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Microsft Smooths iOS Development with Xamarin in New Visual Studio Preview

Ever since Microsoft acquired Xamarin and infused its cross-platform tooling into the Visual Studio IDE, the company has been seeking to ease the cumbersome process of iOS development, which requires hooking up to a Mac machine.

Microsoft did ship the Visual Studio for Mac IDE -- based on Xamarin Studio, in turn based on the open source MonoDevelop IDE -- but it also has steadily been trying to improve the iOS/Xamarin development process in Visual Studio on Windows with tools such as Xamarin Live Player. It lets coders continuously deploy, test and debug apps using just Visual Studio and an iOS or Android device.

The just-released second Visual Studio 2017 15.6 preview continues to smooth the experience of incorporating a Mac machine in the iOS development workflow using Xamarin, using an automation approach.

However, to the consternation of some developers, a Mac machine is still required. For example, at a recent Visual Studio Live! conference, Microsoft's Matthew Soucoup demonstrated pairing his Visual Studio project to an iPhone for live debugging. This prompted several audience questions about whether a Mac really was needed for iOS development.

The ultimate answer was "Yes." It's still required when it comes time for App Store deployment.

"You always will need a Mac," Soucoup told the audience. "Will it get better? I would hope so." The senior cloud developer advocate said he hopes the workflow and tools will eventually reach a point where everything can be done on a Windows machine.

That point isn't here yet, but the process is getting easier.

Microsoft explained how it automated the Mac provisioning process in the new preview. "Rather than manually maintaining a Mac build machine, all you need to do is connect to the Mac, and we’ll handle the heavy lifting of installing and configuring your build machine with the correct Xamarin.iOS and Mono bits, all from Visual Studio," Microsoft's Pierce Boggan said in a Xamarin blog post Wednesday.

Another iOS-centric enhancement related to Xamarin Live Player allows for live XAML previewing with the built-in iOS Simulator.

Visual Studio 2017 15.5 -- which shipped last month -- provided the ability to preview real-time XAML changes directly in the Android emulator with no recompile or redeploy. Now, in the second 15.6 preview, that functionality has been added to the Remoted iOS Simulator for Windows, which lets developers test and debug iOS apps entirely from the Visual Studio IDE on Windows.

That Remoted iOS Simulator now comes with all editions of Visual Studio (as of version 15.5), even the free Community Edition.

Furthermore, iOS developers will welcome the capability to deploy their iOS apps over the network via WiFi, obviating the need for more pesky cables. Coders need only set up a wireless device in the Xcode IDE on a Mac, after which it will appear in Visual Studio like any other deployment target.

Other improvements noted by Boggan include:

  • Support for the CoreML framework introduced with iOS 11, letting iOS apps can take advantage of trained machine learning models to work with the CoreML framework
  • Xamarin.iOS 11.8
  • Xamarin.Android 8.1
  • Enhancements to design-time build performance for Android developers (affecting solution load and providing metadata for IntelliSense, among other things)
  • Static analysis for Xamarin.iOS projects

Developers can try out all of the above via the Visual Studio Preview installer, which allows for putting the previews through their paces alongside other VS installations without affecting current setups.

About the Author

David Ramel is the editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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