can purchase remote macOS as a service to log in remotely to physical Apple hardware to develop, test, and deploy iOS applications. This is permitted by Apple’s terms of service and presents an excellent option for developers
Each of these services can provide an Xcode IDE running on top of a Windows environment. The only legitimate way to deploy applications that will ensure your place in the store and keep you on the right side of the EULA is to lean on physical Apple hardware either physically located or as a remote service to deploy your apps.
Q2. Can I use Swift on Windows?
Yes, Swift toolchains have been made available for Windows environments since late 2020. The latest release of Swift 5.6.1 includes Windows, Linux, and macOS downloads with the full ecosystem available to developers on each of these platforms.
There are ongoing efforts to port more and more of Swift’s highly capable libraries and tools to these platforms too. Developers on Windows can take advantage of these ports to use Visual Studio to build cross-platform applications in Swift. Already, Swift developers on Windows can take advantage of native Windows systems libraries and tools to create native applications.
Forward-looking technology efforts such as Readle have been testing and deploying Swift within the Windows environment since early beta releases back in 2019. These recent changes and improvements are growing the Swift language from its exclusive role as an iOS and macOS language to being a broadly applicable tool for application development.
Q3. Can an iOS developer work on Windows?
You can use the Windows environment to develop, debug, test, and deploy your iOS application to your own hardware or emulated iOS device. The largest obstacle to overcome is the inability to deploy iOS apps to the app store from a Windows environment.
Cross-platform solutions such as Xamarin, React Native, and Titanium provide developers with the tools and resources necessary to write and develop functionally complete iOS applications. For a developer, this provides a solution that allows them to incorporate iOS apps into their workflows, learn, and develop their ideas at a rapid pace.
When it comes to deploying to the app store, developers have to turn to physical macOS hardware to sign their apps and gain approval on the official app store. This can be done by purchasing a low-cost Mac mini, or using a Mac as a service solution in the cloud to use a remote machine.
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