Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Objective-C Memory Management & Garbage Collection

This article started out as a presentation I did for the Des Moines Cocoaheads.


Objective-C Memory Management is something i've seen new people to Cocoa & Objective-C mess up in ways I could just not conceive of on my own. In reality Objective-C memory management is not that hard. You simply need to be aware of some rules and follow a couple of good development practices. Good memory management practices are a good thing to follow on any platform. You don't want to be known as "that" app that hogs lots of memory, I have switched to alternative apps a couple times because the apps I was using were fine, but consumed far too much memory. Especially on iOS you need to follow good memory practices, because otherwise you'll be struggling to deal with low memory alerts and the possibility of your app being killed by iOS.

Objective-C Retain Count

Objective-C in retain count mode (not using garbage collection) is a simple idea. When you explicitly allocate an object it gets a retain count of 1 and when you call release or autorelease on an object it's retain count gets decremented and then the object will be collected. It is the only mode available on iOS Devices and has been in use on Mac OS X since the beginning of the OS.

NSObject *object = [[NSObject aloc] init]; //retain count 1
[object release]; //retain count 0

When a object gets released -dealloc gets called on an object and its memory will be reclaimed. It's important to note that you never call dealloc on an object directly. In fact in all my time as a Cocoa Developer I've heard only 1 legitimate use of calling -dealloc on an object directly, I won't say what it is, but needless to say you would have a lot of Cocoa/Objective-C experience behind you before you would even conceive of doing this. In the same area as -release there is also -autorelease. -autorelease is the same as -release except that it'll perform the release in the future. This works great because with this an object you know you need to release in the future can be taken care of at the beginning of a method or section of code.

-(void)doFoo:(BendingUnit *)bender
  [flexo autorelease]; //will be sent release later

Owning an Object
In all these cases when we explicitly perform an -alloc we "own" the object, and when we call -release or -autorelease we relinquish ownership. If you call a method whose name contains 'alloc','new' or 'copy' or if you send a retain message to an object you now own the object and it is your responsibility to send it a -release or -autorelease at an appropriate time. An example of assuming ownership of an object...

-(NSInteger)numberOfInstancesOfString:(NSString *)pattrnString
 NSString *patternString = [[pattrnString retain] autorelease];
 NSInteger count = 0;
 // do some stuff here with the string return count;

In the above example we are doing something very wise. We are passed in a NSString object which may live beyond the scope of our method. So to ensure that the string lives throughout our method we are calling -retain on the string object and -autorelease on it as well so that at the end of the method it'll be restored to the state it was originally in. If this is a normal string object (retain count 1) then all we are doing is incrementing it's retain count to 2 and then at the end of the method it's retain count will be back at 1. However if we are in the middle of executing this method and somewhere else this object gets a release message then we are ensured to be able to use the object for the lifetime of the method and then the passed object will be released. Note that by calling retain on the string object we assumed ownership of the object and then also did the responsible thing and called autorelease to relinquish ownership of it at the end of the method. What happens we we don't follow the rules?

 NSString *myString = [[NSString alloc] initWithString:@"Good News Everyone!"];
 //... do some stuff
 //... oh noes we are at the end of the method and never sent release to mystring!

Oh Noes! At the beginning of this method we create a NSString pointer and explicitly allocate memory for a NSString object and initialize it with a NSString object. The method does some things and then it goes away. However the memory that we allocated is still there, but we no longer have a reference to that memory leaving it forever uncollectible (except under Garbage Collection.) This is a memory leak, it's memory we asked the operating system to set aside for us that we can not reclaim.


Autorelease pools are a place where you can collect objects sent an autorelease message and clean them up by sending an NSAutoreleasePool a drain message. When you are running an application based on AppKit, the Cocoa Framework automatically creates a NSAutoreleasePool instance for you and drains it upon your application quitting. You can setup and drain a autorelease pool easily.

NSAutoreleasePool *pool = [[NSAutoreleasePool alloc] init];
NSString *temp = [NSString stringWithString:@"Name:"];
NSNumber *tempNumber = [NSNumber numberWithInt:55];
[pool drain]; //collects temp & tempNumber

You can also do AutoreleasePools within other autorelease pools
int main(int argc, const char **argv[])
 NSAutoreleasePool *pool = [[NSAutoreleasePool alloc] init]; NSArray *files = //fileArray...
 for(NSString *file in files) {
  NSAutoreleasePool *innerPool = [[NSAutoreleasePool alloc] init];

  NSError *fileError = nil;
NSString *file = [NSString stringWithContentsOfFile:file encoding:NSUTF8Encoding error:&error];
  //process file...
  [innerPool drain];
 [pool drain];

This can be convenient, especially in iOS to allocate a bunch of objects and free them as soon as possible with an autorelease pool to keep memory pressure down. In some cases they are completely necessary if you intend to say work with Foundation in a command line tool you have to explicitly create an autorelease pool, the same goes for NSOperations main method (except for Garbage Collected apps where this is done automatically for you.)

Coding Horrors

A while before I made a presentation from the same content that is in this article I asked on twitter for some ways people had seen memory abused in Objective-C. From the responses I got back and some things I have heard from various people I won't name here a lot of people have abused Objective-C memory in odd ways. I want to feature some of them here in the hopes that you will never commit these atrocities yourself.

Exhibit 1
 while([myObject retainCount] != 0){
  [myObject release];
 [super dealloc];

This is wrong on all sorts of levels. Putting this in your code is a sure fire way to show someone how little you understand about Objective-C. First of all let me say this morvo_retain_count.png

If you've been dealing with Objective-C for a while you know that you shouldn't be using the value of retain count, it never actually goes down to zero and you should never be testing against zero anyway. In fact the only reason retain count is still in the Cocoa framework is for legacy reasons and there are a lot of developers petitioning Apple to remove retain count from Cocoa entirely. In any case, the above code should only have 1 release per object in it. If you have objects that have a retain count of 1 or more by the time they've hit this method then you have not properly released or autoreleased the object somewhere else.

Exhibit 2
MyObject *obj = [[MyObject alloc] init];
//do stuff with obj...
[obj dealloc];

Again you shouldn't call dealloc on an object directly. In fact in all of our Cocoaheads group only Eric Rocesecca (a longtime mac veteran, formerly of startly (quickeys) fame) could only come up 1 use for sending dealloc directly to an object for 1 specific case. I won't even go into that specific case, because it's really a specific niche case & beyond the scope of this article.

Exhibit 3
MyClass *obj = [[[[MyClass alloc] init] autorelease] retain];
//do stuff with obj...
[obj release]; 

In this specific example by itself the extra autorelease and retain are just extra garbage at the end since you could just have the alloc and init and do the release and have the exact same effect. This code was shown to me to be in some of Facebooks open source code.

Exhibit 4
MyClass *myObj = [[MyClass alloc] init];
//...do stuff
[myObj release];
[myObj release]; 

If you have multiple retains/releases in 1 place its a very strong signal that you have not done a proper retain release somewhere else. You should really examine your code to make sure you should be doing retain and release elsewhere.

Exhibit 5
NSAutoreleasePool *pool = //...//... do stuff
if(num != kMax)
 NSAutoreleasePool *pool2 = //...
NSString *myStr = //...
 //do stuff with myStr
 [pool2 drain]
[pool drain]; 

This is something that I could not have conceived on my own. If you are using a lot of autorelease pools and using them as a fix for memory leaks your doing something wrong. There is a legitimate use to using autorelease pools every so often as a means of releasing memory pressure, especially if you are allocating a bunch of objects at once on iOS, but you shouldn't be putting them everywhere because you detect a memory leak.

Exhibit 6
[self dealloc];
while([self retainCount])
 [self release]; 

Similar to Exhibit #1, except with 2x the stupidity. So how do we find what's wrong with our apps?


There are several things you can do
1. Turn on the Clang Static Analyzer, I basically duplicated by debug configuration and named it Analyze and then flipped on the "Run Clang Static Analyzer" checkbox so it's always running the clang static analyzer all the time. The Clang static analyzer will point out many (but not all) places where it can see you are doing something wrong with memory
2. Periodically profile the memory use of your app
3. Run Zombies instrument on your app to track down messages sent to deallocated objects

Objective-C Garbage Collection with AutoZone (libAuto)

Starting in Mac OS X 10.5 we got automatic memory management on Mac OS X with AutoZone (aka libAuto) with 2 collection modes generational and full. Starting in Mac OS X 10.6 we got an additional mode called local. Garbage Collection works on an entirely different principal than retain count. Essentially what you are doing in garbage collection mode (gc) is trading a little bit of cpu time for the sake of letting libauto collect objects that are out of scope and no longer referenced. At this time garbage collection is only available on the Mac. There has been speculation on when it might be made available on iOS, but I suspect that it'll only become available once the low end of all supported iOS devices are running at least the Apple A4 chip, which means the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS would all need to be phased out before this is feasible.
Apple has described AutoZone as
"libauto is a scanning, conservative, generational, multi-threaded garbage collector. "
This means several things. The basic principal of libauto is that from time to time it will scan the memory in use by your garbage collected (gc) app and collect out of scope memory. It is conservative in that Apple has said that when big events (like a user begins typing, massive cpu starts going on, etc.) libauto will just back out and stop collecting rather than possibly slow your application down during critical events. The generational part of this is actually how libauto began scanning your app when version 1.0 came out in leopard, it had 2 modes generational (intended to run frequently) and full (slower and to be run less frequently than generational) and now in 10.6 Snow Leopard we have local. I'll go into how these modes work later on. LibAuto is also language agnostic, it is not intended to just work with Objective-C & C, it is also in use in Ruby via MacRuby right now. Additionally libAuto is open source you can browse the source code from here http://opensource.apple.com/source/libauto/libauto-141.2/ and download a zip file from http://opensource.apple.com/release/mac-os-x-1065/.

Garbage collection is nothing new. Many other programming languages such as Ruby, Javascript, Python & Java have had garbage collection for a long time now, but no 2 garbage collectors work exactly the same. When we go into using garbage collection suddenly having to remember your retain & release messages become a thing of the past, instead you become concerned with having references to all objects you need and if those references are strong or weak. Many people have asserted that the same apps under garbage collection are generally less crash prone. Many apps already use Garbage Collection such as Xcode, Interface Builder, Mac OS X System Apps, Rapidweaver, etc..

How libAuto works

libAuto works on a fairly easy concept, at various points during your applications run on a background thread it will scan your applications memory for out of scope memory and collect what it can. You can think of it on a simple level like so
We have an application with many points of memory allocated and some that have been allocated, but are no longer referenced by anything. Additionally I put in a weak reference in this diagram which I will go into more detail soon. What libAuto does is scan your application for root objects and then follows the strong references from those objects to all the other objects it can reach. When it's done it knows all the objects that are reachable from the root objects in the application and marks all the non reachable objects for collection. LibAuto then comes in and collects them. It has 3 modes it works in when scanning your memory and collecting objects.

Generational Mode
This is the mode that was used most often on Leopard. It works on the assumption that most objects are temporary and die young, and so the collector will try and focus on the young objects and not the long lived older objects in the app which have less likelihood of needing to be collected.

[NSDateFormatter setDefaultFormatterBehavior:NSDateFormatterBehavior10_4];
NSDateFormatter *formatter = [[NSDateFormatter alloc] init];
[formatter setDateFormat:dateFormat];
NSDate *returnedDate = [formatter dateFromString:dateString];

return returnedDate;

In this example the purpose of this code is to return a NSDate object. However in the process we create and allocate a NSDateFormatter object. The DateFormatter object is only there temporarily for the purposes of being able to set a attribute on it and then have it create another object from that (our NSDate object) and then we basically just ditch the NSDateFormatter object. When the garbage collector comes along it will notice that the NSDateFomatter was allocated and collect it. You probably do this a lot in your code, basically creating temporary objects in the process of accomplishing the task you are trying to achieve.

Full Mode
Full mode pretty much works as you would expect, it runs through all memory on your application and does a thorough collection. It takes the longest amount of time and so therefore doesn't run as often compared to the other modes.
Up until 10.6 these were the only 2 modes in libAuto. In 10.6 we gained a new mode called local.

local mode works on an entirely different principle than the other 2 modes shown so far. This mode only scans 1 threads stack for variables between 1-96 bytes which is supposed to account for a majority of the objects in use according to Apple. Because it's not scanning your whole app and is only focusing on 1 thread it is much quicker than the other 2 modes. It will not scan Core Foundation objects which have a retain count of 1, you'll need to do a CFRelease on Core Foundation objects to make them eligible for collection.

Working with the Garbage Collector

Now we have a basic understanding of how the garbage collector works, but there are some things we still need to examine before we really have a full understanding of how to work with the garbage collector.

How to trigger the Garbage Collector
The garbage collector class is NSGarbageCollector. The 2 most common methods you will probably use are -collectIfNeeded and -collectExhaustively. The idea is that you being the architect of the app you are working on, know the best points when your application is running to trigger the collector. So for instance you may trigger a bunch of code to be run on startup in -awakeFromNib and you know 1 or a few possible points at which the arc of events in the apps startup will end and at those points you may wish to signal to the garbage collector that you have good points at which nothing is going on and the garbage collector can go through your app and collect memory.

-collectIfNeeded - Use this to suggest to the garbage collector that now is a good time to go and collect memory in the application
-collectExhaustively - Use this to force the garbage collector to collect memory in the application

Again even though you may suggest to the garbage collector that it should collect memory it may at anytime stop collection because of things like the user beginning to interact with your application.

Foundation Tools
In Cocoa apps the garbage collector thread is automatically started for you. However in foundation tools you need to manually start up the garbage collector by calling objc_startCollectorThread(). You can also use the method objc_collect(OBJC_COLLECT_IF_NEEDED) to trigger the collector. Apple also suggests if you do this that you call objc_clear_stack() to make sure nothing is falsely rooted on the stack when doing foundation tools.

The __weak qualifier is needed to solve a very important problem. If you have 2 objects pointing to each other and at least 1 of those objects has a strong reference to it, then those 2 objects will never go away because as far as the garbage collector is concerned they are reachable through root objects & strong references and therefore not eligible for collection. By default all references are strong references so simply having a pointer to other objects makes them visible to the garbage collector and thus not eligible for collection.
Screen shot 2010-12-22 at 2.06.47 PM.png
These are both objects which have valid strong pointer references. The 2nd window may have had another object reference it at some point in time but that object stopped referencing it and now you have a pointer to it, but you don't necessarily need to keep that reference alive. __weak solves this by allowing you to still have a pointer to the object, but qualifying it with weak so it just nils out when it goes away
this way with weak references the 2nd window becomes eligible for garbage collection, you still have a reference to that object, and when you try and send messages to it they just go to nil  and if you check that pointer you'll see it points to nil assuming it has been collected. This has other benefits, in Mac OS X 10.6 and later NSNotificationCenter is weak referenced so you no longer need do to the following in your code

[[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] removeObserver:self

that's right since notifications are weak referenced you no longer need to remove yourself as an observer from them under garbage collection.

NSMapTable & NSHashTable
Under garbage collection all references to objects are considered to be strong by default. As a result of this you have to either explicitly make references weak by using __weak or by using a class specifically configured to use weak references. These classes include NSHashTable which is a class modeled after NSSet to support weak references, or NSMapTable which has been modeled after NSDictionary to support weak references.

Say goodbye to -dealloc, Say hello to -finalize
Under garbage collection the garbage collector will send the -finalize message to objects instead of -dealloc when collecting them. Most of the time this may not even be necessary to implement this as you will mainly just need -finalize for letting go of external resources like say closing files. In much the same way you'll call [super dealloc] at the end of -dealloc you will also need to call [super finalize] if you need to implement finalize. Additionally your finalize methods need to be thread-safe.
 if(myFileRef != NULL) {
  //close file
 [super finalize]; 
Making malloc'd memory collectable
There are times when you need to manually allocate memory through malloc or other such functions. Unfortunately the garbage collector does not automatically pick up on memory allocated like this. In order to remedy this Apple has provided the function NSAllocateCollectable().

Core Foundation & Garbage Collection
There are times when you need to dig down into Core Foundation to get functionality not found in the Cocoa Frameworks. As such Core Foundation will have to work with and interact with the garbage collector in gc apps. Luckly when allocating Core Founation objects when specifying the collector if you provide NULL, kCFAllocatorDefault or kCFAllocatorSystemDefault those all allocate memory from the garbage collection zone. In fact by default all Core Foundation Objects allocate from the garbage collection zone.

With Core Foundation any objects you allocate need to be either be released with CFRelease or CFMakeCollectable. Personally I use CFMakeCollectable as I think it makes the intent of the code more clear. Technically speaking CFRelease and CFMakeCollectable are nearly identical, if you do another CFRetain on a Core Foundation object you will need to use a CFRelease or CFMakeCollectable to balance it out. If you are writing code to run on both it'd be pretty easy to check for which one you need to do by checking to see if [NSGarbage collector defaultCollector] is NULL, otherwise CFMakeCollectable is just a no-op in a retain/release environment.
if ([NSGarbageCollector defaultCollector] == NULL) CFRelease(myCFString)

How do I turn this on in my projects?
Garbage Collection is currently only available on Mac OS X projects and not available on iOS yet. To turn on garbage collection in your application you need to open your project settings and search for garbage collection
There are 3 possible values you can have for your application.
(1) No GC Flag - Garbage Collection is not supported
(2) -fobjc-gc-only - When compiling with this set, Garbage Collection is required. If you have some bit of code in an external project that is gc only and try to use it in a project that does not support GC then you will get linker errors
(3) -fobjc-gc - When compiling with this both Garbage Collection code and traditional Retain/Release code is generated and the code can be loaded into any app. You probably will not compile apps with this setting and instead use this for Frameworks.
Typically you'll make your Apps support garbage collection or not, and your frameworks will be built with in supported mode (generating both gc and retain/release code.)

A note on Debugging GC
When using the heapshot in instruments you should set the environment variable AUTO_USE_TLC = NO because unfortunately the heapshot feature and the GC Thread Local collector don't work well together. Otherwise the heapshot feature in instruments will think you have more memory allocated than you really do. This and other GC environment variables are mentioned in the famous Mac OS X Debugging Magic Tech Note.
Instruments also contains a great instrument to show you when, for how long and how much the collector collected at various points in your application. If you are writing any gc code it would be to your advantage to run this every so often and get a feel for when the collector is running and what modes it is running in.


Managing memory in Objective-C is not nearly as hard as anybody would make it out to be. It's merely a matter of knowing the few memory management rules and periodically running Instruments on on your app, and the clang static analyzer in Xcode to eliminate memory issues. Garbage Collection eliminates many of the issues associated with manual objective-c retain/release, but you still have to know a few rules and how the collector works.

Releated Reading

Mac OS X Debugging Magic Tech Note
Memory Management Programming Guide
Garbage Collection Programming Guide
Instruments User Guide

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

OmniWeb as a Cocoa Documentation Browser

The built in Xcode Documentation browser is okay, and the stuff Apple does to bring some bits of documentation lookup into the code in IDE is not bad. However, until the full documentation browser is it's own app, I don't think it'll ever reach its full potential. One day I saw Peter Hosey use OmniWeb and do a brief run through of what he did to browse documentation.

Since then, I've only made a couple tweaks to this, but I am surprised more people don't use a standalone documentation browser app like this because it's so easy to separate from Xcode and command tab over to and find what your looking for fast.

Download OmniWeb ( http://www.omnigroup.com/products/omniweb/ )

Here are some of the links I have (you'll need to drag them to your bookmarks bar for them to work)

Core Foundation
Developer Tools
Core Graphics
Core Services
What's New in Mac OS X 10.6 Notes

My Doc/Code Search Templates

ADC Search (Keyword: adc@) http://developer.apple.com/search/index.php?Search=%@
Google ADC Search (Keyword: gadc@) http://www.google.com/search?q=%@+site:developer.apple.com
GoogleCode Search (Keyword: gc@) http://google.com/codesearch?q=%@&hl=en&btnG=Search+Code

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Cocoa Unbound

Mike Ash recently complained about the restrictions on the Cocoa-Dev Mailing list. There are also many things people would like to discuss that Apple just doesn't allow (as part of their policy) on their mailing lists. So Brent Simmons created the Cocoa Unbound mailing list where developers can discuss items that Apple doesn't allow on their mailing lists. Go & join up and have happy sane un(Apple)moderated discussions.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Enumerating Lines Concurrently using a Block

Recently on twitter I asked about enumerating over the lines of a string concurrently using a block. I couldn't see an API to deal with this issue directly. If you look through the Mac OS X 10.6 SDK you'll see this

- (void)enumerateLinesUsingBlock:(void (^)(NSString *line, BOOL *stop))block
Which is a synchronous operation processing each line ( the components separated by \n ) one by one until you've gone through the whole thing. However, this doesn't work if you want to go through the lines concurrently, but make the operation as a whole (not proceeding on until all the lines have been processed) synchronous. Steve Streza came up with a solution that I should have thought of, but didn't seem obvious at the time till I saw the solution.
[[myString componentsSeparatedByString:@"\n"] enumerateObjectsWithOptions:NSEnumerationConcurrent
usingBlock:^(id obj, NSUInteger idx, BOOL *stop) {
   NSString *line = (NSString *)obj;
   //do what your going to do with line...
A minor hack, but it works and isn't incredibly inconvenient. Still I wish Apple would make this API
- (void)enumerateLinesWithOptions:(NSStringEnumerationOptions)option usingBlock:(void (^)(NSString *line, BOOL *stop))block
[myString enumerateLinesWithOptions:NSEnumerationConcurrent usingBlock:^(NSString *line, BOOL *stop){
 //do stuff with the line...
I was also asked why I didn't do something like
[stringArray enumateLinesUsingBlock:^{ dispatch_async(myQueue, ^{
And the reason is simple, while that would technically work, i'd not know when the operation as a whole was completed. You would really want to use a dispatch_group so you could dispatch all the blocks and then get notified when they are all completed. However the solution above works with a minimal of fuss and the operation as a whole is synchronous while the line processing is asynchronous. We could do the same thing other ways, but overall we'd be writing a lot more code for really no benefit.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Good User Interface Design on Mac OS X and the iPhone OS

Good user interface design can make or break your application, it's not just visual appearance but workflow & accessibility. An application that is visually appealing but not well designed will lose out to an application that isn't as visually appealing but has a well designed user interface.

I am not even going to be able to write as much as I'd like here on the topic of UI design, because to be frank this material could fill reams & reams of paper and still have a lot left to say. So I want to point out some do's, some do nots & just some general Mac OS X & iPhone OS tips I presented at a DM Cocoaheads meeting.

Primary / Secondary / Tertiary Objects

One way of starting out in designing a good UI I heard was to start out and just sit at a white board and write down all the objects in your application. So if we were to take iTunes we could start out with the obvious: Songs, Artists, Playlists, Albums, Videos, etc.

Then break that list up into the primary, secondary and tertiary objects categories. Now look at your primary objects category, those objects should take up most of the UI. You can see this already in just about any great app. In iTunes songs are definitely the primary object and so take up the biggest chunk of the UI. In web browsers the web page is the primary object and thus takes up the overwhelming majority of the UI, in fact every bit of UI on web browsers like Google Chrome or Safari are pretty much just to help you navigate to other webpages in 1 form or another.


You can see this sectioning done very well on iTunes as well...


iPhone UI Design / Emphasizing elements through Contrast

Due to the contained space inherent to iPhone Applications you cannot follow some design ideals that Mac Developers follow. For the iPhone it's more about designing your application from a hierarchical design and making any one function not take too long to get to. There are many examples of this I could point to, instead of the usual twitter clients (which also display this well) I am going to show off one of the tools I use to practice Japanese text called iKana Touch.

iKana touch is a very well designed iphone application in that it visually looks great, has a very clear hierarchy of functions and visually emphasizes important elements very well.





For me you can't get much simpler than this. You have a Very simple startup menu showing you very well defined groups of Kana glyphs you want to study, the table row items have icons on them that well represent what their section is about and make perfect sense (at least if you are studying Japanese.) This very well represents a phrase I once heard at WWDC "a screenful of UI at a time." This UI section I shown above also is very similar to a UI design pattern I'll show later I call General->Specific where you start out broad, dive in 1 level and see a bit more and then can dive in 1 more level and get to a very detailed level.

I want to show you just a couple more screen grabs to emphasize a couple points.


This is iKana Touch's speed test. It's very well designed for several reasons

(1) Anybody can come up and look at this screen and see that this is a speed test and see that there are buttons along the bottom and there is a big kana glyph front and center of the screen which is the glyph that needs to be identified, it's intent is very clear and needs no explanation of what needs to be done.

(2) Colors emphasize important elements well. The timer bar eventually goes red as you have less and less time. If you get an answer wrong it colors the correct answer green and all the other buttons red which imediately draws your attention to the correct answer so you learn.

(3) Although you can't tell here, sounds play an important part the sound you get when you select a correct answer is nice and you get a nice BUZZZZ!!! when you have a wrong answer

At the end of this test you get a nice screen showing you how well you did and the expression on Person's face who shows you your percentage changes depending on how well you did.

Here is another well designed screen...


This requires a tiny explanation for those of you who don't know Japanese. The Kana (native Japanese text) & Kanji (Chinese Characters used in Japanese + some native Japanese invented ones) all have stroke orders. One aspect of learning these glyphs is that you need to learn the proper order in which to draw them.

This screen here is to help you learn the proper order in which to stroke the glyph. Again it requires little explanation, it's obvious that there are circles where you need to start and end your points. And to give you the feel of a genuine learning experience the board is chalkboard themed which we associate with school/college and learning. Very well designed, screen. This brings me to the next point. On this application when you hit the detail for each glyph (see the "Nu" card earlier in this article) the application designers went above and beyond (which you should always try to do) and provided animations when you flip the card over...


Again just wonderful experience, and a wonderful way to teach people the proper way to stroke each glyph and they are fully taking advantage of iPhone OS (now iOS) technologies to make this a great learning experience. Clearly they've gone out of their way to not only test you well, but help you learn just as good as they test you. And another thing to note is how little UI elements are on each screen (which I appreciate.) It makes the app and experience of using it a pleasant and focused one.

General to Specific Design pattern

Above in the first screens of the iPhone app iKana touch I showed 3 screens revealing more and more detail as you dove down a level in the app. What you may or may not realize is that this is a design pattern from the desktop adapted into the iPhone.

Screen shot 2010-06-09 at 2.20.17 PM.png

Here a great example is one thing many people have seen when they come to the Mac is Delicious Library 2. You can see going left to right across the application that we get an increased level of detail. This makes navigation in the app very simple and your eye knows exactly where to go especially so since I've heard that we tend to scan from the top left to the bottom right. Again there isn't that many UI elements on this screen and the ones that are on there are organized well in their own third of the screen so you know exactly what they are associated with and that (in combination with the icons) makes it easy to know what a controls purpose is.

Android: Mobile Design done wrong

Now before I go on I should state that I both admire some aspects of Android and yet also despise some UI's. To me many Android apps I've seen demonstrate that these developers don't get mobile development in general. With such a constrained UI you can't afford to pile on all the things that you would do in a desktop environment. Let me show you


Clearly you can see here that we don't have the space available like we did on the desktop to really show everything going on. Although this looks decent for showing you when you have events going on during the week, it's absolutely horrible at displaying any level of detail about the items. Worse i've seen many Android calendar apps attempt to show a bar representing the day and then fill in parts of the bar where they have things going on for the day. It's a good idea in theory, except within the confined screens android devices run on it doesn't look good at all. Generally Android applications are not a good source of UI inspiration. As always though there are some Android apps that have been well designed such as shown by Sebastian on his blog http://blog.cocoia.com/2010/doubletwist-android-media-player-app/


Clearly there are a lot of great things going on in both Mac OS X and iPhone/iPad application UI design. Start out by defining the mission of your app in a sentence. Then sit down and just write all the objects that are represented within your application. Your applications UI should be dedicated to the primary elements and you should try to make sure that anything on screen is there for the purpose of making interacting with the primary objects easier. Also well designed graphics in combination with well thought out workflows in an application can lead to less need to explain the user interface to the user and thus lead to less support and happier users. For iPhone applications you need to think of the hierarchy of your application and it's functions and make sure that the functions that users would most commonly want to perform within your app are easy to get to within a couple taps on screen (or less if that's feasible.)

CC Images


Sunday, April 04, 2010

DM CocoaHeads: Good User Interface Design in Cocoa & Cocoa Touch

http://cocoaheads.org/us/DesMoinesIowa/index.html Thursday, April 8 at 7 pm at the Impromptu Studio in Des Moines,IA (see link above for Map & directions) I recently became the group leader of the Des Moines CocoaHeads, and to get the ball rolling I will be giving a presentation this week on Good User Interface Design in Cocoa & Touch. I thought this would be a good time to do this as several people are starting work on new projects. Some things I'll Cover...

  • Good & Bad User Interfaces and what makes them good and bad
  • How to plan out a User Interface (we'll go through an example test app)
  • UI Design patterns on the Mac and iPhone (and iPad to the extent possible)
  • Q&A/Discussion on UI Design patterns
If your coming feel free to bring your apps in and we can give your UI a good review and help you improve it. Sometime after this is over i'll take my presentation & post it online here via article or screencast, so keep tuned.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The PubSub Framework: Using RSS Feeds in your App

The Project Page for this articles project is on github at http://github.com/Machx/FeedViewer you can grab the source code with git by entering the following command in terminal....
git clone git://github.com/Machx/FeedViewer.git
The PubSub Framework is one of those lesser known Frameworks that Apple introduced in Leopard. It has the ability to parse RSS & ATOM feeds and automatically generate KVO compliant Objective-C objects which you can inspect & enumerate through in your Application. You can even get access to Safari's or Mail.apps RSS feeds and display them in your application. Recently on StackOverflow someone was complaining that there really wasn't an example project showing how you can use PubSub. So what i've decided to do here is setup a minimal project showing how you can efficiently use PubSub to retrieve and display a RSS feed and its contents. I tried to use a bare minimum of custom objects and instead rely on PubSub's classes to automatically generate the objects that should be displayed in the view part of the app, this way you write less code and can more easily extend the code to fit your needs in your own application. I should note that in this example I've decided to take full advantage of Grand Central Dispatch and a 10.6 only API. Here my intent is to take you through a semi-tutorial to show you what you need to do to setup this project. So let's start building this app... First Create a new Cocoa Application Project in Xcode and call it FeedViewer or whatever you want to call it
The next obvious thing we need to do is add the PubSub framework to our app, so right click on Frameworks->Linked Frameworks and go to Add->Existing Frameworks. Find PubSub.Framework and add it. Now create a new Cocoa class which will be our App Controller. Add the following ivars & methods in the header file.
#import <Cocoa/Cocoa.h>
#import <PubSub/PubSub.h>
@interface AppController : NSObject {
	PSFeed * newsFeed;
	NSOperationQueue *rssQueue;
	NSError *feedError;
	id psNotification;
@property(retain) NSOperationQueue *rssQueue;
@property(retain) PSFeed *newsFeed;
@property(retain) NSError *feedError;
@property(retain) id psNotification;
The PSFeed *newsFeed; will both contain information about our RSS Feed and contain the RSS entries once we've started a refresh. The NSOperationQueue *rssQueue; is technically unnecessary here, but to reduce the overall code Im going to use a bit of Grand Central Dispatch + Cocoa magic and a 10.6 only API which let's us register for a Notification & execute a block on another thread from NSOperationQueue. Thanks to the 10.6 API's this is pretty easy & should be done in the background to not interrupt the main UI thread. You could accomplish the same thing on 10.5, but you'd still need an NSOperationQueue, and you'd have to register for a notification on PSFeed and when you see a feed is done refreshing create an NSOperation subclass object, put it on the queue and (again) check for when the NSOperation object is finished executing. The NSError *feedError; is for presenting an error to our users so they have some feedback in the case something goes wrong.The Method -(IBAction)startFeedRefresh:(id)sender; is the only method we really need here for starting the refresh on the PSFeed. Lastly the id psNotification will be used to retain an object that Cocoa gives us for receiving notifications, you'll understand this more later on. In AppController.m i'll explain things slightly out of order just so you know the flow of the code. First the obvious -init stuff...
@synthesize rssQueue;
@synthesize newsFeed;
@synthesize feedError;
@synthesize psNotification;
	if (self = [super init]) {
		NSURL *feedURL = [NSURL URLWithString:kAppleRSSNewsFeed];
		newsFeed = [[PSFeed alloc] initWithURL:feedURL];
		rssQueue = [[NSOperationQueue alloc] init];
		[rssQueue setName:@"com.FeedViewer.rssQueue"];
		feedError = nil;
		psNotification = nil;
	return self;
Most of this doesn't need explanation except for 2 things. First if you've never seen [rssQueue setName:@"com.FeedViewer.rssQueue"]; you should. In 10.6 Apple rewrote NSOperation and NSOperationQueue so they now use Grand Central Dispatch, essentially an Objective-C wrapper around the lower level GCD API's. Plus NSOperation(Queue) provides some nice additional functionality, and it a great fit for how to do threading in Objective-C (See my article on Grand Central Dispatch if you want more info.) Grand Central Dispatch uses Queues as its primary means of receiving blocks to take in and dispatch threads. And for debugging purposes its nice to set a name for these queues so you know which Queues are yours and what the queues are doing. You can name your Queues what you want, but Apple encourages reverse style DNS naming like above. The other thing is I am using here is a constant kAppleRSSNewsFeed which is defined as
static NSString * const kAppleRSSNewsFeed = @"http://images.apple.com/main/rss/hotnews/hotnews.rss";
This could have been accomplished by using #define as well, but I am generally a fan of doing it this way so it doesn't clutter your method list in Xcode with a bunch of #defines that you don't care about most of the time. Now for our -(IBAction)startFeedRefresh:(id)sender method...
	[newsFeed refresh:&feedError];
That's it! This -refresh method is asynchronous (which Apple encourages), so most of the work is done elsewhere. In this case in the -awakeFromNib method...
	NSNotificationCenter *notifyCenter = [NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter];
	self.psNotification = [notifyCenter addObserverForName:PSFeedRefreshingNotification 
		usingBlock:^(NSNotification *arg1) {
		if ([newsFeed isRefreshing]) {
		[[NSOperationQueue mainQueue] addOperationWithBlock:^{
			if (nil != feedError) {
				[NSApp presentError:feedError];
			//inform our KVO Controllers that we now have 
			//RSS entries to display
			[self willChangeValueForKey:@"newsFeed"];
			[self didChangeValueForKey:@"newsFeed"];
First off I apologize for how bad the formatting of the first few lines of code look in this method, here on this blog, I am trying to not make the code stretch out horizontally for too long. Anyway all we are doing here is registering for a notification on the (PSFeed *) newsFeed object for the PSFeedRefreshingNotification notification. Also we are giving it a NSOperationQueue object (our rssQueue), and a block to execute. This API is equivalent to registering for the notification and inside -observeValueForKeyPath:ofObject:change:context: we created an NSOperation object and then added it to a NSOperationQueue, instead we are doing this and registering for the notification all with 1 API. It still feels odd assigning a value to -addObserver... especially since if you've been doing this in 10.4 and 10.5 this method has a void return type ( - (void)addObserver:(NSObject *)observer forKeyPath:(NSString *)keyPath options:(NSKeyValueObservingOptions)options context:(void *)context.) However you need to retain this id object given to you, otherwise you'll leak in non-Garbage Collected code and your block will never be called under Garbage Collection, I presume because its being collected by the Garbage Collector before the notification is ever sent out. The first thing we need to do right away is to check if the feed is still refreshing, if it is then there is no point in doing anything else except immediately returning. If we aren't refreshing anymore then the PSFeed is done refreshing and we can then go back to the main thread and send out any notifications, etc to finish up the process. In this case all that needs to be done is sending KVO notifications that PSFeed has changed and that any controller objects that are doing bindings work for us, should update themselves. This is all that is necessary on the code side of things, the rest will be done in KVO with Cocoa Bindings in the XIB. All we need for this is 2 controllers a NSArrayController to bind to the PSFeeds entries array and a NSObjectController to bind to the selected PSEntry object's content object which is a PSContent object. I've created a quick and short video explaining what's going on... So now you understand what's going on in the UI. To give an overview of the entire app this is what happens. We tell our PSFeed objet to refresh its entires. When we receive PubSub's notification, a check is done to see if we are refreshing, if we are then we immediately return, if not then we send KVO notifications to let our bindings controllers update. Our NSArrayController updates and our NSTableColumns which are bound to NSArrayController update and populate the table. When the Table has a selection our NSObjectController updates with the PSContent object and a NSTextView which binds to the plainTextString property updates and displays the content for the selected PSEntry object. Here are some useful links Publication Subscription Programming Guide Publication Subscription Framework Reference Short and Sweet. Now get using RSS in your apps!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Understanding the Objective-C Runtime

Screen shot 2010-01-15 at 10.18.04 AM.png
The Objective-C Runtime is one of the overlooked features of Objective-C initially when people are generally introduced to Cocoa/Objective-C. The reason for this is that while Objective-C (the language) is easy to pick up in only a couple hours, newcomers to Cocoa spend most of their time wrapping their heads around the Cocoa Framework and adjusting to how it works. However the runtime is something that everybody should at least know how it works in some detail beyond knowing that code like [target doMethodWith:var1]; gets translated into objc_msgSend(target,@selector(doMethodWith:),var1); by the compiler. Knowing what the Objective-C runtime is doing will help you gain a much deeper understanding of Objective-C itself and how your app is run. I think Mac/iPhone Developers will gain something from this, regardless of your level of experience.

The Objective-C Runtime is Open Source
The Objective-C Runtime is open source and available anytime from http://opensource.apple.com. In fact examining the Objective-C is one of the first ways I went through to figure out how it worked, beyond reading Apples documentation on the matter. You can download the current version of the runtime (as of this writting) for Mac OS X 10.6.2 here objc4-437.1.tar.gz.

Dynamic vs Static Languages
Objective-C is a runtime oriented language, which means that when it's possible it defers decisions about what will actually be executed from compile & link time to when it's actually executing on the runtime. This gives you a lot of flexibility in that you can redirect messages to appropriate objects as you need to or you can even intentionally swap method implementations, etc. This requires the use of a runtime which can introspect objects to see what they do & don't respond to and dispatch methods appropriately. If we contrast this to a language like C. In C you start out with a main() method and then from there it's pretty much a top down design of following your logic and executing functions as you've written your code. A C struct can't forward requests to perform a function onto other targets. Pretty much you have a program like so

#include < stdio.h >
int main(int argc, const char **argv[])
        printf("Hello World!");
        return 0;
which a compiler parses, optimizes and then transforms your optimized code into assembly
 .align 4,0x90
 .globl _main
 pushq %rbp
 movq %rsp, %rbp
 subq $16, %rsp
 movq %rsi, %rax
 movl %edi, %ecx
 movl %ecx, -8(%rbp)
 movq %rax, -16(%rbp)
 xorb %al, %al
 leaq LC(%rip), %rcx
 movq %rcx, %rdi
 call _printf
 movl $0, -4(%rbp)
 movl -4(%rbp), %eax
 addq $16, %rsp
 popq %rbp
 .asciz "Hello World!"
and then links it together with a library and produces a executable. This contrasts from Objective-C in that while the process is similar the code that the compiler generates depends on the presence of the Objective-C Runtime Library. When we are all initially introduced to Objective-C we are told that (at a simplistic level) what happens to our Objective-C bracket code is something like...
[self doSomethingWithVar:var1];
gets translated to...
but beyond this we don't really know much till much later on what the runtime is doing.

What is the Objective-C Runtime?
The Objective-C Runtime is a Runtime Library, it's a library written mainly in C & Assembler that adds the Object Oriented capabilities to C to create Objective-C. This means it loads in Class information, does all method dispatching, method forwarding, etc. The Objective-C runtime essentially creates all the support structures that make Object Oriented Programming with Objective-C Possible.

Objective-C Runtime Terminology
So before we go on much further, let's get some terminology out of the way so we are all on the same page about everything. 2 Runtimes As far as Mac & iPhone Developers are concerned there are 2 runtimes: The Modern Runtime & the Legacy Runtime Modern Runtime: Covers all 64 bit Mac OS X Apps & all iPhone OS Apps Legacy Runtime: Covers everything else (all 32 bit Mac OS X Apps) Method There are 2 basic types of methods. Instance Methods (begin with a '-' like -(void)doFoo; that operate on Object Instances. And Class Methods (begin with a '+' like + (id)alloc. Methods are just like C Functions in that they are a grouping of code that performs a small task like
-(NSString *)movieTitle
    return @"Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder";
Selector A selector in Objective-C is essentially a C data struct that serves as a mean to identify an Objective-C method you want an object to perform. In the runtime it's defined like so...
typedef struct objc_selector  *SEL; 
and used like so...
SEL aSel = @selector(movieTitle); 
[target getMovieTitleForObject:obj];
An Objective-C Message is everything between the 2 brackets '[ ]' and consists of the target you are sending a message to, the method you want it to perform and any arguments you are sending it. A Objective-C message while similar to a C function call is different. The fact that you send a message to an object doesn't mean that it'll perform it. The Object could check who the sender of the message is and based on that decide to perform a different method or forward the message onto a different target object. Class If you look in the runtime for a class you'll come across this...
typedef struct objc_class *Class;
typedef struct objc_object {
    Class isa;
} *id; 
Here there are several things going on. We have a struct for an Objective-C Class and a struct for an object. All the objc_object has is a class pointer defined as isa, this is what we mean by the term 'isa pointer'. This isa pointer is all the Objective-C Runtime needs to inspect an object and see what it's class is and then begin seeing if it responds to selectors when you are messaging objects. And lastly we see the id pointer. The id pointer by default tells us nothing about Objective-C objects except that they are Objective-C objects. When you have a id pointer you can then ask that object for it's class, see if it responds to a method, etc and then act more specifically when you know what the object is that you are pointing to. You can see this as well on Blocks in the LLVM/Clang docs
struct Block_literal_1 {
    void *isa; // initialized to &_NSConcreteStackBlock or &_NSConcreteGlobalBlock
    int flags;
    int reserved; 
    void (*invoke)(void *, ...);
    struct Block_descriptor_1 {
 unsigned long int reserved; // NULL
     unsigned long int size;  // sizeof(struct Block_literal_1)
 // optional helper functions
     void (*copy_helper)(void *dst, void *src);
     void (*dispose_helper)(void *src); 
    } *descriptor;
    // imported variables
Blocks themselves are designed to be compatible with the Objective-C runtime so they are treated as objects so they can respond to messages like -retain,-release,-copy,etc. IMP (Method Implementations)
typedef id (*IMP)(id self,SEL _cmd,...); 
IMP's are function pointers to the method implementations that the compiler will generate for you. If your new to Objective-C you don't need to deal with these directly until much later on, but this is how the Objective-C runtime invokes your methods as we'll see soon. Objective-C Classes So what's in an Objectve-C Class? The basic implementation of a class in Objective-C looks like
@interface MyClass : NSObject {
NSInteger counter;
but the runtime has more than that to keep track of
#if !__OBJC2__
    Class super_class                                        OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
    const char *name                                         OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
    long version                                             OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
    long info                                                OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
    long instance_size                                       OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
    struct objc_ivar_list *ivars                             OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
    struct objc_method_list **methodLists                    OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
    struct objc_cache *cache                                 OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
    struct objc_protocol_list *protocols                     OBJC2_UNAVAILABLE;
We can see a class has a reference to it's superclass, it's name, instance variables, methods, cache and protocols it claims to adhere to. The runtime needs this information when responding to messages that message your class or it's instances.

So Classes define objects and yet are objects themselves? How does this work
Yes earlier I said that in objective-c classes themselves are objects as well, and the runtime deals with this by creating Meta Classes. When you send a message like [NSObject alloc] you are actually sending a message to the class object, and that class object needs to be an instance of the MetaClass which itself is an instance of the root meta class. While if you say subclass from NSObject, your class points to NSObject as it's superclass. However all meta classes point to the root metaclass as their superclass. All meta classes simply have the class methods for their method list of messages that they respond to. So when you send a message to a class object like [NSObject alloc] then objc_msgSend() actually looks through the meta class to see what it responds to then if it finds a method, operates on the Class object.

Why we subclass from Apples Classes
So initially when you start Cocoa development, tutorials all say to do things like subclass NSObject and start then coding something and you enjoy a lot of benefits simply by inheriting from Apples Classes. One thing you don't even realize that happens for you is setting your objects up to work with the Objective-C runtime. When we allocate an instance of one of our classes it's done like so...
MyObject *object = [[MyObject alloc] init];
the very first message that gets executed is +alloc. If you look at the documentation it says that "The isa instance variable of the new instance is initialized to a data structure that describes the class; memory for all other instance variables is set to 0." So by inheriting from Apples classes we not only inherit some great attributes, but we inherit the ability to easily allocate and create our objects in memory that matches a structure the runtime expects (with a isa pointer that points to our class) & is the size of our class.

So what's with the Class Cache? ( objc_cache *cache )
When the Objective-C runtime inspects an object by following it's isa pointer it can find an object that implements many methods. However you may only call a small portion of them and it makes no sense to search the classes dispatch table for all the selectors every time it does a lookup. So the class implements a cache, whenever you search through a classes dispatch table and find the corresponding selector it puts that into it's cache. So when objc_msgSend() looks through a class for a selector it searches through the class cache first. This operates on the theory that if you call a message on a class once, you are likely to call that same message on it again later. So if we take this into account this means that if we have a subclass of NSObject called MyObject and run the following code
MyObject *obj = [[MyObject alloc] init];
@implementation MyObject
-(id)init {
    if(self = [super init]){
        [self setVarA:@”blah”];
    return self;
the following happens (1) [MyObject alloc] gets executed first. MyObject class doesn't implement alloc so we will fail to find +alloc in the class and follow the superclass pointer which points to NSObject (2) We ask NSObject if it responds to +alloc and it does. +alloc checks the receiver class which is MyObject and allocates a block of memory the size of our class and initializes it's isa pointer to the MyObject class and we now have an instance and lastly we put +alloc in NSObject's class cache for the class object (3) Up till now we were sending a class messages but now we send an instance message which simply calls -init or our designated initializer. Of course our class responds to that message so -(id)init get's put into the cache (4) Then self = [super init] gets called. Super being a magic keyword that points to the objects superclass so we go to NSObject and call it's init method. This is done to insure that OOP Inheritance works correctly in that all your super classes will initialize their variables correctly and then you (being in the subclass) can initialize your variables correctly and then override the superclasses if you really need to. In the case of NSObject, nothing of huge importance goes on, but that is not always the case. Sometimes important initialization happens. Take this...
#import < Foundation/Foundation.h>
@interface MyObject : NSObject
 NSString *aString;
@property(retain) NSString *aString;
@implementation MyObject
 if (self = [super init]) {
  [self setAString:nil];
 return self;
@synthesize aString;
int main (int argc, const char * argv[]) {
    NSAutoreleasePool * pool = [[NSAutoreleasePool alloc] init];
 id obj1 = [NSMutableArray alloc];
 id obj2 = [[NSMutableArray alloc] init];
 id obj3 = [NSArray alloc];
 id obj4 = [[NSArray alloc] initWithObjects:@"Hello",nil];
 NSLog(@"obj1 class is %@",NSStringFromClass([obj1 class]));
 NSLog(@"obj2 class is %@",NSStringFromClass([obj2 class]));
 NSLog(@"obj3 class is %@",NSStringFromClass([obj3 class]));
 NSLog(@"obj4 class is %@",NSStringFromClass([obj4 class]));
 id obj5 = [MyObject alloc];
 id obj6 = [[MyObject alloc] init];
 NSLog(@"obj5 class is %@",NSStringFromClass([obj5 class]));
 NSLog(@"obj6 class is %@",NSStringFromClass([obj6 class]));
 [pool drain];
    return 0;
Now if you were new to Cocoa and I asked you to guess as to what would be printed you'd probably say
but this is what happens
obj1 class is __NSPlaceholderArray
obj2 class is NSCFArray
obj3 class is __NSPlaceholderArray
obj4 class is NSCFArray
obj5 class is MyObject
obj6 class is MyObject
This is because in Objective-C there is a potential for +alloc to return an object of one class and then -init to return an object of another class.

So what happens in objc_msgSend anyway?
There is actually a lot that happens in objc_msgSend(). Lets say we have code like this...
[self printMessageWithString:@"Hello World!"];
it actually get's translated by the compiler to...
objc_msgSend(self,@selector(printMessageWithString:),@"Hello World!");
From there we follow the target objects isa pointer to lookup and see if the object (or any of it's superclasses) respond to the selector @selector(printMessageWithString:). Assuming we find the selector in the class dispatch table or it's cache we follow the function pointer and execute it. Thus objc_msgSend() never returns, it begins executing and then follows a pointer to your methods and then your methods return, thus looking like objc_msgSend() returned. Bill Bumgarner went into much more detail ( Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3) on objc_msgSend() than I will here. But to summarize what he said and what you'd see looking at the Objective-C runtime code... 1. Checks for Ignored Selectors & Short Circut - Obviously if we are running under garbage collection we can ignore calls to -retain,-release, etc 2. Check for nil target. Unlike other languages messaging nil in Objective-C is perfectly legal & there are some valid reasons you'd want to. Assuming we have a non nil target we go on... 3. Then we need to find the IMP on the class, so we first search the class cache for it, if found then follow the pointer and jump to the function 4. If the IMP isn't found in the cache then the class dispatch table is searched next, if it's found there follow the pointer and jump to the pointer 5. If the IMP isn't found in the cache or class dispatch table then we jump to the forwarding mechanism This means in the end your code is transformed by the compiler into C functions. So a method you write like say...
would be transformed into...
int aClass_doComputeWithNum(aClass *self,SEL _cmd,int aNum) 
And the Objective-C Runtime calls your methods by invoking function pointers to those methods. Now I said that you cannot call those translated methods directly, however the Cocoa Framework does provide a method to get at the pointer...
//declare C function pointer
int (computeNum *)(id,SEL,int);
//methodForSelector is COCOA & not ObjC Runtime
//gets the same function pointer objc_msgSend gets
computeNum = (int (*)(id,SEL,int))[target methodForSelector:@selector(doComputeWithNum:)];
//execute the C function pointer returned by the runtime
In this way you can get direct access to the function and directly invoke it at runtime and even use this to circumvent the dynamism of the runtime if you absolutely need to make sure that a specific method is executed. This is the same way the Objective-C Runtime invokes your method, but using objc_msgSend().

Objective-C Message Forwarding
In Objective-C it's very legal (and may even be an intentional design decision) to send messages to objects to which they don't know how to respond to. One reason Apple gives for this in their docs is to simulate multiple inheritance which Objective-C doesn't natively support, or you may just want to abstract your design and hide another object/class behind the scenes that deals with the message. This is one thing that the runtime is very necessary for. It works like so 1. The Runtime searches through the class cache and class dispatch table of your class and all the super classes, but fails to to find the specified method 2. The Objective-C Runtime will call + (BOOL) resolveInstanceMethod:(SEL)aSEL on your class. This gives you a chance to provide a method implementation and tell the runtime that you've resolved this method and if it should begin to do it's search it'll find the method now. You could accomplish this like so... define a function...
void fooMethod(id obj, SEL _cmd)
 NSLog(@"Doing Foo");
you could then resolve it like so using class_addMethod()...
    if(aSEL == @selector(doFoo:)){
        class_addMethod([self class],aSEL,(IMP)fooMethod,"v@:");
        return YES;
    return [super resolveInstanceMethod];
The "v@:" in the last part of class_addMethod() is what the method is returning and it's arguments. You can see what you can put there in the Type Encodings section of the Runtime Guide. 3. The Runtime then calls - (id)forwardingTargetForSelector:(SEL)aSelector. What this does is give you a chance (since we couldn't resolve the method (see #2 above)) to point the Objective-C runtime at another object which should respond to the message, also this is better to do before the more expensive process of invoking - (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)anInvocation takes over. You could implement it like so
- (id)forwardingTargetForSelector:(SEL)aSelector
    if(aSelector == @selector(mysteriousMethod:)){
        return alternateObject;
    return [super forwardingTargetForSelector:aSelector];
Obviously you don't want to ever return self from this method or it could result in an infinite loop. 4. The Runtime then tries one last time to get a message sent to it's intended target and calls - (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)anInvocation. If you've never seen NSInvocation, it's essentially an Objective-C Message in object form. Once you have an NSInvocation you essentially can change anything about the message including it's target, selector & arguments. So you could do...
-(void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)invocation
    SEL invSEL = invocation.selector;
    if([altObject respondsToSelector:invSEL]) {
        [invocation invokeWithTarget:altObject];
    } else {
        [self doesNotRecognizeSelector:invSEL];
by default if you inherit from NSObject it's - (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)anInvocation implementation simply calls -doesNotRecognizeSelector: which you could override if you wanted to for one last chance to do something about it.

Non Fragile ivars (Modern Runtime)
One of the things we recently gained in the modern runtime is the concept of Non Fragile ivars. When compiling your classes a ivar layout is made by the compiler that shows where to access your ivars in your classes, this is the low level detail of getting a pointer to your object, seeing where the ivar is offset in relation to the beginning of the bytes the object points at, and reading in the amount of bytes that is the size of the type of variable you are reading in. So your ivar layout may look like this, with the number in the left column being the byte offset.


Here we have the ivar layout for NSObject and then we subclass NSObject to extend it and add on our own ivars. This works fine until Apple ships a update or all new Mac OS X 10.x release and this happens


Your custom objects get wiped out because we have an overlapping superclass. The only alternative that could prevent this is if Apple sticked with the layout it had before, but if they did that then their Frameworks could never advance because their ivar layouts were frozen in stone. Under fragile ivars you have to recompile your classes that inherit from Apples classes to restore compatibility. So what Happens under non fragile ivars?


Under Non Fragile ivars the compiler generates the same ivar layout as under fragile ivars. However when the runtime detects an overlapping superclass it adjusts the offsets to your additions to the class, thus your additions in a subclass are preserved.

Objective-C Associated Objects
One thing recently introduced in Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard was called Associated References. Objective-C has no support for dynamically adding on variables to objects unlike some other languages that have native support for this. So up until now you would have had to go to great lengths to build the infrastructure to pretend that you are adding a variable onto a class. Now in Mac OS X 10.6, the Objective-C Runtime has native support for this. If we wanted to add a variable to every class that already exists like say NSView we could do so like this...
#import < Cocoa/Cocoa.h> //Cocoa
#include < objc/runtime.h> //objc runtime api’s
@interface NSView (CustomAdditions)
@property(retain) NSImage *customImage;
@implementation NSView (CustomAdditions)
static char img_key; //has a unique address (identifier)
-(NSImage *)customImage
    return objc_getAssociatedObject(self,&img_key);
-(void)setCustomImage:(NSImage *)image
you can see in runtime.h the options for how to store the values passed to objc_setAssociatedObject().
/* Associated Object support. */
/* objc_setAssociatedObject() options */
enum {
These match up with the options you can pass in the @property syntax.

Hybrid vTable Dispatch
If you look through the modern runtime code you'll come across this (in objc-runtime-new.m)...
* vtable dispatch
* Every class gets a vtable pointer. The vtable is an array of IMPs.
* The selectors represented in the vtable are the same for all classes
*   (i.e. no class has a bigger or smaller vtable).
* Each vtable index has an associated trampoline which dispatches to 
*   the IMP at that index for the receiver class's vtable (after 
*   checking for NULL). Dispatch fixup uses these trampolines instead 
*   of objc_msgSend.
* Fragility: The vtable size and list of selectors is chosen at launch 
*   time. No compiler-generated code depends on any particular vtable 
*   configuration, or even the use of vtable dispatch at all.
* Memory size: If a class's vtable is identical to its superclass's 
*   (i.e. the class overrides none of the vtable selectors), then 
*   the class points directly to its superclass's vtable. This means 
*   selectors to be included in the vtable should be chosen so they are 
*   (1) frequently called, but (2) not too frequently overridden. In 
*   particular, -dealloc is a bad choice.
* Forwarding: If a class doesn't implement some vtable selector, that 
*   selector's IMP is set to objc_msgSend in that class's vtable.
* +initialize: Each class keeps the default vtable (which always 
*   redirects to objc_msgSend) until its +initialize is completed.
*   Otherwise, the first message to a class could be a vtable dispatch, 
*   and the vtable trampoline doesn't include +initialize checking.
* Changes: Categories, addMethod, and setImplementation all force vtable 
*   reconstruction for the class and all of its subclasses, if the 
*   vtable selectors are affected.
The idea behind this is that the runtime is trying to store in this vtable the most called selectors so this in turn speeds up your app because it uses fewer instructions than objc_msgSend. This vtable is the 16 most called selectors which make up an overwheling majority of all the selectors called globally, in fact further down in the code you can see the default selectors for Garbage Collected & non Garbage Collected apps...
static const char * const defaultVtable[] = {
static const char * const defaultVtableGC[] = {
So how will you know if your dealing with it? You'll see one of several methods called in your stack traces while your debugging. All of these you should basically treat just like they are objc_msgSend() for debugging purposes... objc_msgSend_fixup happens when the runtime is assigning one of these methods that your calling a slot in the vtable. objc_msgSend_fixedup occurs when your calling one of these methods that was supposed to be in the vtable but is no longer in there objc_msgSend_vtable[0-15] you'll might see a call to something like objc_msgSend_vtable5 this means you are calling one of these common methods in the vtable. The runtime can assign and unassign these as it wants to, so you shouldn't count on the fact that objc_msgSend_vtable10 corresponds to -length on one run means it'll ever be there on any of your next runs.

I hope you liked this, this article essentially makes up the content I covered in my Objective-C Runtime talk to the Des Moines Cocoaheads (a lot to pack in for as long a talk as we had.) The Objective-C Runtime is a great piece of work, it does a lot powering our Cocoa/Objective-C apps and makes possible so many features we just take for granted. Hope I hope if you haven't yet you'll take a look through these docs Apple has that show how you can take advantage of the Objective-C Runtime. Thanks! Objective-C Runtime Programming Guide Objective-C Runtime Reference

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Des Moines Cocoaheads 1/14: Understanding the Objective-C Runtime

http://cocoaheads.org/us/DesMoinesIowa/index.html Where: Impromptu Studios in Downtown Des Moines, IA 300 SW 5th St, Suite 220 When : Thursday, January 14 @ 7pm I will be doing a talk this Thursday at the Des Moines Cocoaheads on Understanding the Objective-C Runtime. The talk is applicable to both Mac OS X & iPhone Developers and will cover a range of beginner to advanced materials. We'll go over how the Objective-C runtime functions, how your bracket code is transformed by the compiler and what it takes to make Objective-C function the way we expect. There will be plenty of time for Q&A afterwards. If your in Central Iowa come on in and say hello to everybody! Some time after this talk is concluded, the talk will be posted here in one form or another (either i'll do a screencast or write an article from the contents of the talk, depending on what I have time for.)