On what Marcus said

This post is a response to Why so serious? over at Cocoa is my Girlfriend. Read that.

Welcome back. OK, so firstly let’s talk about that damned carousel. Kudos to the developer who wrote a nice smoothly scrolling layer-backed image pager, but as Marcus says, that’s not the same as doing a nice smoothly scrolling carousel. Believe me, I’ve taken around one hundred Instruments traces of the carousel. Swirling images around an iPad screen is the least of its concerns.

Now, let’s start looking at the state of the community thing. It’s like an iceberg, or a duck. Or maybe a duck with the proportions of an iceberg. The point is that what you see is a bunch of developers being flown around the world to talk at conferences, plugging their books (the evil capitalist bastards). What you get is a bunch of people who have put their jobs and careers into the background for a while because they learned something cool and want to share it with the class. The 7/8ths of the duck kicking frantically below the ice is people not getting paid to help everyone else do their job as well as they can.

I can’t speak for Marcus’s experience, but I can describe my own. That security book? The one that I’m already planning to replace because there’ll be so much more stuff to talk about after Monday? The one where I know you read chapter one then put it on the shelf until such time as one of the other chapters describes a problem you have? Around nine months of research, study, and staring blankly at an OpenOffice window. During that time, almost all of my coding was either learning about or preparing samples for the content of the book. I got a warm feeling when I saw it in print, but they don’t pay rent.

The same, but in smaller writing, for conference talks (one to two weeks of preparation each) and even blog posts (half to two days of preparation each). That’s why I love reading posts from CIMGF, TheoCacao, Mike Ash and others: each new post represents time someone else has taken to make me a better programmer: time they could have billed to a client. By the way I don’t know whether this is commonly known, but there’s no pay for doing technical talks at iOS developer conferences. The keynote speakers sometimes get paid, the content speakers do not.

Ok, so that’s me on my high horse, but we were supposed to be talking about snarking in the community. That happens. My favourite recent example was the one piece of negative feedback I got from a recent conference talk: a page-long missive describing how I’d wasted the person’s time by talking about the subject of my talk rather than the topic they wanted to hear about.

Thing is, there’s a lesson in there. I could have done a better job at either describing the importance of my subject to that attendee, or getting them to leave the room early on in the talk. Could have, but didn’t. Next time, I will. And so that’s great, this commenter told me something I didn’t know before, something I can use to change the way I work.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, you look for the lesson and there isn’t one. The tweeter just doesn’t like you. The best way to get past this is to realise that the exchange has been neutral: you got nothing from their feedback, but in return because they chose to ignore you, you gave them nothing too. Maybe that guy does know the topic better than you. Maybe he’s just a blowhard. Either way, you gave nothing, you got nothing: it’s not a loss, it’s a no-score draw.

But then there are the other times. You know what I mean, the dark times. When your amygdala or whatever weird bit of your brain it is responds before your cortex does (I’m no neuroscientist, and I don’t even play one in my armchair), and you get the visceral rage before you get a chance to rationally respond.

There’s one common case that still turns me into a big green hulk of fury, even though I should have got over it years ago. It’s the times when a commentator or talk attendee decides that my entire argument is broken because that person either disagrees with my choice of terminology, or can think of an edge case where my solution can’t be rubber-stamped in.

On the one hand, as software engineers we are used to finding edge cases where the requirements don’t quite seem to fit. On the other hand, as software engineers it is our job to solve these problems and edge cases. If you find a situation at work where a particular set of circumstances causes your app to fail, I’m willing to bet that you consider that a bug and try to find a way to fix that app, then you give the bug fix to your users. I doubt you pull the app from the store and smugly proclaim that your users were idiots for thinking it could solve their problems in the first place.

So apply that same thinking to solutions other people are showing you. If you have to drill down to an edge case to find the problem, then what you’re saying is not that the solution is wrong, but that it’s almost right. Provide not a repudiation but an enhancement, a bug fix if you will. Make the solution better and we’ve all learned something.

Conclusion

Of course, don’t be a dick. Your twitter-wang is not the most important thing in your career, knowledge is. You’re a knowledge worker. The person who got up on that stage, or wrote that post or that book, did it because they found something cool and wanted everyone to benefit. They didn’t make you pay some percentage of your app revenue to use that knowledge, or withhold the knowledge, or supply it exclusively to your competition. They told you something they thought would help.

If it didn’t help, maybe that’s because you know something about the topic that they didn’t. That’s fine, but don’t stop at saying that they’re wrong. That doesn’t help you or them, or anyone else who listened. Understand their position, understand how your knowledge provides a different perspective, then combine the two to make the super-mega-awesome KnowledgeZoid. And now start sharing that.

But don’t expect that just because you’re not being a dick, everyone else will not be a dick. Just try to avoid taking it personally: which is hard, I certainly can’t do it all the time. You took a risk in raising your head above the parapet and trying to get us engineers to change the way we work: the reward for that far outweighs the cost of dealing with detractors.

One more thing

There’s another group of developers, of course. Bigger than the sharers, bigger than the detractors. That’s the group of developers who silently get on with building great things. Please, if you’re in that group, consider heading over to the dev forums or to stack overflow and answering one question. Or adding a paragraph to the cocoadev wiki (or just removing decade-old conversations from the content). We’re all eager to learn from you.

A Cupertino Yankee in the Court of King Ballmer

This post summarises my opinions of Windows Phone 7 from the Microsoft Tech Day I went to yesterday. There’s a new version of Windows Phone 7 (codenamed Mango) due out in the Autumn, but at the Tech Day the descriptions of the new features were mainly the sorts of things you see in the Microsoft PressPass video below (Silverlight required), the API stuff is going on in a separate event.

I want to provide some context: I first encountered C#, J# and .NET back in around 2002, when I was given a beta of Visual Studio .NET (Rainier) and Windows .NET Server (which later became Windows Server 2003). Since then, of course most of my programming work has been on Objective-C and Java, on a variety of UNIX platforms but mainly Mac OS X and iOS. But I’ve kept the smallest edge of a toe in the .NET world, too.

From the perspective of the phone, however, I really am coming to this as an iOS guy. Almost all of the mobile work I’ve done has been on iOS, with a small amount of Android thrown into the mix. I’ve used a WP7 phone a couple of times, but have no experience programming on WP7 or earlier Windows Mobile platforms.

The UI

The speakers at the Tech Day – a mix of Microsoft developer relations and third-party MVPs – brought as much focus on user experience and visual impact of WP7 apps as you’ll find at any Apple event. Windows Phone uses a very obviously distinctive UI pattern called Metro, which you can see in the demo screencasts, or the Cocktail Flow app.

Metro is almost diametrically opposed to the user experience on iOS. Rather than try to make apps look like physical objects with leather trim and wooden panels, WP7 apps do away with almost all chrome and put the data front and centre (and, if we’re honest, sides and edges too). Many controls are implicit, encouraging the user to interact with their data and using subtle iconography to provide additional guidance. Buttons and tiles are far from photorealistic, they’re mainly understated coloured squares. Users are not interacting with apps, they’re interacting with content so if an app can provide relevant functionality on data from another app, that’s encouraged. A good example is the augmented search results demoed in the above video, where apps can inspect a user’s search terms and provide their own content to the results.

In fact, that part of the video shows one of the most striking examples of the Metro user interface: the panorama view. While technologically this is something akin to a paginated scroll view or a navigation controller, it’s the visual execution that makes it interesting.

Instead of showing a scroll thumb or a page indicator, the panorama just allows the title of the next page to sneak into the page you’re currently looking at, giving the impression that it’s over there, and if you swipe to it you can find it. When the user goes to the next page, a nice parallax scroll moves the data across by a page but the title by only enough to leave the edges of the previous and next titles showing.

The Tools

It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that Microsoft’s developer tools team is much bigger than Apple’s, and that their tools are more feature-rich as a result (give or take some ancient missteps like MSTest and Visual SourceSafe). But the phone is a comparatively new step: WP7 is under a year old, but of course Windows Mobile and Compact Editions are much older. So how have Microsoft coped with that?

Well, just as Apple chose to use their existing Cocoa and Objective-C as the basis of the iOS SDK, Microsoft have gone with .NET Compact Framework, Silverlight and XNA. That means that they get tools that already support the platform well, because they’re the same tools that people are using to write desktop, “rich internet” and Xbox Live applications.

From the view-construction perspective, XAML reminds me a lot more of WebObjects Builder than Interface Builder. Both offer drag-and-drop view positioning and configuration that’s backed by an XML file, but in Visual Studio it’s easy to get precise configuration by editing the XML directly, just as WebObjects developers can edit the HTML. One of the other reasons it reminds me of WebObjects is that Data Bindings (yes, Windows Phone has bindings…) seems to be much more like WebObjects bindings than Cocoa Bindings.

Custom classes work much better in the XAML tools than in IB. IB plugins have always been a complete ‘mare to set up, poorly documented, and don’t even work in the Xcode 4 XIB editor. The XAML approach is similar to IB’s in that it actually instantiates real objects, but it’s very easy to create mock data sources or drivers for UI objects so that designers can see what the app looks like populated with data or on a simulated slow connection.

Speaking of designers, an interesting tool that has no parallel on the iPhone side is Expression Blend, a XAML-editing tool for designers. You can have the designer working on the same files as the developer, importing photoshop files to place graphics directly into the app project.

It’d be really nice to have something similar on iPhone. All too often I have spent loads of time on a project where the UI is specified as a photoshop wireframe or some other graphic provided by a web designer, and I’m supposed to customise all the views to get pixel-perfection with these wireframes. With Blend, the designer can waste his time doing that instead :).

Other tools highlights include:

  • Runtime-configurable debugging output on both phone and emulator, including frame rates, graphics cache miss information, and Quartz Debug-style flashes of updated screen regions
  • The emulator supports virtual accelerometers
  • The emulator supports developer-supplied fake location information and even test drivers generating location updates <3

The biggest missing piece seems to be a holistic debugging app like Apple’s Instruments. Instruments has proved useful for both bug fixing and performance analysis, and it’s pretty much become a necessary part of my iOS and Mac development work.

Update: I’m told by @kellabyte that an Instruments-like tool is coming as part of the Mango SDK, and that this was announced at MIX ’11.

The “ecosystem”

A couple of the demos shown yesterday demonstrated phone apps talking to Azure cloud services, ASP.NET hosted web apps (mainly using the RESTful OData protocol), SOAP services etc. Because there’s .NET on both sides of the fence, it’s very easy to share model code between the phone app and the server app.

That’s something Apple lacks. While Cocoa can indeed be used on Mac OS X Server, if you want to do anything server-side you have to either hope you can find some open-source components or frameworks, or you have to switch to some other technology like Ruby or PHP. While Apple ship that stuff, it’s hard to claim that they’re offering an integrated way to develop apps on iOS that talk to Apple servers in the same way that MS do.

To the extent that WebObjects can still be said to exist, it doesn’t really fill this gap either. Yes, it means that Apple provide a way to do dynamic web applications: but you can’t use Apple’s tools (use Eclipse and WOLips instead), you can’t share code between iOS and WO (iOS doesn’t have Java, and WO hasn’t had ObjC in a long time), and you can just about share data if you want to use property lists as your interchange format.

On the other hand, it’s much easier to distribute the same app on both iPhone and iPad than it would be to do so on WP7 and a Microsoft tablet/slate, because their official line is still that Windows 7 is their supported slate OS. I expect that to change once the Nokia handset thing has shaken out, but making a Silverlight tablet app is more akin to writing a Mac app than porting an iOS app.

The market

This is currently the weakest part, IMO, of the whole Windows Phone 7 deal, though it is clear that MS have put some thought and resources behind trying to address the problems. Given that Windows Phone 7 was such a late response to the iPhone and Android, Microsoft need to convince developers to write on the platform and users to adopt the platform. The problem is, users are driven to use apps, so without any developers there won’t be any users: without any users, there’s no profit on the platform so there are no developers.

Well, not no developers. Apparently the 17,000 apps on the marketplace were written by 7,500 of the 42,000 registered developers (and interestingly the UK has one of the lowest ratio of submitted apps to registered developers). By comparison, there are 500,000 apps on the app store.

Microsoft has clearly analysed the bejeesus out of the way their users interact with the marketplace. They have seen, for instance, that MO billing (essentially having your phone operator add your app purchase costs to your phone bill, rather than having a credit card account on the marketplace itself) increases purchase rates of apps by 5 times, and are working (particularly through Nokia of course who already have these arrangements) to add MO billing in as many marketplace countries as they can.

This makes sense. People already have a payment relationship with their network operators, so it’s easier for them to add a few quid to their phone bill than it is to create a new paying account with the Windows Marketplace and give Microsoft their card details. By analogy, iPhone users already have bought stuff from Apple (an iPhone, usually…and often some music) so throwing some extra coin their way for apps is easy. Incidentally, I think this is why the Android app market isn’t very successful: people see Google as that free stuff company so setting up a Checkout account to buy apps involves an activation energy.

Incidentally, some other stats from the app marketplace: 12 downloads per user per month (which seems high to me), 3.2% of all apps downloaded are paid, and the average price of a bought app is a shave under $3. Assuming around 3 million users worldwide (a very rough number based on MS and analyst announcements), that would mean a total of around $3.5M app sales worldwide per month. That’s nowhere near what’s going on on the iPhone, so to get any appreciable amount of cash out of it you’d better have an app that appeals to all of the platform’s users.

The subject of appeal is a big issue, too. Microsoft aren’t really targeting the WP7 at anyone in particular, just people who want a smartphone. With Mango and Nokia handsets, they’ll be targeting people who want a cheaper smartphone than RIM/Apple/Android offers: I bet that brings down that $3 mean app price. This is, in my opinion, a mistake. Microsoft should play to their strengths, and make a generally-useful device but target it at particular groups who Microsoft can support particularly well.

Who are those groups? Well, I think there’s Xbox 360 gamers, as WP7 has Xbox Live integration; and there’s enterprises with custom app needs, due to the integration with Azure and similarity with ASP.NET. It ought to be cheaper for game shop that’s written an Xbox game to do a WP7 tie-in than an iOS tie-in. It ought to be cheaper for an enterprise with an MS IT department to extend their line-of-business apps onto WP7 than onto Blackberry. Therefore MS should court the crap out of those developers and make the WP7 the go-to device for those people, rather than just saying “buy this instead of an iPhone or Android”.

The reason I’d do it that way is that you bring the users and the developers together on shared themes, so you increase the chance that any one app is useful or relevant to any given customer and therefore increase the likelihood that they pay. Once you’ve got gamers and game devs together, for example, the gamers will want to do other things and so there’ll be a need for developers of other classes of app. I call using Xbox games to sell utilities the Halo Effect.

Conclusion

Windows Phone 7 is a well thought out mobile platform, with some interesting user experience and design. It’s got a good development environment, that’s highly consistent with the rest of the Microsoft development platform. However, no matter how easy and enjoyable you make writing apps, ultimately there needs to be someone to sell them to. Microsoft don’t have a whole lot of users on their platform, and they’re clearly banking on Nokia bringing their huge brand to beef up sales. They should be making the platform better for some people, and then getting those people on to the platform to make WP7 phones aspirational. They aren’t, so we just have to wait and see what happens with Nokia.

Footnote: Nokisoft

Nokia do well everywhere that Microsoft doesn’t, by which I mean Europe and China mainly. Particularly China actually, where the Ovi store is pretty big. Conversely, MS phone isn’t doing too badly in America, where Nokia traditionally are almost unheard of. So on paper, the Nokia deal should be a good thing for both companies.

On the top 5 iOS appsec issues

Nearly 13 months ago, the Intrepidus Group published their top 5 iPhone application development security issues. Two of them are valid issues, the other three they should perhaps have thought longer over.

The good

Sensitive data unprotected at rest

Secure communications to servers

Yes, indeed, if you’re storing data on a losable device then you need to protect the data from being lost, and if you’re retrieving that data from elsewhere then you need to ensure you don’t give it away while you’re transporting it.

Something I see a bit too often is people turning off SSL certificate validation while they’re dealing with their test servers, and forgetting to turn it on in production.

The bad

Buffer overflows and other C programming issues

While you can indeed crash an app this way, I’ve yet to see evidence you can exploit an iOS app through any old buffer overflow due to the stack guards, restrictive sandboxes, address-space layout randomisation and other mitigations. While there are occasional targeted attacks, I would have preferred if they’d been specific about which problems they think exist and what devs can do to address them.

Patching your application

Erm, no. Just get it right. If there are fast-moving parts that need to change frequently, extract them from the app and put them in a hosted component.

The platform itself

To quote Scott Pack in “The DMZ”, If you can’t trust your users to implement your security plan, then your security plan must work without their involvement. In other words, if you have a problem and the answer is to train 110 million people, then you have two problems.

On platform-specific strategies

I’m writing some library code at the moment that needs to work on both Mac OS X and iOS. The APIs I need to use on each platform are different, so I need different code on each platform. I also happen to think that putting both versions of the code in the same implementation file is icky.

Here’s what I’m doing. I define an abstract class FZAPlatformStrategy, that defines the interface and knows how to choose an appropriate subclass depending on the platform.

FZAPlatformStrategy.h

@interface FZAPlatformStrategy : NSObject {
@private
}
- (void)doThing;
+ (FZAPlatformStrategy *)newPlatformStrategy;

@end

FZAPlatformStrategy.m

@implementation FZAPlatformStrategy

- (void)doThing {
    [[NSException exceptionWithName: @"FZAPlatformStrategyAbstractClassException"
                            reason: @"Use +[FZAPlatformStrategy newPlatformStrategy] to get an appropriate subclass"
                          userInfo: nil] raise];
}

+ (FZAPlatformStrategy *)newPlatformStrategy {
    id strategy = nil;
#if TARGET_OS_IPHONE
    strategy = [[FZAPlatformStrategyiPhone alloc] init];
#else
    strategy = [[FZAPlatformStrategyMac alloc] init];
#endif
    return platformStrategy;
}

@end

OK, so now as you can imagine there is a class FZAPlatformStrategyiPhone that uses the iOS APIs, and another FZAPlatformStrategyMac that uses the OS X APIs. Each of these overrides the -doThing method to provide the appropriate platform-specific implementation. Of course, to get these to compile I conditionally define the whole @implementation contents of each based on the target platform.

The library code that needs to interface with this code just calls [FZAPlatformStrategy newPlatformStrategy]; to get an instance, and then because we’ve encapsulated the platform-specific behaviour it can use whatever it gets in a consistent way. Need to add another platform, say GNUStep/Linux? Define a new FZAPlatformStrategy subclass, and change +newPlatformStrategy to know when to return an instance of that subclass.

The remaining bit of ugly is the preprocessor conditional in +newPlatformStrategy. I decided to leave this as-is: it is at least highly localised ugly. The other approach I considered and discarded was to look for a platform-specific class like UIDevice being non-Nil, but then I realised that someone would probably implement that on the other platform and mess up the test.

Any other solutions for doing the “which platform am I on” test gratefully received.

Storing and testing credentials: Cocoa Touch Edition

This article introduces the concept of key stretching, using code examples to explain the ideas. For code you can use in an app that more closely resembles current practice, see Password checking with CommonCrypto.

There’s been quite the media circus regarding the possibility that Sony was storing authentication credentials for its PlayStation Network credentials in plain text. I was even quoted in a UK national daily paper regarding the subject. But none of this helps you: how should you deal with user passwords?

The best solution is also the easiest: if you can avoid it, don’t store the passwords yourself. On the Mac, you can use the OpenDirectory framework to authenticate both local users and users with accounts on the network (where the Mac is configured to talk to a networked directory service). This is fully covered in Chapter 2 of Professional Cocoa Application Security.

On the iPhone, you’re not so lucky. And maybe on the Mac there’s a reason you can’t use the local account: your app needs to manage its own password. The important point is that you never need to see that password—you need to know that the same password was presented in order to know (or at least have a good idea) that the same user is at the touchscreen, but that’s not the same as seeing the password itself.

That means that we don’t even need to use encryption where we can protect the password and recover it when we must check the password. Instead we can use a cryptographic one-way hash function to store data derived from the password: we can never get the password back, but we can always generate the same hash value when we see the same password.

Shut up Graham. Show me the code.

Here it is. This code is provided under the terms of the WTFPL, and comes without any warranty to the extent permitted by applicable law.

The first thing you’ll need to do is generate a salt. This is a random string of bytes that is combined with the password to hash: the point here is that if two users on the same system have the same password, the fact that the salt is different means that they still have different hashes. So you can’t do any statistical analysis on the hashes to work out what some of the passwords are. Otherwise, you could take your knowledge that, say, 10% of people use “password” as their password, and look for the hash that appears 10% of the time.

It also protects the password against a rainbow tables attack by removing the one-one mapping between a password and its hash value. This mitigation is actually more important in the real world than the one above, which is easier to explain :-).

This function uses Randomization Services, so remember to link Security.framework in your app’s link libraries build phase.

NSString *FZARandomSalt(void) {
    uint8_t bytes[16] = {0};
    int status = SecRandomCopyBytes(kSecRandomDefault, 16, bytes);
    if (status == -1) {
        NSLog(@"Error using randomization services: %s", strerror(errno));
        return nil;
    }
    NSString *salt = [NSString stringWithFormat: @"%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x%2x",
                      bytes[0],  bytes[1],  bytes[2],  bytes[3],
                      bytes[4],  bytes[5],  bytes[6],  bytes[7],
                      bytes[8],  bytes[9],  bytes[10], bytes[11],
                      bytes[12], bytes[13], bytes[14], bytes[15]];
    return salt;
}

Now you pass this string, and the password, to the next function, which actually calculates the hash. In fact, it runs through the hashing function 5,000 times. That slows things down a little—on an A4-equipped iPad it takes nearly 0.088s to compute the hash—but it also slows down brute-force attacks.

NSData *FZAHashPassword(NSString *password, NSString *salt) {
    NSCParameterAssert([salt length] >= 32);
    uint8_t hashBuffer[64] = {0};
    NSString *saltedPassword = [[salt substringToIndex: 32] stringByAppendingString: password];
    const char *passwordBytes = [saltedPassword cStringUsingEncoding: NSUTF8StringEncoding];
    NSUInteger length = [saltedPassword lengthOfBytesUsingEncoding: NSUTF8StringEncoding];
    CC_SHA512(passwordBytes, length, hashBuffer);
    for (NSInteger i = 0; i < 4999; i++) {
        CC_SHA512(hashBuffer, 64, hashBuffer);
    }
    return [NSData dataWithBytes: hashBuffer length: 64];
}

Where do I go now?

You now have two pieces of information: a random salt, like edbfe42b3da2995a159c16c0a7184211, and a hash of the password, like 855fec563d91576db0e66d8745a3a9cb71dbe40d7cb2615a82b1c87958dd2e8e56db02860739422b976f182a7055dd223a3037dd3dcc5e1ca28aaaf0bade8a08. Store both of these on the machine where the password will be tested. In principle there isn’t too much worry about this data being leaked, because it’s super-hard to get the password out of it, but it’s still best practice to restrict access as much as you can so that attackers have to brute-force passwords on your terms.

When you come to verify the user’s password, pass the string presented by the user and the stored salt to FZAHashPassword(). You should get the same hash out that you previously calculated, if the same password was presented.

Anything else?

Yes. The weakest part of this solution is no longer the password storage: it’s the password itself. The salt+hash shown above is actually for the password “password” (try it yourself), and no amount of software is going to change the fact that that’s a questionable choice of password…well, software that finally does away with password authentication will, but that’s a different argument.

If you want to limit a user’s ability to choose a simple password, you have to do this at password registration and change time. Just look at the (plain-text) password the user has given you and decide whether you want to allow its use.

What happens when you jailbreak an iPad

Having played around with an iPad running a jailbreak OS yesterday, I thought it would be useful to explain one possible attack that doesn’t seem to get much coverage.

As I’ve discussed in numerous talks, the data protection feature of iOS (introduced in iOS 4, enabled by setting the NSFileProtectionComplete option on a file or writing data with the NSDataWritingFileProtectionComplete option) only works fully when the user has a passcode lock enabled. The operating system can derive a key to protect the files (indirectly, but that’s another talk) from the passcode, so when the device is locked the files are really inaccessible because the device has no idea what the unlock key is.

This can be seen when you try and access the content via SSH. Of course, the SSH daemon must be installed on a jailbreak operating system, but you don’t need the passcode to jailbreak:

$ ssh -l root@192.168.0.27
[key/auth exchange...the default password is still 'alpine']
# cd /User/Applications/C393CDBF-1A82-4D7B-A064-D6DFB8CC20DB/Documents
# cat UnprotectedFile
The flag. You haz it.
# cat ProtectedFile
cat: Error: Operation not permitted
[unlock]
# cat ProtectedFile
The flag. You haz it.

Now of course you do need physical access to jailbreak, but that doesn’t take particularly long. So here’s a situation that should probably appear in your threat models:

  1. Attacker retrieves target’s iPad
  2. Attacker installs jailbreak OS with data-harvesting tools
  3. Attacker returns iPad to the target
  4. Target uses iPad

Of course, an attacker who simply tea leafs the target’s iPad can’t perform this attack, and won’t be able to retrieve the files.

On NSInvocation

I was going to get down to doing some writing, but then I got some new kit I needed to set up, so that isn’t going to happen. Besides which, I was talking to one developer about NSInvocation and writing to another about NSInvocation, then another asked about NSInvocation. So now seems like a good time to talk about NSInvocation.

What is NSInvocation?

Well, we could rely on Apple’s NSInvocation class reference to tell us that

An NSInvocation is an Objective-C message rendered static, that is, it is an action turned into an object.

This means that you can construct an invocation describing sending a particular message to a particular object, without actually sending the message. At some later point you can send the message as rendered, or you can change the target, or any of the parameters. This “store-and-forward” messaging makes implementing some parts of an app very easy, and represents a realisation of a design pattern called Command.

How is that useful?

The Gang of Four describes Command like this:

Encapsulate a request as an object, thereby letting you parameterize clients with different requests, queue or log requests, and support undoable operations.

Well, what is NSInvocation other than a request encapsulated as an object?

You can imagine that this would be useful in a distributed system, such as a remote procedure call (RPC) setup. In such a situation, code in the client process sends a message to its RPC library, which is actually acting as a proxy for the remote service. The library bundles up the invocation and passes it to the remote service, where the RPC implementation works out which object in the server process is being messaged and invokes the message on that target.

Spoiler alert: that really is how Distributed Objects on Mac OS X operates. NSInvocation instances can be serialised over a port connection and sent to remote processes, where they get deserialised and invoked.

An undo manager, similarly, works using the Command pattern and NSInvocation. Registering an undo action creates an invocation, describing what would need to be done to revert some user action. This invocation is placed on a queue, so the undo operations are all recorded in order. When the user hits Cmd-Z, the undo manager sends the most recent undo invocation to its target.

Similarly, an operation queue is just a list of requests that can be invoked later…this also sounds like it could be a job for NSInvocation (though to be sure, blocks are also used, which is another implementation of the same pattern).

The remaining common application of Command is for sending the same method to all of the objects in a collection. You would construct an invocation for the first object, then for each object in the collection change the invocation’s target before invoking it.

Got a Concrete Example?

OK, here’s one. You can use +[NSThread detachNewThreadSelector: toObject: withTarget:] to spawn a new thread. Because every thread in an iOS application needs its own autorelease pool, you need to create an autorelease pool at the beginning of the target selector’s method and release it at the end. Without using the Command pattern, this means one or more of:

  • Having a memory leak, if you can’t edit the method implementation
  • Having boilerplate autorelease pool code on every method that might – sometime – be called on its own thread
  • Having a wrapper method for any method that might – sometime – need to be called with or without a surrounding pool.

Sucks, huh? Let’s see if we can make that any better with NSInvocation and the Command pattern.

- (id)newResultOfAutoreleasedInvocation:(NSInvocation *)inv {
    id returnValue = nil;
    NSAutoreleasePool *pool = [[NSAutoreleasePool alloc] init];
    [inv invoke];
    if ([[inv methodSignature] methodReturnLength] > 0) {
        if (strncmp([[inv methodSignature] methodReturnType],@encode(id), 1)) {
            char *buffer = malloc([[inv methodSignature] methodReturnLength]);
            if (buffer != NULL) {
                [inv getReturnValue: buffer];
                returnValue = [NSValue valueWithBytes: buffer objCType: [[inv methodSignature] methodReturnType]];
                free(buffer);
            }
        }
        else {
            [inv getReturnValue: &returnValue];
        }
        [returnValue retain];
    }
    [pool release];
    return returnValue;
}

Of course, we have to return a retained object, because the NSAutoreleasePool at the top of the stack when the invocation is fired off no longer exists. That’s why the method name is prefixed with “new”: it’s a hint to the analyser that the method will return a retained object.

The other trick here is the mess involving NSValue. That, believe it or not, is a convenience, so that the same method can be used to wrap invocations that have non-object return values. Of course, using NSInvocation means we’re subject to its limitations: we can’t use variadic methods or those that return a union type.

Now, for any method you want to call on a separate thread (or in an operation, or from a dispatch queue, or…) you can use this wrapper method to ensure that it has an autorelease pool in place without having to grub into the method implementation or write a specific wrapper method.

A side note on doing Objective-C properly: this method compares the result of -[NSMethodSignature methodReturnType] with a specific type using the @encode() keyword. Objective-C type encodings are documented to be C strings, and there’s even a page in the documentation listing the current values returned by @encode. It’s best not to rely on those, as Apple might choose to change or extend them in the future.

On Fuzzy Aliens

I have just launched a new company, Fuzzy Aliens[*], offering application security consultancy services for smartphone app developers. This is not the FAQ list, this is the “questions I want to answer so that they don’t become frequently asked” list.

What do you offer?

The company’s services are all focussed on helping smartphone and tablet app developers discover and implement their applications’ security and privacy requirements. When planning an app, I can help with threat modelling, with training developers, securing the development lifecycle, requirements elicitation, secure user experience design, and with developing a testing strategy.

When it comes to implementation, you can hire me to do the security work on your iOS or Android app. That may be some background “plumbing” like storing a password or encrypting sensitive content, or it might be an end-to-end security feature. I can also do security code reviews and vulnerability analysis on existing applications.

Why would I want that?

If you’re developing an application destined for the enterprise market, you probably need it. Company I.T. departments will demand applications that conform to local policy regarding data protection, perhaps based on published standards such as the ISO 27000 family or PCI-DSS.

In the consumer market, users are getting wise to the privacy problems associated with mobile apps. Whether it’s accidentally posting the wrong thing to facebook, or being spied on by their apps, the public don’t want to—and shouldn’t need to—deal with security issues when they’re trying to get their work done and play their games.

Can I afford that?

Having been a Micro-ISV and contracted for others, I know that many apps are delivered under tight budgets by one-person companies. If all you need is a half day together to work on a niggling problem, that’s all you need to pay for. On the other hand I’m perfectly happy to work on longer projects, too :).

Why’s it called Fuzzy Aliens?

Well, the word “fuzz” obviously has a specific meaning in the world of secure software development, but basically the answer is that I knew I could turn that into a cute logo (still pending), and that it hadn’t been registered by a UK Ltd yet.

So how do I contact you about this?

You already have – you’re here. But you could see the company’s contact page for more specific information.


[*] More accurately, I have indicated the intent to do so. The articles of association have not yet been returned by Companies House, so for the next couple of days the blue touch paper is quietly smouldering.

An example of unit testing working for me

Some specific feedback I was given regarding my unit testing talk at VTM: iPhone fall conference was that the talk was short on real-world application of unit testing. That statement is definitely true, and it’s unfortunate that I didn’t meet the attendee’s expectations for the talk. I hope to address that deficiency here, by showing you a real bug that I really fixed via unit testing.

The code is in the still-MIA Rehearsals app. I started developing Rehearsals before I was a full believer in test-driven development, so there were places in the app where I could go back and add tests to existing code. This is actually a pretty useful displacement activity – if you get bored of doing the real code, you can switch to writing the tests. This is enough of a change of pace (for me) to provide a welcome distraction, and still makes the product better.

So, in order to understand the problem, I need to understand the requirements. I’m a fan of the user story approach to requirements documentation, and so Rehearsals has the following story written on a 5×3 index card:

A musician can rate tunes in her tunebook, by giving it a number of stars between 1 and 5. Tunes that the musician has not rated have no star value.

As is often the case, there are other stories that build from this one (any such collection is called an “epic”), but I can concentrate on implementing this user story for now. One feature in Rehearsals is an AppleScript interface, so clearly if the musician can rate a tune, she must be able to do it via AppleScript. Glossing over the vagiaries of the Cocoa Scripting mechanism, I define a property scriptRating on the tune that had the following KVC-compliant accessors:

- (NSNumber *)scriptRating {
    if (!self.rating) {
        return [NSNumber numberWithInteger: 0];
    }
    return self.rating;
}

- (void)setScriptRating: (NSNumber *)newRating {
    NSInteger val = [newRating integerValue];
    if (val < 0 || val > 5) {
        //out of range, tell AppleScript
        NSScriptCommand *cmd = [NSScriptCommand currentCommand];
       [cmd setScriptErrorNumber: TORatingOutOfRangeError];
        //note that AppleScript is never localised
        [cmd setScriptErrorString: @"Rating must be between 0 and 5."];
    }
    else {
        self.rating = newRating;
    }
}

(No prizes for having already found the bug – it’s really lame). So testing that the getter works is ultra-simple: I can just -setRating: and verify that -scriptRating returns the same value. You may think this is not worth doing, but as this functionality is using indirect access via a different property I want to make sure I never break the connection. I decided that a single test would be sufficient (tune is an unconfigured tune object created in -setUp):

- (void)testTuneRatingIsSeenInAppleScript {
    tune.rating = [NSNumber numberWithInteger: 3];
    STAssertEquals([tune.scriptRating integerValue], 3,
                   @"Tune rating should be visible to AppleScript");
}

Simples. Now how do I test the setter? Well, of course I can just set the value and see whether it sticks, that’s the easy bit. But there’s also this bit about being able to get an error into AppleScript if the user tries to set an out of range error. That seems like really useful functionality, because otherwise the app would accept the wrong value and give up later when the persistent store gets saved. So it’d be useful to have a fake script command object that lets me see whether I’m setting an error on it. That’s easy to do:

@interface FakeScriptCommand : NSScriptCommand
{
    NSString *scriptErrorString;
    NSInteger scriptErrorNumber;
}
@property (nonatomic, copy) NSString *scriptErrorString;
@property (nonatomic, assign) NSInteger scriptErrorNumber;
@end

@implementation FakeScriptCommand
@synthesize scriptErrorString;
@synthesize scriptErrorNumber;
- (void) dealloc {...}
@end

OK, but how do I use this object in my test? The tune class sets an error on +[NSScriptCommand currentScriptCommand], which is probably returning an object defined in a static variable in the Foundation framework. I can’t provide a setter +setCurrentScriptCommand:, because I can’t get to the innards of Foundation to set the variable. I could change or swizzle the implementation of +currentScriptCommand in a category, but that has the potential to break other tests if they’re not expecting me to have broken Foundation.

So the solution I went for is to insert a “fulcrum” if you will: a point where the code changes from asking for a script command to being told about a script command:

- (void)setScriptRating: (NSNumber *)newRating {
    [self setRating: newRating fromScriptCommand: [NSScriptCommand currentScriptCommand]];
}

- (void)setRating: (NSNumber *)newRating fromScriptCommand: (NSScriptCommand *)cmd {
    NSInteger val = [newRating integerValue];
    if (val < 0 || val > 5) {
       [cmd setScriptErrorNumber: TORatingOutOfRangeError];
        //note that AppleScript is never localised
        [cmd setScriptErrorString: @"Rating must be between 0 and 5."];
    }
    else {
        self.rating = newRating;
    }
}

This is the Extract Method refactoring pattern. Now it’s possible to test -setRating:fromScriptCommand: without depending on the environment, and be fairly confident that if that works properly, -setScriptRating: should work properly too. I’ll do it:

- (void)testAppleScriptGetsErrorsWhenRatingSetTooLow {
    FakeScriptCommand *cmd = [[FakeScriptCommand alloc] init];
    [tune setRating: [NSNumber numberWithInteger: 0]
  fromScriptCommand: cmd];
    STAssertEquals([cmd scriptErrorNumber], TIRatingOutOfRangeError,
                   @"Should get a rating out of range error");
    STAssertNotNil([cmd scriptErrorString], @"Should report error to the user");
}

Oh-oh, my test failed. Why’s that? I’m sure you’ve spotted it now: the user is supposed to be restricted to values between 1 and 5, but the method is actually testing for the range 0 to 5. I could fix that quickly by changing the value in the test, but I’ll take this opportunity to remove the magic numbers from the code too (though you’ll notice I haven’t done that with the error string yet, I still need to do some more refactoring):

- (void)setRating: (NSNumber *)newRating fromScriptCommand: (NSScriptCommand *)command {
    if (![self validateValue: &newRating forKey: @"rating" error: NULL]) {
        [command setScriptErrorNumber: TIRatingOutOfRangeError];
        //note that AppleScript is never localised
        [command setScriptErrorString: @"Rating must be a number between 1 and 5."];
    }
    else {
        self.rating = newRating;
    }
}

OK, so now my test passes. Great. But that’s not what’s important: what’s important is that I found and fixed a bug by thinking about how my code is used. And that’s what unit testing is for. Some people will say they get a bad taste in their mouths when they see that I redesigned the method just so that it could be used in a test framework. To those people I will repeat the following: I found and fixed a bug.