How to build an iOS App
Mobile applications are as in-demand as ever: they represent digital alternatives to many traditional tools and instruments we are already used to in our everyday lives. You can find a selection of apps to serve practically any need: whether you want to contact someone, keep a journal, solve work tasks away from the computer, read a book, kill some time, learn a new skill, order food, and so on. App development, unsurprisingly, is proving to be a profitable business – if approached with a well-thought strategy.
While most newcomers are looking for ways to build mobile apps on a minimal budget and timeframe, that might not be the winning tactic. App development is a multi-stage process that requires careful consideration, research, and user-oriented modification to attract a wide audience and bring revenue. That is especially true for iOS applications since Apple generally has higher standards and expectations for app security, stability, and value. In this guide, we will walk you through different ways to develop iOS apps, along with their cost, advantages, and drawbacks.
What is iOS App Development?
Every mobile device runs on a specific operating system, and models under Apple work on iOS. iOS development, therefore, is geared towards creating apps that will be applicable for distribution via the App Store and will have no performance issues running on any device: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, MacBook, etc. You can either create native, cross-platform, or web apps that will do the job.
Native apps are built using the two programming languages that are officially supported by Apple – Swift (the leading one) and Objective-C. For the development framework and app publication, you will need to use an Xcode IDE and beta-testing software called TestFlight. And technically speaking, they only run on a macOS-powered computer.
Benefits of iOS App Development
Apple stands out among other smartphone, tablet, and PC manufacturers by having a rather prestigious image. Owning an iOS-based device is often associated with a higher-class lifestyle, and users tend to stay loyal and are less likely to switch to Android. The global consumer statistics add to that perception: in 2021, the App Store received about 1.8 times the revenue of Google Play Store. An Apple app, therefore, has a higher chance of attracting more purchases and subscriptions, although that depends on the quality of your product as well.
Apple’s high standards for published apps, sometimes viewed as an obstacle, are in fact another significant benefit. Yes, you might need to spend extra time on design, coding, and testing to adhere to all the guidelines, but they are not meant as a complication for iOS developers. The existing requirements ensure a better user experience, fewer crashes, and higher data security standards like data encryption, which ultimately makes for a satisfied customer for you.
Finally, Apple has a more controlled and limited device pool, and regularly discontinues support for older releases and legacy products. This means you will only need to account for the officially maintained operating system versions, device characteristics, and screen measurements, without having to adapt your app to an inconsistent range of potential users.
Basic Requirements to Develop iOS Apps
For traditional iOS development, you will need to purchase or acquire a MacBook, as Apple’s official IDE, Xcode, works exclusively on macOS. The exact models are not specified but are implied by the required OS version, which can be found in the latest Release Notes on Apple’s website. For example, as of January 2022, Xcode 13 only runs on macOS 11.3 or later. Xcode is an application that contains all the necessary SDKs, toolkits, code samples, and simulators to help you build iOS apps.
You should also double-check the RAM and processor compatibility. 4 GB RAM should be enough. As for free space, the download size for Xcode 13 is listed as 11.7 GB, but in reality, it can take up more memory, some say even up to 40 GB. Once you have the proper device and install Xcode – it’s free – the next step would be to sign up for an Apple Developer account with Apple ID. The registration itself is also free, but in order to submit the final version of the app to the Store and continue showcasing it, an annual $99 fee is required.
To sum up, the three basic components are a MacBook, Xcode, and an active developer program subscription. However, before diving into app building, you should also get acquainted with Apple’s design and app review guidelines. They offer extensive information on the expected app safety, performance, general look, and data privacy. This is not a requirement per se but can help you save time and effort on creating solutions that are bound to be rejected by the moderation committee.
How to develop an iOS App step-by-step
Native iOS development can be roughly divided into several important milestones, and each of the stages can take anywhere from a few hours to a few months depending on the decisions you make along the way. The following sequence revolves around creating a standalone application – if you want to build an app as an extension of your existing business, check out our dedicated guide How to Make an iPhone App in 2022.
Step 1 – Generate an app idea
All apps start with a concept: if you already have something in mind, you can skip this step. Otherwise, you can approach the search for the perfect idea from a few different angles. The first is to channel inspiration from your own life. As a mobile user, is there a particular app you think you would find especially helpful, or missing functionality that, in your opinion, would benefit the users? Or maybe you can use a successful idea and bring it to your city, like a food delivery or flower shop aggregator app?
Alternatively, you can review the major App Store categories to narrow down the direction for your mobile application. In the first quarter of 2021, the top three app groups were Games, Education, and Business. Game apps are particularly popular but harder to create, given the advanced graphics and level variety. Either way, keep in mind that while the best-performing categories attract more attention, they also have more competition.
Step 2 – Do competitive market research
With the initial app concept in mind, you can research existing alternatives and look for similar applications in the chosen category or via a keyword search. A market overview allows you to make out your closest competitors, evaluate their strong and weak points, review monetization strategies, and monitor the audience’s reception towards them. With that relative knowledge, you will have more clarity about the primary and secondary features of your app. Additionally, this outlook helps you find the right way to position your product and give it a competitive edge.
Step 3 – Write out the features for your app
App functionality often acts as a defining factor in choosing the development direction, lining up budgets, and setting down timelines. That is because the more complex your app is, the more resources, time, and skills will be required to bring each feature to life. At this point, you should also separate the core elements that your app won’t function properly without from the extra ones that are not essential to it. During further design and development, you should focus on those defining items for the initial MVP release.
Step 4 – Make design mockups of your app
For future front-end and back-end development, you will need to prepare design mockups of your app. You can start with simple sketches, either made by hand or in a digital editor like Figma, to figure out the sequence and presence of each feature on different screens. Add buttons, fields, and other interface elements. The end goal is to prepare wireframes, which are detailed storyboards for all the different scenarios of how users interact with your app.
Step 5 – Create your app’s graphic design
While the previous step focused more on app usability, logic, and structure, you also need to figure out the colors, fonts, and styles. The resulting graphic designs will come in handy for the development and UI teams, an agency or a freelancer, or investors coming to product presentations. The current user interface trends tend are to go for a simple and smart look, maintaining the same concept throughout all screens. Unless you are well-versed in design yourself or have an in-house team, a consultation with a UX/UI specialist is highly recommended.
Step 6 – Put together an app marketing plan
Now, it might seem strange at first that an app marketing plan should come before the development stage and not after it, but it is a strategically wiser chronology. With literally millions of different apps already on the market, you will need all the recognition you can get to start warming up the audience even before the launch. Some of the preliminary activities to consider are creating a social media profile to document the development journey and get early-stage feedback, promoting a landing page or a website to collect potential user contacts, and building a media kit for future PR work and blogger collaborations.
Step 7 – Build the app with one of these options
After you’re done with all the preparations, you will need to figure out a suitable approach to build your iOS app. The options are: outsourcing the project to a development agency, hiring an independent contractor for the job, putting together your own team of coders or attempting to do it solo, and using app builders. The choice is dictated by your budget, experience, the native/web/cross-platform decision, and app complexity.
If your goal is to bring a simple app to life, you can do the coding and design yourself or turn to app builders – platforms with ready-to-use templates that you can alternate between and tweak to match your feature set and interface. They only allow for a certain level of customization but are very affordable and require little-to-no development experience. With the help of tutorials and samples, you can get to a working prototype within weeks or even days.
For more complex apps, you will need to find a freelancer or a development team with relevant experience: for example, for native apps, they must be fluent in Swift. With this option, you will have more responsibility and time investments as you will need to relay the main idea, set tasks, control deadlines, and offer guidance. For those who want to focus on the business side of things, development agencies that offer to make apps turn-key might be a good fit. Be prepared for a bigger budget and months of building in that case, though.
Step 8 – Test and debug your app
Testing is an essential step that will allow you to detect and fix possible performance issues before the app goes live. Once it is published, every little bug can ruin a user’s first impression, and you wouldn’t want them to uninstall your app over a crash and never get to the value behind it. Testing can also shed light on logic gaps and design drawbacks.
Here’s where you can use the Apple developer account to conduct controlled audience tests via a program called TestFlight. At this point, you will also need to obtain an iOS development certificate, which will assign your app with a unique identifier called App ID and give your profile a digital identity with a shared public key and a secret private key. The certificate system allows you to test the app on different devices, like real iPhones and iPads.
Gradually progress from a personal phone to multiple real devices to see how the app performs across different networks, screen dimensions, and processors. External tests involve asking several real users to download the app and give you feedback on their experience. Their opinions carry a lot of weight since, at the end of the day, every app is a client-oriented product. Be prepared to make adjustments and modifications for more usability.
Step 9 – Submit your app to the App Store
Once you’ve established that every feature works as it should, the app can handle increased mobile traffic, and testers are generally enjoying and understanding the functionality, you can submit your app to be published on the App Store. Prepare all the necessary information for the listing: name, icon, description, subtitle, screenshots, an optional video, and keywords for search optimization. The app will need to pass a manual review by Apple’s team.
Step 10 – Market your app for maximum exposure
Post-release marketing activities should be geared towards getting the attention of your target audience, raising awareness among them about your app, and obtaining more downloads and reviews on App Store. You can do PR work, focusing more on the development journey and app value, or partner up with tech bloggers and influencers to make reviews. If you have an existing contact base, social media and email marketing are also viable options.
Step 11 – Improve your app with user feedback
Managing an app is an ongoing process that doesn’t stop after the release. Besides the regular OS and device-related updates, back-end maintenance, and performance optimization, you will need to monitor user feedback for inconveniences, errors, and suggestions. Keep track of the statistics as well: the number of active sessions, device types, in-app purchases, retention rates, and downloads to have a better understanding of your audience and user behavior.
Top 7 technologies for iOS app development
iOS development is not limited to Swift and Objective-C, although they are the two primary programming languages for the job. Swift is relatively easy to learn, however, if you already have coding experience with different technology and are open to building apps in a non-native way, you can still put your knowledge to work with different instruments. Explore seven options or jump straight to the comparison of their pros and cons a little further below.
Swift is Apple’s officially supported programming language that was created specifically to develop iOS applications. It is quite beginner-friendly and easy to use. As Apple values safety and performance, the resulting apps are bound to offer a secure and seamless user experience. All the tools and libraries are regularly updated, and enable scalability as your app capacity grows. Among Swift cons, perhaps, is an emerging community that has yet to accumulate substantial experience and talent.
Objective-C is a subset of C which was initially used as a codebase for Swift creation. It is a stable and mature language that has been around for more than forty years and has a prominent community of experienced developers behind it. However, when compared to Swift, it lacks in code readability, compilation speed, security, and updates. For a newbie coder, it would also take more time to learn.
C# is an object-oriented programming language created by Microsoft as an alternative to Java. It runs in Visual Studio and .NET platform and is commonly used for creating Windows apps. In order to build your iOS application using C#, you can turn to Xamarin – an open-source cross-platform framework. It offers a universal API interface for access to SDKs and native iOS features. Unless you’ve had previous experience with the language, it might take a bit of a learning curve.
While HTML5 is mostly considered as a language for building websites, together with CSS3, JS, and a cloud testing service called PhoneGap under Apache Cordova, it can indeed be used to make apps suitable for iOS. The resulting application is essentially a mobile-responsive website that runs in a WebView browser inside a native container. However, the functionalities that come with this approach are perhaps the most limited among all.
Java is a flexible and highly functional programming language that is considered the main choice for Android development. For experienced coder teams that need to do a one-time iOS gig, there are cross-platform tools that allow for building for Apple with Java. One of them is called Codename One. The framework does not require any OS-specific hardware and has a lightweight architecture.
Dart is a unique language used within Flutter – a very popular open-source framework designed for cross-platform app development. It is backed by Google and represents a UI toolkit with a low-code builder for app functionality and a set of ready-made widgets to access native device features. Among other alternatives, Flutter was considered the most popular cross-platform technology of 2021, which makes for an extended community of experienced coders.
Cross-platform applications might lack a little in terms of performance and processing speed when compared to native apps. And unless you already know Dart, getting familiar with it might require a learning curve. However, you will be able to reuse most of the source code to make an Android version of your app, if that is something on the list of your future objectives.
How Much Does It Cost To Develop An iOS App?
The iOS app development budget depends on the chosen feature set, UI complexity, the used language and development framework, the approach and team selection, and the supporting infrastructures like data storage organization. If you are making a simple app with a no-code builder, you can usually test it out for a few weeks on a free trial basis, and then continue with monthly payments of anywhere between $25-$500.
Full app development cycles that take from three to ten months will require a considerably different budget. You can save some money with cross-platform tools and outsourcing. In general, a medium-complexity application built by Indian or European freelancers will cost you around $100,000-$150,000, on average. For a comprehensive app cost breakdown, read our dedicated blog post.
How to Develop an iOS App on Windows PC
The basic requirements for native iOS development clearly state that you need to work in Xcode, which only runs on OS X and Apple hardware. However, there are several ways around that restriction. You can imitate a Mac with the help of a virtual machine, rent one in the cloud, try to trick an incompatible device, code with a sandbox, or use cross-platform development tools. Be careful with the shady approaches, though – technically, they violate Apple’s End User License Agreement.
Use Virtualization Software and Install Mac OS on Your Windows PC
Virtualization software allows you to simulate a computer system to make its OS run as a guest on top of your current Microsoft Windows PС. There are several popular virtual machines that offer that service, like VirtualBox or VMWare. You will also need to have a copy of the latest macOS. For two Intel-based components, the process is significantly easier than attempting to run an ARM-based architecture above Intel processors, but the second option is still possible.
Rent a Mac in the Cloud
There are several services offering physical and virtual macOS hosts for rent. One of the examples is MacinCloud, with hardware in eight data centers around the world and a dedicated server pricing plan for full administrative access. 8 CPU Cores, 16GB RAM, 200GB SSD Storage will cost you $116 a month. Once you connect to the rented Mac (make sure the host computer is indeed a Mac) via remote desktop, you can create an Xcode account and proceed to work as usual.
Build Your Own “Hackintosh”
There are ways to install Os X on an unsupported computer, with enthusiasts providing step-by-step tutorials, advice, and a list of compatible hardware on dedicated “Hackintosh” websites. This is in direct violation of Apple’s License, so use this approach at your own risk. You will have to constantly monitor for patches to match every official update, deal with configurator bugs, and go around features not working the way they should.
Code with a Swift Sandbox
Since Swift is an open-source language, you can port it right into your Chrome, Safari, and Firefox browser. The code will be written in a Swift Sandbox and compiled on a webserver elsewhere. A sandbox separates all running programs and apps from each other for data security and information privacy. This method is suitable for early development and debugging stages.
Create iOS Apps on Windows with Cross-Platform Tools
As mentioned above, cross-platform frameworks allow you to create completely functional iOS applications without having to own a MacBook. The top services to consider are Flutter, React Native, Cordova, and Xamarin, and their relative pros and cons are outlined in the table above. For game app development, Unity 3D has proven to be especially effective in rendering high-quality visuals and graphics.