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.


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.

A first look at appCode, and the future of Cocoa IDEs?

It’s been almost a full rotation of this great rock about its axis since JetBrains announced the start of its appCode Early Access Program.

appCode is an Integrated Development Environment, just the same as Xcode. Just like Xcode, appCode works with Objective-C projects on Mac and iOS: in fact, under the hood it’s using xcodebuild, llvm and all of the same tools that Xcode uses.

Unlike Xcode, appCode was written by JetBrains, the company who make the IntelliJ IDEA environment for Java. Now I’ve never used IntelliJ, but I have used Eclipse and NetBeans (and even Xcode!) for Java development, and that’s kindof the point. There’s a lot of competition in the Java world for IDEs, so they all have a boatload of features timesaving devices that are missing from Xcode.

Now, before we get too far into details, let’s get this out of the way. appCode—though not itself a cross-platform app—is a Java app based on the same framework as IntelliJ. It therefore doesn’t look like a Cocoa app, it looks like this:

Screen shot 2011 04 06 at 16 53 22

That’s enough to put some of you off, I’m sure. As people who know that user experience is the first most important factor of any app, it’s easy to be distracted by an obviously alien user interface.

Maybe it’s partly because I’ve used so many cross-platform IDEs, but I’ve become inured to the look of the products. I don’t mind (or at least, can deal with) a nonstandard interface if it provides a better experience. It’s quite pleasing that in some cases, appCode does indeed come through.

What does it do that Xcode doesn’t?

One feature that every other IDE I’ve used has which is missing from Xcode is the ability to automatically stub out methods defined in the class interface (or the superclass interface, or a category, or a protocol…) in the implementation. This is a great feature for saving a boatload of typing (or even flipping between multiple views with copy and paste). Design your class’s header, then use the Override Methods, Implement Methods and Generate… items in appCode’s Code menu to automatically fill in the boilerplate bits in the implementation.

Another improvement appCode brings over Xcode is in its refactoring support. Xcode has long had a refactoring capability that only has a little more syntax awareness than sed, and I’ve previously talked about tops as a command-line equivalent. But what about when you want to change a method signature?

Xcode’s refactoring tools can’t support that, although I want to do it fairly frequently: in fact the last time was this morning. I wanted to change the return type and add a new parameter to an existing method, effectively going from -(void)frobulate: to -(BOOL)frobulate:error:. Well, it turns out that in appCode, you can do that:

Screen shot 2011 04 06 at 17 19 32

So I should be using appCode, then?

Well, that’s not my decision to make, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend using it for production yet. It’s got some bugs (yes, I have filed bug reports) particularly with managing Xcode projects and integrating with the underlying SDKs and tools. You probably don’t want to touch production code with appCode yet.

Some particular issues I’ve found are with the default keyboard shortcuts conflicting with Mac OS X’s default keyboard shortcuts, it doesn’t offer a way to run the static analyzer, and I’ve had a problem where it removed a file from the definition of a project’s target. I was able to address both of the last two problems by going back into Xcode, but of course it would be preferable if I didn’t need to. Another big deal for me is that there isn’t (yet?) any integration with the API documentation.

That said, it is just an early preview, so definitely download it and have a motor around. You’ll probably find some things you do when you’re coding that are easier in appCode, and other things that are easier in Xcode.

What’s all this about the future of Cocoa IDEs?

I sincerely hope that JetBrains take this product to release and that people start adopting it. Based on the current preview, I would expect developers coming to iOS from Java development to be the majority of appCode users, because they’ll be the people most comfortable with its way of working.

My biggest hope is that developers in Apple (both inside the Xcode team and beyond) pick up appCode and take a look at it. What we Cocoa developers need is some competition among IDE producers—particularly now that we need to pay for Xcode— to drive development of the tools we use for our day-to-day work. Xcode is to 2010s Objective-C IDEs as Internet Explorer was to 1990s browsers: it basically works, and you don’t get a choice of what you use so be thankful for whatever features you get from On High.

It’d be great for someone to come along with the Firefox of Objective-C IDEs: a product that reminds users and vendors alike that there’s more than one way to do an IDE and that people are open to trying the other ways.

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;

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

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.

On documentation

Over at the daily WTF, Alex Papadimoulis writes about Documentation Done Right. His conclusion is spot on:

The immediate answer to what’s the right way to do documentation is clear: produce the least amount of documentation needed to facilitate the most understanding, and be very explicit about which documentation is to be maintained and which is to be archived (i.e., read-only and left to rot).

The amount of documentation appropriate to any project depends very much on the project, and the people working on it. However I’ve found that there are some useful rough guides that can generally be applied. Like Alex, I’m ignoring user documentation here and talking about internal project artifacts.

Enterprise project documentation exists to give managers someone to blame.

The reason large projects seem so documentation-heavy is twofold: managers don’t like to think they don’t know what’s going on; and managers like to be able to come down like a ton of shit on someone when they find out that they don’t know what’s going on. That’s where the waterfall model comes into its own. The big up-front planning means that everyone on the project has signed off on the ridiculous unreadable project documentation of doom, so it must describe the best software possible. Whoever does something that isn’t the same as the documentation has fucked up.

You never need the amount of documentation produced by most large-company software projects. Never. It’s usually inaccurate even at the moment the it’s signed off, because it took so long to get there the requirements changed, and because the level of precision required leads authors to make assumptions about how the OS, APIs etc. work. It’s often very hard to work from, because there are multiple documents, poorly cross-referenced using support “tools” like Word, each with its own glossary depending heavily on terminology relevant to the author’s domain. And they weren’t written by the same author.

In order to code up a feature from one of these projects, you need to check the product requirements document to see what it’s supposed to do (and whether it’s the highest priority outstanding work – you also get to find out who asked for the feature, how much money it’s worth, and plenty of other information that’s of no use to a software engineer). You check the functional specification to see how it’s supposed to do it. You check the architecture document to see what classes go in which packages. You raise a change control because the APIs don’t support part of the functional specification. Two weeks later, a fix has been approved. You write the code, ensuring that you use the test plan to find out what the acceptance criteria are, and when they’ll be tested (in fact, I’ve worked on projects where the functional and performance test plans were delivered at different times by different people). Oh, and make sure you’re keeping up to date with the issue tracker, otherwise you might do work that’s been assigned to someone else. Your systems engineer can point to the process documentation to let you know how you do that.

Good documentation doesn’t answer all the questions, but leaves you capable of asking smart questions of the right people.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of user stories as a form of requirements documentation. A well-written user story tells you what the user expects to be able to do after a feature has been added, and precious little else. There might be questions over terminology, or specifics such as failure cases, but you know who to ask – the person who wrote the user story. There will be nothing about architecture or the GUI layout, because those things aren’t up to the user, customer or product manager (or at least they shouldn’t be).

Similarly, a good architecture diagram is going to tell you something about how the classes in an application fit together, and precious little else. If you can’t work out how to fit your feature in, you can ask the architect, but you’ll both be able to use the diagram as a good place to start. As Alex says in his post, precise documentation will go out of date quickly, so the documentation needs to be good enough to hang discussions on, and no “better”.

UML diagrams are great to describe code before it’s been written; they’re not so great at writing code.

If you’re trying to explain to another engineer how you think a feature should work in code, what design pattern to follow, or what steps will be needed to talk to a server, then a UML diagram is a great way to do it. Many engineers understand UML, and those who don’t can work out what it means (with your help) very quickly. It’s a consistent language for talking about software.

That said, when I draw UML diagrams I tend to prefer whiteboards and agnostic diagramming software like Omnigraffle or dia over syntax-checking UML tools like Enterprise Architect or ArgoUML. The reason is that I gave in the last section: the diagram needs to be good enough to explain to someone else what we’re going to do, not a gold-plated example of conformance to the UML specification. I don’t care if my swim-lane is in the wrong place if everybody involved knows what I mean (or can ask).

Code generated from UML tools tends to have readability issues. Whereas you or I might put related methods together, the tool might sort them by visibility or name. If you’re diagram is rough enough to be useful, then the tool will only generate a few method stubs – and you’ll be tempted to fill them in rather than creating small private methods to do logical units of work. These and other problems (I’ve seen EA generate code that uses UUIDs as class identifiers) can be fixed, but you shouldn’t need to fix them. You should write your application and sell it.

After code has been written, the only accurate documentation is the code itself (or generated from it).

There are other useful forms of documentation – for instance, a whiteboard diagram explains a developer’s understanding of the code. It doesn’t document the code itself – an important distinction.[*] All of those shiny enterprise documents your project manager got you to write went out of date as soon as the first customer reported a bug or feature request. The code, however, documents exactly what the code does – just not necessarily in the most useful way. Javadoc/doxygen comments are more likely than any thing else to stay in sync with the code due to their proximity, but even those can be outdated or unhelpful.

This is where UML tools can come in very handy. Those with the ability to generate diagrams based on code (even Xcode does this) can automatically give you a correct view of the application’s behaviour, at a more appropriate level of abstraction than the code itself. If what you need is a package dependency diagram, it’s better to get it from a UML tool than to try and read all of the source.

Unfortunately, Xcode (and Doxygen’s very limited capabilities) are the only games in town for Objective-C. Tool support for Java and C# is way ahead, but for Cocoa developers there’s only MacTranslator (which I’ve never tried). Not that UML maps particularly well onto Objective-C anyway.

[*]Though documenting a developer’s assumptions and comparing them with reality can often explain where some subtle bugs come from, and is of course useful.

The better your prototypes, the worse the feedback.

Back in the 1990s there was an explosion of Rapid Application Development tools, after the rest of the software industry saw Interface Builder and decided it was good. The RAD way (which is, of course, eminently achievable using IB) is to produce an executable prototype for users to give feedback on. Of course, the problem is that you end up shipping the prototype. I’ve actually ended up doing that on a couple of Mac applications.

One problem is that because the app looks complete, users assume it is complete and that they’re being asked to provide polishing details, or spot spelling mistakes and misplaced buttons. The other is that because it looks complete, managers assume it is complete and will tell you to ship it.

Don’t make that mistake. Do UI prototypes as paper-based wireframes, Keynote presentations or Cappuccino apps. Whatever you do, make it look like it’s just a crappy sketch you’re willing to have ripped to shreds. That way, people will rip it to shreds.

There are few document “artifacts” that need to hang around.

If you think about what you’re going to do with an application after you’ve written it, there’s selling it, supporting it, maintaining it, and extending it. Support people might need some high-level architecture knowledge so that they can work out what component a problem is in, or how to diagnose a particular failure.

Such an architecture document can be a good aid for planning new features or bug fixes, because you can quickly see where you need to modify the app to get the desired behaviour (clearly you then need to dive into the code to get a better idea, but you know where to jump). Similarly, architecture rationale documentation (including the threat model, API/library use justification) can be handy so that you don’t need to go through the same debates/research when fixing a bug or adding a feature. Threat models particularly can take a lot of time and expertise to construct from scratch.

Sales people will need to know which features have been delivered, which features are on the roadmap, and can probably find out specific questions from engineers if they get a grilling from an awkward customer. Only in a very limited set of circumstances will sales staff need to give customers security documentation, test coverage information, or anything other than the user manual.

Notice that in each of these cases, one of the main aspects of keeping the document around is so that you can keep it up to date. There’s no point having the 1.0 feature list when you’re selling version 2.5 – in fact it would be positively detrimental. So obviously the fewer documents you keep around, the fewer you need to keep up to date. There’s some trade-off involved (natürlich) – if you need something you didn’t hang on to, you’re going to have to regenerate it.

On voices that matter

In October I’ll be in Philadelphia, PA talking at Voices That Matter: Fall iPhone Developers’ Conference. I’m looking forward to meeting some old friends and new faces, and sucking up a little more of that energy and enthusiasm that pervades all of the Apple-focussed developer events I’ve been to. In comparison with other fields of software engineering, Cocoa and Cocoa Touch development have a sense of community that almost exudes from the very edifices of the conference venues.

But back to the talk. Nay, talks. While Alice was directed by the cake on the other side of the looking glass to “Eat Me”, the label on my slice said “bite off more of me than you can chew”. Therefore I’ll be speaking twice at this event, the first talk on Saturday is on Unit Testing, which I’ve taken over just now from Dave Dribin. Having seen Dave talk on software engineering practices before (and had lively discussions regarding coupling and cohesion in Cocoa code in the bar afterwards), I’m fully looking forward to adding his content’s biological and technological distinctiveness to my own. I’ll be covering the why of unit testing in addition to the how and what.

My second talk is on – what else – security and encryption in iOS applications. In this talk I’ll be looking at some of the common features of iOS apps that require security consideration, how to tease security requirements out of your customers and product managers and then looking at the operating system support for satisfying those requirements. This gives me a chance to focus more intently on iOS than I was able to in Professional Cocoa Application Security (Wrox Professional Guides), looking at specific features and gotchas of the SDK and the distinctive environment iOS apps find themselves in.

I haven’t decided what my schedule for the weekend will be, but there are plenty of presentations I’m interested in watching. So look for me on the conference floor (and, of course, in the bar)!

NSConference MINI videos available

During WWDC week I talked at NSConference MINI, a one-day conference organised by Scotty and the MDN. The videos are now available: free to attendees, or $50 for all 10 for non-attendees.

My own talk was on extending the Clang static analyser, to perform your own tests on your code. I’m pleased with the amount I managed to get in, and I like how the talk managed to fit well with the general software-engineering theme of the conference. There’s stuff on bit-level manipulation, eXtreme Programming, continuous integration, product management and more. I’d fully recommend downloading the whole shebang.

On detecting God Classes

Opinion on Twitter was divided when I suggested the following static analyser behaviour: report on any class that conforms to too many protocols.

Firstly, a warning: “too many” is highly contextual. Almost all objects implement NSObject and you couldn’t do much without it, so it gets a bye. Other protocols, like NSCoding and NSCopying, are little bits of functionality that don’t really dilute a class by their presence. It’s probably harmless for a class to implement those in addition to other protocols. Still others are so commonly implemented together (like UITableViewDataSource and UITableViewDelegate, or WebView‘s four delegate protocols) that they probably shouldn’t independently count against a class’s “protocol weight”. On the other hand, a class that conforms to UITableViewDelegate, UIAlertViewDelegate and MKMapViewDelegate might be trying to do too much – of which more after the next paragraph.

Secondly, a truism: the goal of a static analyser is to ignore code that the developer’s happy with, and to warn about code the developer isn’t happy with. If your coding style permits a class to conform to any number of protocols, and you’re happy with that, then you shouldn’t implement this analyser rule. If you would be happy with a maximum of 2, 4, or 1,024 protocols, you would benefit from a rule with that number. As I said in my NSConf MINI talk, the analyser’s results are not as cleanly definable as compiler errors (which indicate code that doesn’t conform to the language definition) or warnings (which indicate code that is very probably incorrect). The analyser is more of a code style and API use checker. Conforming to protocols is use of the API that can be checked.

OK, let’s get on with it. A class that conforms to too many protocols has too many reponsibilities – it is a “God Class”. Now how can this come about? A developer who has heard about model-view-controller (MVC) will try to divide classes into three high-level groups, like this:

MVC high-level architecture

The problem comes when the developer fails to take that diagram for what it is: a 50,000-foot overview of the MVC architecture. Many Mac and iOS developers will use Core Data, and will end up with a model composed of multiple different entities. If a particular piece of the app’s workflow needs to operate on multiple entities, they may break that out into “business logic” objects that can be called by the controller. Almost all Mac and iOS developers use the standard controls and views, meaning they have no choice but to break up the view into multiple objects.

But where does that leave the controller? Without any motivation to divide things up, everything else is stuffed into a single object (likely an NSDocument or UIViewController subclass). This is bad. What happens if you need to display the same table in two different places? You have to go through that class, picking out the bits that are relevant, finding out where they’re tied to the bits that aren’t and untangling them. Ugh.

Cocoa developers will probably already be using multiple controller objects if they’re using Cocoa Bindings. Each NSArrayController or similar receives its object or objects, usually from the main controller object, and then gets on with the job of marshalling the interaction between the bound view and the observed model objects. So, if we take the proposed changes so far, our MVC diagram looks like this:

MVC - Slightly closer look

The point of my protocol-checking code is to go the remaining distance, and abstract out the other data sources into their own objects. What we’re left with is a controller that looks after the view’s use case, ensuring that logic actions take place when they ought, that steps in the workflow only become available when their preconditions are met, and so on. Everything related to performing the logic is down in those dynamic model objects, and everything to do with data presentation is in its own controller objects. Well, maybe not everything – a button doesn’t exactly have a complicated API. But if you need a table of employees for this view controller and a table of employees for that view controller, you just take the same table datasource object in both places. You don’t have two different datasource implementations in two view controllers (or even the same one pasted twice). This makes the diagram look like this:

MVC - more separation

So to summarise, a class that conforms to too many protocols probably has too many responsibilities. The usual reason for this is that controller objects take on responsibility for managing workflow, providing data to views and handling delegate responsibilities for the views. This leads to code that is not reusable except through the disdainful medium of copy-pasting, as it is harder to define a clean interface between these various concerns. By producing a tool that reports on the existence of such God classes, developers can be alerted to their presence and take steps to fix them.

Using Aspect-Oriented Programming for Security Engineering

This paper by Kotrappa Sirbi and Prakash Jayanth Kulkarni (link goes to HTML abstract, full text PDF is free) discusses implementation of an application’s security requirements in Java using Aspect-Oriented Programming (AOP).

We have AOP for Objective-C (of sorts), but as hardly anyone has used it I think it’s worth taking a paragraph or two out to explain. If you’ve ever written a non-trivial Cocoa[ Touch] application, you’ll have found that even when you have a good object-oriented design, you have code that addresses different concerns mixed together. A method that performs some useful task (deleting a document, for example) also calls some logging code, checks for authorisation, reports errors, and maybe some other things. Let’s define the main business concerns of the application as, well, business concerns, and all of these other things like logging and access control as cross-cutting concerns.

AOP is an attempt to reduce the coupling between business and cross-cutting code by introducing aspects. An aspect is a particular cross-cutting concern that must be implemented in an application, such as logging. Rather than calling the logging code from the business code, we’ll define join points, which are locations in the business code where it’s useful to insert cross-cutting code. These join points are usually method calls, but could also be exception throw points or anywhere else that program control changes. We don’t necessarily need logging at every join point, so we also define predicates that say which join points are useful for logging. Whenever one of the matching join points is met, the application will run the logging code.

This isn’t just useful for adding code. Your aspect code can also define whether the business code actually gets run at all, and can even inspect and modify the return value of the business code. That’s where it gets useful for security purposes. You don’t need to put your access control (for instance) checks inside the business code, you can define them as modifications to join points in the business code. If you need to change the way access control works (say going from a single-user to directory service scheme, or from password checks to access tokens) you can just change the implementation of the aspect rather than diving through all of the app code.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can just implement the business logic then add security stuff later, like icing a cake or sprinkling fairy dust. You still need to design the business objects such that the security control decisions and the join points occur at the same places. However, AOP is useful for separating concerns, and for improving maintainability of non-core app behaviour.

Template class for unit testing Core Data entities

Some time ago, in a blog far, far, away, I wrote about unit-testing Core Data. Essentially, your test case class should create a temporary, in-memory Core Data stack in -setUp, and clean it up in -tearDown. Your test methods can access the temporary context, model and persistent store to investigate the behaviour of objects under test.

The thing is, with any non-trivial Core Data app you’re going to end up with multiple entities, each with its own suite of tests. Wouldn’t it be nice if Xcode could set that stuff up automatically?


Oh, right, it can :-). The template header is class.h:

//  Created by «FULLUSERNAME» on «DATE».
//  Copyright «YEAR» «ORGANIZATIONNAME». All rights reserved.

#import <SenTestingKit/SenTestingKit.h>

    NSPersistentStoreCoordinator *coord;
    NSManagedObjectContext *ctx;
    NSManagedObjectModel *model;
    NSPersistentStore *store;


And the implementation, class.m:

//  Created by «FULLUSERNAME» on «DATE».
//  Copyright «YEAR» «ORGANIZATIONNAME». All rights reserved.



- (void)setUp
    model = [[NSManagedObjectModel mergedModelFromBundles: nil] retain];
    coord = [[NSPersistentStoreCoordinator alloc] initWithManagedObjectModel: model];
    store = [coord addPersistentStoreWithType: NSInMemoryStoreType
                                configuration: nil
                                          URL: nil
                                      options: nil 
                                        error: NULL];
    ctx = [[NSManagedObjectContext alloc] init];
    [ctx setPersistentStoreCoordinator: coord];

- (void)tearDown
    [ctx release];
    ctx = nil;
    NSError *error = nil;
    STAssertTrue([coord removePersistentStore: store error: &error], 
                 @"couldn't remove persistent store: %@", error);
    store = nil;
    [coord release];
    coord = nil;
    [model release];
    model = nil;


Put those in a folder called /Library/Application Support/Developer/Shared/Xcode/File Templates/Thaes Ofereode/Objective-C test case class (Core Data).pbfiletemplate
, along with a TemplateInfo.plist file that looks like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "http://www.apple.com/DTDs/PropertyList-1.0.dtd">
<plist version="1.0">
	<string>A subclass of SenTestCase, with optional header. Automatically sets up a managed object context suitable for unit-testing Core Data entities.</string>

Xcode will automatically pick up the template the next time you use the template chooser.

Configuring CruiseControl.rb in under an hour

One of the changes I decided to make straight after NSConf MINI yesterday was to enable continuous integration for my projects. I had used CI before based on BuildBot, but that had left me less than impressed:

  • It was really hard to set up
  • Its dependency system was less than optimal, leading it to do things like running the integration tests even after the build had failed
  • It had really bad memory consumption. The official line was that it didn’t leak, but used a massive working set. Now I don’t have a dedicated system for CI so can’t really spare all my RAM :)

In his talk yesterday, Gordon Murrison mentioned that Open Planet Software use CruiseControl.rb, and in conversation he assured me that it wasn’t as bad as all that. I decided to set it up today, and it took me pretty much an hour to go from downloading the source to having a working continuous integration setup. If I had known the stuff below, it could’ve been quicker.

The downloads page for CC.rb says that you need an older version of Ruby than Snow Leopard ships with, but I found that it actually works with the stock Ruby, so no problem there.

Before going any further, I decided to create a separate user account for automated builds. This is to provide some validation of the source code – so we know that the product actually can be built from the artefacts in SCM, and doesn’t depend on some magic configuration that happens to be part of my developer box. In fact, it turns out that for me there was some magic configuration in place – the Rehearsals build depends on the BGHUDAppKit IBPlugin, which of course wasn’t installed for my new cruisecontrol user.

So with the build environment set up, I can point CC.rb at my project. That’s done with this command line:

./cruise add Rehearsals --source-control svn --repository http://svn.thaesofereode.info/rehearsals/branches/branch-to-watch

Note that you have to specify the path all the way to the actual branch you want it to build (or trunk), not the top level of the repository. Now you need to tell it how to actually build the project. So edit ~/.cruise/projects/Rehearsals/cruise_config.rb and add a line like this:

project.build_command = 'xcodebuild -configuration Debug -target Test\ Cases build'

That tells Xcode to build the “Test Cases” target in Debug configuration, which in my case is what I need to get my OCUnit tests to run. While you’re in that file, set the project’s email settings, and create config/site_config.rb in the CC.rb distribution folder to set up the mail server (Gmail in my case). Now it should just be a case of running:

./cruise start

and watching my build succeed. But it wasn’t :(. My unit test target is injected into the app, which means that in order for the tests to even launch my cruisecontrol user needed a window server connection, so I used fast-user switching to log it in behind my real user. OK, so now my unit tests are automatically run whenever I check in some source on that branch, and I can see the status at http://localhost:3333/.

That’s as far as I’ve got for now. Of course I’d like to have the cruisecontrol user automatically log in and run CC.rb whenever the system starts up, I’ll create a launch agent to do that. But I also have a gcov-instrumented build configuration, and it would be instructive for CC.rb to automatically report on code coverage when the tests are run (though that report shouldn’t affect the result of the build). But I think I’ve done enough for one day, it’s time to go back to writing tests :).

Update: Thanks Simon Whitaker for finding a guide to run CC.rb under Apache using Passenger. I’m not sure how that would work in my case where I need a WindowServer connection, but I’m sure that there will be projects where this is a better way to get the thing running automatically.