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Easy way to create Xamarin.iOS binding from CocoaPods

Hey, Xamarin developers! Developing iOS apps quite often includes using native libraries and Xamarin for iOS supports this by creating bindings. This was 100% manual process until ObjectiveSharpie. After, ObjectiveSharpie began supporting CocoaPods (it is NuGet for iOS developers, so everything is in there). However, it doesn’t work in many cases (it can’t build something or reflect ObjectiveC code correctly).

Also, sharpie doesn’t support dependencies within pods. This is where the new objc-automatic started.

But first, let me show you a demo how easy it is to create Xamarin.iOS binding for cocoapod.

Prelude

Imagine you have to use Firebase/Analytics in your Xamarin app (Now, there is a NuGet for that, but let’s rewind to the point where there wasn’t one). You would go ahead and create binding for that library, right. Unfortunately, Firebase/Analytics is what I call an umbrella pod. It has no code, just dependencies.

So, instead, you need to go and create bindings for pods like: FirebaseCore, FirebaseInstanceID, GoogleInterchangeUtilities, GoogleSymbolUtilities and GoogleToolboxForMac/NSData+zlib. Literally, out of nowhere amount of work exploded. Now you need 5 bindings instead of just one. ObjectiveSharpie won’t help us with that.

Interesting, FirebaseCore also has dependencies. So, you need to create 5 Xamarin.iOS binding projects, do the code, reference them correspondingly and then you will have a binding for Firebase/Analytics.

Few questions arise: - How do you distribute that? Single binary? Many binaries? NuGet package or packages? - How do you version that? 1.0.0 is not an option, and Firebase/Analytics is updated often. Oh, yes. Each of these pods has it’s own version.

If you choose NuGet packages, then you also need to reference packages same way as pods and Xamarin.iOS projects.

Frankly, I tried to do that manually. After Firebase/Core and Firebase/Analytics I understood this is hard. I couldn’t imagine I will do that again when version 3.7.x of Firebase is released. Not mentioning sometimes you have to redo bindings to fix incorrect signature or binary

Automate all the things.

We’ve been using F# FAKE for Xamarin iOS/Android builds for a long time and I love it. I decided to try F# FAKE with this problem as well.

First, the tool generates correct tree of dependencies. Downloads all metadata about pods. Versions, frameworks, linker flags, dependencies, etc.

Then, for each of the pods it create a subfolder inside bindings and puts there Xamarin.iOS binding project with C# API surface generated by sharpie. It adds all linker flags, puts the iOS binary in there, adjusts the references to the dependencies (other Xamarin.iOS binding projects).

Now, you can build these Xamarin.iOS bindings using Xamarin Studio.

Turns out, it takes quite a time for XS, so the tool also creates podname.build.sh script to go ahead and MSBuild all the projects in correct order.

So the flow would be: run the script, see the errors, fix the errors, run it again (you can probably put it on –watch do run continously).

Now you have the .dll files with bindings. (pss, there is also a linker side of that story, take a look at Linker.cs files)

Demo time!

Here are few videos showing how to use objc-automatic and how it works internally.

Binding Firebase/Analytics using objc-automatic

How objc-automatic works

NuGet side of things

For the NuGet distribution, you want to have same tree of packages with same versioning.

objc-automatic tool does that for you. Along with projects, it generates packages.config and .nuspec files for each of the CocoaPods. It also enhances podname.build.sh script to build packages and restore packages in correct order when building Xamarin.iOS binding projects. For this goal tool creates local temporary NuGet feed and publishes built packages and restores dependencies from this source.

You want to be sure people can later restore our packages and have everything working (at least - compiling).

.nuspec files will contain versions, metadata, everything needed.

Does it work?

It worked for quite many cocoapods I used to test it with. More importantly, it worked with Firebase pods. For the lottie-ios it took around 1 minute to generate the bindings infrastructure (projects, NuGet package specs). Around 1 more minute to run lottie-ios.build.sh and have NuGet package ready for publishing.

I’m not trying to brag here, just saying that basically compiling lottie manually and launching Xamarin Studio would take around that time. In first place, the objc-automatic tool aims for complex pod bindings with dependencies.

One binding sometimes is really hard to crack. Having 6 of them is even harder.

Dicsoveries

  • Turns out, ObjectiveSharpie can’t bind all the cocoapods.
  • ObjectiveSharpie doesn’t bind correctly some of the classes from iOS frameworks (misses casign of the managed class name)
  • Sometimes you need to direct ObjectiveSharpie into correct set of header files, otherwise it skips some classes. C# API surface shows less than it should
  • Xamarin.iOS linker doesn’t understand that Xamarin.iOS app might be using a binding that might be using another binding. The latter one gets lost durign compilation process.
  • Xamarin.iOS binding projects are actually very smart with .frameworks.
  • You can test complex NuGet package dependency scenario locally using local NuGet source
  • You can create Xamarin.iOS binding with just Terminal and VS Code. Nice.
  • It is so hard to debug F# FAKE scripts (ionide-fake VSCode extension doesn’t help)
  • CocoaPods spec can be a mess. Definitely moving forward I need to restructure this piece.

Disclaimer

This tool works as it is. There are still things to improve and fix (ZendeskSDK and AWSCognito pods are examples). Not all metadata flows from pod to NuGet package. Tool is opensourced and everyone is welcome to use it and improve it.

Thank you

Big thanks to Xamarin Team (Miguel and Bill) who helped taming Xamarin.iOS linker. Thanks for F# FAKE team, this is a great tool to start with.

And thank you for your interest and feedback. I appreciate any positive or negative feedback about objc-automatic and value any success or failure story using this tool.


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