Have a Windows computer and want to develop iOS apps? It’s not easy, so you might be thinking of giving in and buying a Mac computer instead. Before you do that, read this tutorial. We cover six ways to build iOS and iPadOS applications on Windows.
If you’re an aspiring Android developer, don’t miss our guide that will help you get started developing Android apps on Windows.
Why It’s Hard to Develop iOS Apps on Windows
Apple’s walled garden makes it almost impossible to develop iOS apps without a Mac. Xcode, the sole integrated development environment (IDE) for building iOS apps, is only available on macOS. Important development features, like simulating an iOS device on the computer, are only possible with Xcode installed.
Unlike Google’s Play Store, which allows uploading apps via a website, the only way to upload iOS builds to Apple’s App Store is by using software tools exclusive to macOS: Xcode, Transporter (a macOS exclusive app), and the Altool command line program. It is literally impossible to publish an app on the App Store without using macOS.
But considering how expensive Mac computers are, simply buying a Mac computer is not an option for many people. Fortunately, there are a few ways to develop iOS apps using just a Windows computer. One approach is using Windows to access a macOS machine and developing the entire app using Xcode. Another is to write the code on Windows using cross-platform development tools. Read on to learn the specific options for both of these approaches.
1. React Native and Expo
React Native is even better when you use it with Expo, a collection of helpful development features. For developing on Windows, the Expo Application Services (EAS) are especially important: they provide a way to build and submit your iOS apps in the cloud. While Expo itself is free, EAS is paid.
2. Flutter and Codemagic
Flutter is Google’s framework for building cross-platform applications using the Dart programming language. The main distinction between Flutter and React Native is that Flutter doesn’t use native UI components, instead compiling to native code, giving it even faster performance.
Codemagic is a paid cloud service that lets you build and publish your Flutter iOS apps without a macOS computer.
Haxe is a programming language that can build applications for a huge number of different platforms, including iOS. It’s a great choice if you want your application to run everywhere: desktop, mobile, and Web (both frontend and backend). While it’s very popular with game developers, Haxe can still be used to build iOS apps with static UI.
Haxe is a jack of all trades but a master of none. As its strength comes from building applications for many platforms, it won’t have features tailored specifically to iOS app development, so you may not get the native look and feel of iOS that you would with React Native.
Have a new interest in programming? Check out the best YouTube channels that can teach you how to code.
4. Adobe AIR
If you have experience developing with Adobe Flash or Actionscript in the past, then Adobe AIR might be right for you. Being based on Flash, AIR makes it easy to build rich and animated experiences, like 2D games, with a single codebase for multiple platforms. With AIR’s toolchain, you can generate Android, iOS, and desktop app files directly on Windows. When used in conjunction with Adobe’s Animate CC, it becomes the fastest way to bring your idea to the screen.
One downside is that AIR’s vector-based graphics lead to high battery and CPU usage. Additionally, to achieve core functionality like in-app purchases, third-party software called AIR Native Extensions (ANEs) are needed. These are usually not free.
Under Harman, the AIR platform itself may cost you money too. You can use Adobe AIR for free if you make under $50K a year in revenue. However, this free tier requires including an AIR splash screen in your application. Paid tiers with no splash screen, starting at $199 a year, are required for anyone making more revenue.
5. Rent a Mac in the Cloud
A legitimate but pricey option is paying to access a real macOS machine in the cloud. You can do this by paying providers like MacinCloud, MacCloud, or MacStadium a recurring fee. If you go with this method, it’s best to rent it for the minimum amount of time you need to build and upload your app, then cancel it as soon as you’re done. You would do almost all of the programming on your Windows machine using one of the development methods listed above, then send the output to the macOS cloud instance for building/uploading.
6. Install a macOS Virtual Machine
If you still want the full macOS + Xcode development experience, you can install a macOS virtual machine (VM) on your Windows computer. This is nice, as you get all of the native development tools that Apple intended you to use to build iOS apps. You can do all of the design, programming, building, and uploading to the App Store entirely on macOS with this option.
Good to know: don’t want to wait until the official release of the latest macOS version? Install the beta version and enjoy upcoming features sooner.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Adobe AIR still functional?
You may recall Adobe killing Flash and turning Adobe AIR over to a different company, Harman, effectively abandoning the AIR platform. While this is true, AIR is surprisingly still viable today.
Harman appears to be doing a great job actively developing and improving the AIR platform. They are working on an AIR developer website with documentation, tutorials, and community discussion. There appears to be a decent amount of community interest, so continued support for AIR is likely. However, AIR is nowhere as popular as other platforms.
Is it better to develop an app for the iPad or iPhone?
If your development platform doesn’t make it easy to build for both iPhone and iPad, then choose the iPhone. More people carry iPhones with them and are more likely to use your app when outside. Additionally, an iPhone-designed app can still be used on iPad, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true.
How do I test an iOS app on Windows without an Apple mobile device?
Using BrowserStack’s App Live service, you can upload any IPA file to a physical Apple mobile device, then use the device directly in your browser to test and debug your app.
How can I share my iOS app without publishing it on the App Store?
You can upload your app file to Diawi for a shareable install link. Anyone can install your app with the link, though it can only be used 25 times when using a free Diawi account. While it is extremely limited, Diawi is your best bet on Windows, as uploading to TestFlight is only possible with macOS.
Image credit: Pexels. All screenshots by Brandon Li.
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