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September 95 - Document Synchronization and Other Human Interface Issues

Document Synchronization and Other Human Interface Issues

Mark H. Linton

One of the things the Finder does best is maintain the illusion that an icon and its window represent a single object. Using the routines described in this article, your application can help maintain that illusion. You can ensure that when the user renames an open document, the change is reflected in the document window's title. You can also gracefully handle problems that may arise if the document file is moved. Other improvements that make your application's interface more consistent with the Finder's include preventing a second window from opening when an open document's icon is double-clicked and adding a pop-up navigation menu to the document window's title bar.

To rename a folder or file in the Finder, you click the icon name, type a new name, and press Return. For folders, if the window is open, the change is reflected right away in the window's title bar. But for files, if the document is open in your application, its window may not reflect the name change. Try this little experiment: Create a document in your application and save it. Switch to the Finder, find your document, and change its name. What did your application do? If it's like most applications, nothing happened: the document window has the same name as before. Go ahead and try to use Save As to give the file the same name you gave it in the Finder. You probably get an error message. Now try to save the document under the original name. Do you still get an error message? Quit your application and read on for a way out of this frustration.

The only convenient way for a user to rename a document is with the Finder. (The Save As command doesn't rename a document; it creates a copy of the document with a new name.) As you've just seen, name changes made in the Finder aren't automatically reflected in an open document window. Another change that's often not picked up by the application is when the user moves the document to a different folder. The code in this article helps synchronize your application's documents with their corresponding files, so that a document will respond to changes made outside the application to its file's name or location.

This article also describes how to prevent a duplicate window from being opened if the user opens an already open document in the Finder and how to add a pop-up menu to the document title bar to help the user determine where the file is stored. All the code for implementing these features is provided on this issue's CD, along with a sample application that illustrates its use.

DOCUMENT SYNCHRONIZATION

The Electronic Guide to Macintosh Human Interface Design says that applications should "match the window title to the filename." Specifically, when a user changes the document name in the Finder, you should update all references to the title. The guide also refers to the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, page 143, where it says, "The document and its corresponding window name must match at all times."

When I first started looking at the problem of document synchronization, I assumed that the animated example in the Electronic Guide to Macintosh Human Interface Design was the way to go. In this animation, the application checks for a name change when it receives a resume event. However, I became uncomfortable with this approach, because it would cause a delay between the user's changing the name of the document in the Finder and the application's updating the window title. Using a resume event relies on a separate action by the user, namely, bringing the application to the foreground. This seemed nonintuitive and didn't support the illusion that a window and its icon represent a single object. Also, it's possible that with Apple events and AppleScript an application could be launched, do some work, and quit without ever being frontmost -- that is, without ever receiving a resume event.

The truth is that these days, with multiple applications running at the same time, with networked, shared disks everywhere, and with applications and scripts pulling the puppet strings as often as users, a file's name or location may change at any time, whether the application is in the foreground or the background. A script might move or rename a file or, if the file is on a shared volume, another user on the network could move or rename it or even put the file in the Trash -- all behind the application's back. The only solution I found under the current system software was to regularly look at the file to see if its name or location has changed. In other words, the application has to poll for changes.

Polling is generally a bad idea, but there are cases when it's the only reasonable way to accomplish a task, and this is one of them. However, I tried to keep the polling very "lightweight" and low impact by using the following guidelines:

  • An application shouldn't poll any more often than it absolutely needs to. Waking up an application causes a context switch, and context switches take a significant amount of time. Forcing the system to wake up an application every few ticks just so that it can look for file changes would be a bad idea, especially when the application is in the background. Instead, the application should poll only when an event has already been received -- that is, when the application is awake. Set your WaitNextEvent sleep time appropriately, and wait at least a second or two between "peeks." (The Finder, for instance, polls for disk changes every five seconds or so.)

  • Avoid any polling that causes disk or network access; if at all possible, examine only information that's in RAM on the local machine. Network access in particular can be a real drain on performance.
The sample code follows this advice, doing everything it can to be unobtrusive. It polls for file changes only once every second while in the foreground. In the background, the application's WaitNextEvent sleep time is set to ten seconds, so it only wakes up -- and thus polls -- every ten seconds if nothing else is going on. To detect changes to files, I chose to examine the volume modification date of the volume containing the file, since this information is always available in local RAM, even for a shared volume. If that date changes, I look deeper to see if the change is one I'm interested in. As you dip into the code, you'll see the details. I use the file reference number to track files because it survives changes in the name and parent directory. However, this requires that the files be kept open. If you can't keep your files open, you might want to look at John Norstad's excellent NewsWatcher application, which uses alias records to synchronize files. NewsWatcher is on this issue's CD; its official source can be found at ftp://ftp.acns.nwu.edu/pub/newswatcher/.*

Friendly as it is, this polling solution is appropriate only for the current system software; future system software versions (such as Copland, the next generation of the Mac OS) will provide a much better way to detect changes. Your application will be able to subscribe to notification of changes that it's interested in. In fact, polling the current file system structures will be unfriendly behavior under Copland, which will have demand-paged virtual memory and a completely new file system. For this reason, the sample code is designed to work only under System 7. You'll be able to easily retrofit the code to run under Copland once the details of the correct way to detect file changes have been worked out.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Every Macintosh programmer eventually comes to grips with how to keep track of all the information associated with a document. I use a structure called a document list and I have a set of routines that support it. The document list reverses some common assumptions used by developers. Developers often use the window list to track their windows and attach their document data to it, but this limits Apple's ability to redefine the window list. My recommendation is to create a document list (almost identical to the window list) containing the document data and attach the windows to it. In this way, the actual structure of the window list is not a concern. You'll find my implementation of the document list and its supporting routines on this issue's CD.

While the code presented here is specific to my implementation, you can easily generalize it as needed. The code below shows how your application might call DSSyncWindowsWithFiles, a routine that keeps your documents synchronized with the Finder by checking for and handling changes made outside the application to file names or locations. Call the routine from within your main event loop when you receive an event (including null events). Note that error checking has been removed from the code shown in the article, but it does appear on the CD.

while (!done) {
   gotEvent = WaitNextEvent(everyEvent, &theEvent, gSleepTime, 
      theCursorRegion);
   if (gotEvent)
      DoEvent(&theEvent);
   DSSyncWindowsWithFiles(kDontForceSynchronization);
}
This minor change does most of the work for your application. The machinery that makes it happen lies within DSSyncWindowsWithFiles (see Listing 1). This routine first checks to make sure that enough time has passed since the last check for changes. If so, or if the caller requested immediate synchronization, it iterates through each of the windows registered in the document list, calling DSSyncWindowWithFile to process each of these windows.

Listing 1. DSSyncWindowsWithFiles

#define kCheckTicks 60

pascal void DSSyncWindowsWithFiles(Boolean forceSync) 
{
   WindowPtr        theWindow;
   static long      theTicksOfLastCheck = 0;
   long             theTicks;
   
   theTicks = TickCount();
   if (theTicks > (theTicksOfLastCheck + kCheckTicks) || forceSync){
      theTicksOfLastCheck = theTicks;
      for (theWindow = DSFirstWindow(); theWindow != nil; 
           theWindow = DSNextWindow(theWindow)) {
         DSSyncWindowWithFile(theWindow);
      }
   }
}
DSSyncWindowWithFile, shown in Listing 2, begins by getting the file reference number for the window from the document list. If it's appropriate to continue (DoSyncChecks returns true), DSSyncWindowWithFile calls three other routines to handle name changes, changes that move the file to a different folder, and changes that move the file to the Trash.

Listing 2. DSSyncWindowWithFile

pascal void DSSyncWindowWithFile(WindowPtr aWindow)
{
   short theFRefNum;

   DSGetWindowDFRefNum(aWindow, &theFRefNum);
   if (DoSyncChecks(theFRefNum, aWindow)) {
      HandleNameChange(theFRefNum, aWindow);
      HandleDirectoryChange(theFRefNum, aWindow);
      HandleMoveToTrash(theFRefNum, aWindow);
   }
}

THE CHECKPOINT

The DoSyncChecks routine (Listing 3) checks for changes to the volume that the file is on. If the volume has been modified, DoSyncChecks returns true to DSSyncWindowWithFile, which consequently calls the next three routines -- HandleNameChange, HandleDirectoryChange, and HandleMoveToTrash.

Listing 3. DoSyncChecks

static Boolean DoSyncChecks(short aRefNum, WindowPtr aWindow) 
{
   Boolean         doCheck = false;
   unsigned long   theLastDate, theDate;
   short          theVRefNum;
   
   if (aRefNum != 0) {
      DSGetWindowFileVRefNum(aWindow, &theVRefNum);
      GetVolumeModDate(theVRefNum, &theDate);
      DSGetWindowVLsBkUp(aWindow, &theLastDate);
      if (theLastDate != theDate) {
         DSSetWindowVLsBkUp(aWindow, theDate);
         doCheck = true;
      }
    }
   return doCheck;
}

A FILE BY ANY OTHER NAME

After determining that the volume containing the file has been modified, DSSyncWindowWithFile calls HandleNameChange (Listing 4). This simple routine compares the names of the window and the file; if they're not exactly the same, it updates the window to reflect the new filename. A minimal implementation of document synchronization might include only this routine. Have you been wondering where the magical file management calls that DoSyncChecks and HandleNameChange use come from -- for example, GetVolumeModDate and GetNameOfReferencedFile? See the file EvenMoreFiles.c on the CD for details. This is my tribute to Jim Luther's excellent MoreFiles collection. Whenever I need a routine that's not in the standard header, I write it and add it to the collection. Someday we'll be up to SonOfMoreFiles and NightOfTheLivingMoreFiles.*

Listing 4. HandleNameChange

void HandleNameChange(short aFRefNum, WindowPtr aWindow) 
{
   Str255    theTitle, theName;
   
   GetWTitle(aWindow, theTitle);
   GetNameOfReferencedFile(aFRefNum, theName);
   if (!EqualString(theTitle, theName, true, true)) 
      SetWTitle(aWindow, theName);
}

MOVING TO A NEW NEIGHBORHOOD

After checking, and possibly synchronizing, the filename, DSSyncWindowWithFile calls HandleDirectoryChange (Listing 5) to see whether the file has been moved. This routine starts out by comparing the old parent directory to the new parent directory. If they're not the same, the file has been moved and the routine stores the file's new parent directory for later use by the application. It's possible that the file was moved to a parent for which the user doesn't have access privileges. In that case, a later Save will fail and revert to a Save As.

Listing 5. HandleDirectoryChange

void HandleDirectoryChange(short aFRefNum, WindowPtr aWindow) 
{
   long       theOldParID, theNewParID;

   DSGetWindowFileParID(aWindow, &theOldParID);
   GetFileParID(aFRefNum, &theNewParID);
   if (theOldParID != theNewParID)
      DSSetWindowFileParID(aWindow, theNewParID);
}

GETTING TRASHED

Finally, DSSyncWindowWithFile calls HandleMoveToTrash (Listing 6) to see if the file is in the Trash. If it is, HandleMoveToTrash gets the FSSpec corresponding to the file reference number, which will be needed later. If the application is running in the background, and there are unsaved changes to the document, the routine notifies the user (with the Notification Manager) that the application needs assistance. While waiting for the user to respond to the request for assistance, HandleMoveToTrash handles events normally and also checks to see whether the user has moved the document back out of the Trash. After all, there's no sense in asking the user what to do about a file in the Trash if it's no longer there. If the user responds to the request, or moves the file out of the Trash while the application is still in the background, HandleMoveToTrash removes the notification. If the file is still in the Trash when the application becomes frontmost, an alert appears asking the user what to do.

Listing 6. HandleMoveToTrash

static void HandleMoveToTrash(short aFRefNum, WindowPtr aWindow, 
      Boolean *inTrashCan) 
{
   FSSpec         theFile;
   Boolean         inBackground;
   short            theResponse;
   EventRecord      theEvent;
   
   FileInTrashCan(aFRefNum, inTrashCan);
   if (*inTrashCan) 
      GetFileSpec(aFRefNum, &theFile);
   if ((aFRefNum != 0) && *inTrashCan) {
      if (DSIsWindowDirty(aWindow)) {
         InBackground(&inBackground);
         if (inBackground) {
            DSNotify();
            do {
               InBackground(&inBackground);
               if ( WaitNextEvent(everyEvent, &theEvent,
                      gSleepTime, nil))
                  DoEvent(&theEvent);
               FileInTrashCan(aFRefNum, inTrashCan);
            } while (inBackground && *inTrashCan);
            DSRemoveNotice();
         }
         if (*inTrashCan) {
            ParamText(theFile.name, "\p", "\p", "\p");
            theResponse = Alert(rCloseAlert, nil);
            switch (theResponse) {

               case kSave:
                  DoSave(aWindow);
                  /* Fall through */

               case kDontSave:
                  ZoomWindowToTrash(aWindow);
                  DoCloseCommand(aWindow);
                  break;
               case kPutAway:
                  DSAESendFinderFS(kAEFinderSuite, kAEPutAway,
                    &theFile);
                  *inTrashCan = false;
                  break;
            }
         }
      } else    /* Window is clean; just close it */
         DoCloseCommand(aWindow);
   }
}

Now if this were the Finder, there would be no question of what to do in this situation. When the user drags the icon for a folder to the Trash, the folder is essentially gone, so the associated window doesn't remain on the desktop. In the application world, life is a little more problematic. What happens if there are unsaved changes in the document? If the application blindly closes the document when the user drags the icon to the Trash, data could be lost. This would be a Bad Thing.

My mother always told me, "When in doubt, ask." So if there are unsaved changes to the file, an alert gives the user three choices: Don't Save, Remove From Trash, and Save. The Save and Don't Save options are simple: each closes the window as expected. Remove From Trash is a little tricky and takes advantage of the Scriptable Finder and Apple events.

The Remove From Trash case is similar to the Finder situation in which the user decides not to throw the document in the Trash and chooses Put Away from the File menu. HandleMoveToTrash handles this change of mind the same way the Finder handles it with Put Away: it sends the Finder a Put Away Apple event specifying the file in question as the target. (If the Scriptable Finder isn't available, the same action can be simulated manually; see the code on the CD for details.)

HOW CAN YOU BE IN TWO PLACES AT ONCE?

That's all there is to document synchronization. Now let's take a look at some other ways you can make your application's interface more consistent with the Finder's.

Many applications create a new window when an already open document is opened again in the Finder. But if the Finder were to open a second copy of a folder when you double-click the icon of a folder that's already open, wouldn't you be surprised? One of the guiding principles of human interface design is consistency; if your application doesn't perform the same action as the Finder (in this case, bring an already open window to the front), the user must learn and remember what will happen in each particular situation. This detracts from the user's happiness with your application.

Making your application notice that the document is already open is easy if you're using the document list. The following code would appear where you normally call your open-file routine. When the application receives an event to open a file, it checks to see if the file is already registered in the document list. If it's registered, the application simply brings it to the front instead of opening it again.

if (DSFileInDocumentList(aFile, &theWindow)) 
   SelectWindow(theWindow);
else 
   DoOpenFile(aFile);

POP-UP NAVIGATION

A nifty feature introduced with the System 7 Finder is the pop-up menu in the title bar that allows the user to determine the location of an open folder and to navigate the file system without having to resort to browsing (see Figure 1). The user simply holds down the Command key and presses on the window title to see the menu. The computer knows where your document is; it just needs a good way to present the information. If you have Metrowerks CodeWarrior, you'll find that it does something similar to the System 7 Finder. Your application can provide the same interface.

Figure 1. The Finder's pop-up navigation menu

To provide a pop-up navigation menu for your document windows, replace the existing call to FindWindow in your mouse-down event handler with a call to the DSFindWindow routine. DSFindWindow is simply a wrapper for the Window Manager's FindWindow routine. If FindWindow returns inDrag, DSFindWindow does some additional checking to determine whether the window is frontmost, the Command key is down, and the mouse is in the window title area. If the mouse-down event meets these conditions, DSFindWindow calls DSPopUpNavigation, which implements the menu and returns inDesk as the window part, telling the application to ignore the click.

Note that DSPopUpNavigation makes an assumption about the location of the window's title that may not be true for nonstandard window types or in future versions of the system software. In such cases the pop-up menu will still work fine, though it may not be cosmetically correct. This is another area of the code that should be revisited when Copland becomes available.

CONSISTENCY PAYS OFF

Consistency is one of the key principles that make using the Macintosh the wonderful experience that it is. If your program responds to the user's actions in the same way that the Finder does -- in particular, maintaining the illusion that an icon and its window represent a single object -- your users can explore your application with skills they've already acquired. The techniques presented here show how to provide that extra measure of consistency with the Finder that keeps the Macintosh interface clean, consistent, and seamless. They're not too hard to implement, they're fun, and they just happen to be useful!


    RECOMMENDED READING

    • Electronic Guide to Human Interface Design (Addison-Wesley, 1994). This CD (available from Apple Developer Catalog) combines the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines and its companion CD, Making It Macintosh, into one easy-to-swallow capsule. Take one every night before going to bed, and wake up with a more consistent user interface.

    • Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, (Addison-Wesley, 1993). Available separately from Apple Developer Catalog in book form.

    • Polya, G., How to Solve It (Princeton University Press, 1945). This book explains a logical approach to problem solving. Very simply, the approach is: understand the problem, compare it to a related problem that has been solved before to arrive at a plan, carry out the plan, and examine the solution. That's what I've done with the subject of this article.

MARK H. LINTON (mhl@hrb.com) lives in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, with his wife Gretchen. When he isn't jetting around the globe or meeting with some high government officials as part of his job as senior engineer at HRB Systems, he can be found in his log cabin at the base of Mount Nittany playing with his Macintosh.*

 
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