Developing Apps for the iPhone and iPad

Some tips to help you get started in the world of iOS app development

Computer Programmers gathered around computers

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If you've ever wanted to try your hand at developing and iPad apps, there are lots of great tools and services out there to help you learn and get up to speed quickly.

The best thing about developing mobile apps is that anyone with a great idea can be successful. Of course, that doesn't mean it will be easy, but you won't know how successful you can be until you try.

So how do you get started developing iOS apps?

Try, Try, Try

The first step is to play around with the development tools. Apple's official development platform is called Xcode and is a free download. You won't be able to put your apps up for sale without a developer's license, but you can play around with the environment and find out how long it might take to get up to speed.

Apple introduced the Swift programming language as a replacement for Objective-C, which was sometimes painful to use for development. As the name implies, Swift is a faster platform. While it may not lend itself to rapid application development, it is much quicker than Objective-C.

You will need a Mac to develop iOS applications, but it need not be the most powerful in the world. A basic MacBook is more than sufficient for creating most iPhone and iPad apps.

Third-Party Development Tools

What if you've never programmed in C? What if want to develop for both iOS and Android? What if you need a platform designed for building games? There are a number of great alternatives to Xcode that are available, as well as a number of iOS emulators that may prove useful.

It is always good to stick with a native platform. If you code iOS apps using Xcode, you always have access to the latest features of the operating system. But if you plan on releasing your app for multiple platforms, coding it in each is going to eat up a lot of time and resources.

Here are some of the most popular third-party tools available for iOS app development:

This list is by no means complete. There are other development platforms, such as GameSalad, that allow you to build apps without any coding at all.

Unity

Unity is a 3D graphics engine that includes a physics engine. It is primarily used for developing 3D games, although it recently added 2D support. Unity can be used for iOS, Android, Windows, macOS, Linux, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch. This makes it a great choice if you plan to release a game on multiple platforms, but while it has tools to help you build your game, it isn't quite as rapid-development as some of the competition.

Corona SDK

The Corona SDK uses LUA as a development language and then re-compiles to Objective-C. And because LUA is quicker to write, apps can be built much faster. Corona specializes in 2D graphics and includes its own physics engine. You can also compile for both iOS and Android from a single set of code. Corona supports building native Windows and macOS apps, but it doesn't support consoles like the PlayStation or Xbox. Corona is a great choice for 2D games and casual games.

Adobe AIR

Those with a background in Flash will be interested in Adobe Air, which uses a combination of ActionScript, HTML, CSS, and Javascript to build applications. Adobe AIR allows deployment on iOS, Android, Windows, and other platforms.

Marmalade

Formerly called Airplay SDK, Marmalade is taking the write-once-run-anywhere philosophy one step forward by supporting multiple languages. Primarily, Marmalade supports C, but two variants provide a bridge to the base SDK: Marmalade Quick, which uses LUA; and Marmalade Web, which uses HTML 5, Javascript, and CSS 3. Marmalade is primarily used for developing 2D and 3D games.

PhoneGap

Web developers will be interested in PhoneGap, which uses JavaScript, HTML 5, and CSS3 to create web apps with a mobile look and feel. PhoneGap can also build native apps by encapsulating the code in a web object within the platform. It can be used for iOS, Android, WebOS, Symbian, Ubuntu Touch, and Windows development.

Refine Your Idea and Adapt iOS Best Practices

It's a good idea to download apps that are similar to the one you're developing to get an idea of the competition. Pay close attention to both what works and what doesn't — there's no need to fix what isn't broken. If you can't find an exact match for your app, download something similar. 

You should also get out a pencil and some paper. Developing a graphical user interface (GUI) for the iPhone and iPad is different than developing for the PC or the web. You will need to take into account the limited screen space, the lack of a mouse or physical keyboard, and the use of the touchscreen. It can be a good idea to draw out some of your screens and layout the GUI on paper to see how the app might work. This can help in compartmentalizing the app and provide a logical flow for its development.

You can get started on the GUI by reviewing the iOS Human Interface Guidelines at developer.apple.com.

Apple's Developer Program

Now that you have a refined idea and know your way around the development platform, it's time to join Apple's developer program. You will need to do this in order to submit your apps to the Apple App Store. The program costs $99 per year and offers you two support calls during that period, so if you do get stuck on a programming issue, you have some recourse.

You will need to choose between enrolling as an individual or as a company. Enrolling as a company requires legal documentation such as Articles of Incorporation or a Business License. A Doing Business As (DBA) trade name does not fulfill this requirement. 

Push Hello, World to Your iPhone or iPad

Rather than jump straight into app development, it's a good idea to create a standard "Hello, World" app and push it to your iPhone or iPad. This requires getting a developer's certificate and setting up a provisioning profile on your device. It's best to do this now so that you won't have to stop and figure out how to do it when you get to the Quality Assurance stage of development.

Start Small and Go From There

You don't have to jump directly into your big idea. If you know the app you have in mind may take months and months to code, you can start small. This is especially effective if you are new to building apps. Isolate some of the features you want to include in your app and build a similar, smaller app that includes those features. For example, if you know you will need a scrolling list with the ability for the users to add items to it, you could first build a grocery list app. This would allow you to experiment with coding specific features before you get started on your big idea.

You will find that the second time you program a feature it is always quicker and better than the first time. Rather than making major mistakes working on your big idea, this will allow you to experiment outside of the project. And if you develop a small app that's still marketable, you can make some money while you learn how to code your bigger project. Even if you can't think of a marketable app, simply playing around with a feature in an isolated project can be a good way to learn how to implement it in your main project.