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iPhone Bootcamp Day 1

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iPhone Bootcamp Day 1

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Today is the first day of the iPhone bootcamp at Big Nerd Ranch at Historic Banning Mills B&B in Whitesburg, GA. It is being taught by Joe Conway. My goal is to write a blog entry for each day of the class, so we'll see how that goes.

See here for a list of each day's blog entries.

Simple iPhone Application

We started off the course by creating a simple iPhone application using a bunch of UI controls that come out of the box. We dragged and dropped controls onto an iPhone Window application, hooked up some events in Interface Builder, and wrote a bit of event handling code. We ran the application on the simulator (i.e. not on our phones) and played around a bit with it. Cool to get something up and running in the first hour of a five day course!

App Icon and Default Image

After getting the initial iPhone app up and running we added an icon for the application which is what displays on the iPhone "desktop" and added a default image, the purpose of which is to "fool" the user into thinking the application launched immediately without delay. So, in other words, when an iPhone app launches, the first thing that happens is the Default.png image is displayed. Joe mentioned some people use this for so-called "splash" screens, perhaps to display a company logo or some advertising. While this is nice in theory, Joe mentioned this is about the worst thing you can do - when Apple makes the iPhone faster over time, instead of a two or three second splash screen, now you might see something flicker into and out of existence in a split second and users won't know what's going on. In any case the best thing to do is take a screenshot of your application. By the time the user gets around to actually clicking something the Default.png image will have been replaced by the actual application, and your app has the appearance of an immediate startup, which users always like.


Then it was onto a short introduction to the Objective-C language. Having attended the Cocoa bootcamp last April and read through Programming in Objective-C I was already comfortable with Objective-C. You basically learn that Objective-C is a dynamically-typed language built on top of C, adding objects and messaging, i.e. you send messages to objects. We blew through the basics of creating objects, initializing them, and creating accessors. Thankfully Objective-C 2.0 added properties which gets rid of the getter/setter method tedium. We briefly covered some of the basic classes like NSString and NSArray and NSMutableArray. After all that, it was on to memory management. Although Apple introduced a garbage collector in Mac OS Leopard, it is not available to iPhone applications and you must manage retain counts of objects manually using retain, release, and the autorelease pool. This is tedious at best, but Joe provided several concrete and relatively simple rules to follow when writing iPhone apps, which I'm not really going to delve into right now, but suffice it to say that you have to pay a lot more attention to memory issues writing iPhone apps than, say, writing web apps in a garbage-collected language like Ruby, Java, or C#. We wrote several sample applications that demonstrated Objective-C basics, counting object references, and using the autorelease pool.

Using Text Controls

Next up was the chapter on "text" on the iPhone, which focused on using the UITextField and UITextView controls. For this section we created an application that allowed you to search a large block of text in a UITextView for specific text typed into a text field. During this section we learned how to deal with the (virtual) keyboard and how it automatically becomes the "first responder" when a user touches a text UI control. Joe showed how the Responder Chain delegates events until some object handles it, or if no objects are interested, the event simply and silently drops off into nothingness. (For Gang of Four aficionados, this would be the Chain of Responsibility pattern. Does anyone actually care anymore?) This allows you to delegate events up a chain of objects. When an text-capable object becomes the first responder, the virtual keyboard automatically appears for the user to type something. To remove it you can write code to resign the first responder status. Last in the text section was using notifications and the notification center to observe when the keyboard is about to show (be displayed on screen) and write a log message.


Even though it was cold outside (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit) we took a 30 minute hike around 3 o'clock and got refreshed. Then we continued to learn about using delegates and protocols. Basically a delegate handles certain functionality passed off to it by another object. The delegate essentially extends the functionality of an object without needing to resort to all kinds of subclassing everywhere; in other words it is a way to perform callbacks and extend functionality. For example, an XML parser knows how to parse the XML and it might send messages to a delegate object. The delegate object in this case knows what to do when it sees specific elements or attributes, while the parser remains completely generic. This enables re-use of the parser without it needing to know anything about how your application actually responds to various elements and attributes. We extended our text search application using delegates to perform the actual searching logic as well as resigning and becoming the first responder.

Core Location

The last, and coolest, topic today was Core Location, which is the framework that allows your iPhone to figure out where you are in the world. We wrote an application that uses your current location and tracks the distance you've traveled after you enable tracking. Since I have not actually enabled my iPhone device yet, I had to run this only on the simulator which was not quite as cool since it only reports one location (which IIRC was the lat/long of Apple's headquarters but I might have caught that wrong.) Basically you use a CLLocationManager which sends location updates to a delegate (good thing I paid attention to the section on delegates earlier); the delegate does pretty much whatever it wants to. Again, the delegate implements application-specific logic and the CLLocationManager just sends you the updated lcoation information, resulting in a clean separation of concerns. You can configure the manager for the level of accuracy you'd like, for example ten meters, a hundred meters, or "best" possible accuracy. The higher the accuracy, the faster your battery will drain, so setting this to best accuracy and leaving it on continuously might not be the best thing to do. Joe also mentioned that if you turn off the iPhone using the top button, the active application can still be doing things and so you want to make sure you check for the "application will passivate" event and stop updating the location to prevent excessive battery drainage! (Maybe that's what happened to me a few weeks ago when my full battery completely drained overnight.) You can also configure a distance filter if, for example, you only want to receive updates after the phone has moved a certain distance. Cool stuff!

Provisioning Profiles

After dinner we returned to the classroom to set up our provisioning profiles, which is going to allow those of us who have not yet registered with Apple to actually run apps on our iPhones (known as "devices"). I am planning to buy my developer certificate but for now Big Nerd Ranch has provisioning profiles for students since apparently it is now taking a day or two to get your developer certs and other required stuff.

Random Thoughts

After a long day, I have a few random thoughts in no particular order. Interface Builder is really, really nice for building UIs. Of course I already knew this having taken the Cocoa bootcamp last April. Regardless, building UIs using a sophisticated and refined tool like Interface Builder is sooooooo much nicer than the current kludge of web technologies that splatter HTML, CSS, and JavaScript all over the place and various data exchange formats like XML, JSON, or whatever combined with eight different JavaScript frameworks and a potentially very different server-side programming model and finally trying to jam it all together. Can you tell I've been doing web development for a while?

Delegates and Core Location were probably the coolest things from today, and it is really nice that after only one day I can build iPhone apps, even if they are pretty simple. Then again, it is really cool how easy it is to integrate location into an iPhone application. Objective-C as a language is actually not all that bad, and is really easy to read since the methods (at least the ones from the Apple SDK) tend to be very well-named. Of course I like the fact that Objective-C is dynamically typed and I don't have to be told by the compiler what I can and cannot do at every step of the way, e.g. I can send any message to any object and so long as it responds, no problem. Of course the code does still have to compile in the XCode IDE so it isn't a total dynamic language free-for-all. The thing I don't like is having to manually manage memory. After doing malloc and free in C on a VAX for the first several years out of college, I was quite happy to not have had to do that for over 10 years. Oh well, I suppose the autorelease pool and simply sending retain and release messages is better than malloc and free.

Big Nerd Ranch is all about coding. While there is lecture, you code hands-on most of the time, and this is why you learn so much. The hikes really relieve the tendency to want to go to sleep after lunch! It's 10:25 and I've finally got ten my iPhone provisioned and the apps we developed today all working directly on the phone. I also finally got the SDK updated to the latest version as well as update my phone's software to version 2.2. All in all a great first day!


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