CocoaConf Columbus 2012 Slides and Code

Yesterday I gave a talk on concurrency in OS X and iOS at CocoaConf Columbus. As promised, here are the slides and code:


Cocoa Touch: Circumventing UITableViewCell Redraw Issues with Multithreading

In your career as a Cocoa or Cocoa Touch developer, every now and then you’ll encounter an issue with something Apple has written. Whether it’s a full-blown bug, something that doesn’t work quite how you’d expect it to, or a minor inconvenience, it happens. When it does, naturally the first thing you do is file a bug report (right?). After that, though, you need to do something about it. This usually occurs right when a project is due, so often we can’t wait for Apple’s engineering teams to fix the problems (or tell you that you’re wrong). This post is an example of using KVO to get around the problem without worrying about it anymore.

The Problem: In iOS, if you create a UITableViewCell and return it to the table view in its data source’s -tableView:cellForRowAtIndexPath: method, but then return later (say, after doing some background processing) to add an image to the cell’s imageView, you don’t see anything! Why? Well, it looks like either the image view isn’t added to the cell’s view hierarchy if you don’t immediately add an image or there’s some other bug in the UITableViewCell implementation. I don’t think it’s a bug, I think it’s just a side effect of an optimization; if there’s no image, why add it to the cell?

So how do we fix it? Well, a simple call to -setNeedsLayout gets the cell to fix itself quite nicely. But we shouldn’t have to do that from our table view data source—that has a bit of code smell to it. Lines like that quickly get overused, with programmers calmly stating, “I don’t know why, but we always do that.” No, a better solution is to get the cell to handle this problem on its own.

We’ll create a subclass of UITableViewCell and use KVO. When we create the cell, we’ll register for KVO notifications with the on the image view whenever its image property is modified—but we’ll send the option to include the old value in the change dictionary. When we receive the notification, we’ll look at that dictionary, and if the old value was nil, then we’ll send self a -setNeedsLayout message. This avoids having to do it in other classes, and only does it when necessary. We simply set it and forget it.


iOS Programming for Multicore Processors

With the impending release of the iPad 2, understanding how to program multithreaded applications will quickly become paramount as applications continue to push the envelope to make immersive experiences with high-performance computation. Now, without actually having a multicore iPad in my hands, I can’t say exactly how the system will behave, but there are a few best practices we should all be aware of when writing iOS code:

  • Using Core Data? You can’t share access to an NSManagedObjectContext across multiple threads, dispatch queues, or NSOperation queues, so for each one you’ll need to create a new instance. Similarly, don’t pass an NSManagedObject or subclass thereof between threads. Give each of your objects a unique ID—CFUUID works well for this—and pass the ID around, pulling a new object out of your NSManagedObjectContext for each thread. It’s a pain, but that’s how to (safely) get around threading and Core Data.
  • Always call UIKit updates from the main thread. Whatever you’re doing to your user interface, be it updating a label, loading an image into an image view, anything that’ll be rendered to screen—and some things that won’t—should be run on the main thread. There are two main ways to do this:
    1. Use Grand Central Dispatch. Using dispatch_get_main_queue(), you can get a reference to the main queue and submit blocks to it for updating your UI. This is typically a clean, easy way to refactor existing code for thread-aware programming.
    2. Use -performSelectorOnMainThread:withObject:waitUntilDone: and friends. This has the drawback of only working for methods that take one or zero Objective-C objects as arguments, but can be a quick and easy way to use fire-and-forget methods like -reloadData on UITableView.
  • Think about how you declare your properties. How many people have been using atomic properties? Before now, not many. In fact, before now, it was typically useless, as the chances of something interrupting your accessor methods was pretty low. Now, though, if you’re planning on accessing an object from multiple threads, you really need to control access to your properties.
  • Use locks. Locks, long the scourge of the multithreaded-code author, are simply essential for some parts of multithreaded programming. Whether you’re using NSLock or a lower-level lock, or even something like Grand Central Dispatch’s counting semaphore type, dispatch_semaphore_t, protect critical regions of your code from multiple accessors with (carefully-thought-out) locked access.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and Apple can do a lot to make this irrelevant (such as make UIKit threadsafe, which would be a killer iOS 5.0 feature), but with the iPad 2’s arrival, developers can no longer assume safety from threading problems. Be sure also to read Apple’s Threading Programming Guide to get anything I’ve left out.

It also makes a great excuse to buy an iPad 2. I mean, you need to test this, right?