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Mac Prog FAQ Review

Volume Number: 13 (1997)
Issue Number: 2
Column Tag: Tools Of The Trade

Macintosh Programming FAQs

By Edward Ringel

Lots of information in a good package

Needed: A Guide for the Perplexed

Recalling my undergraduate course in organic chemistry, my textbook went through a rather lengthy description of a synthesis. I would read it and I would think I understood it. I'd then go on to the next page, and an equally daunting process would be left as "an exercise for the reader," implying that at this point the logic should be pretty straightforward and any dummy should be able to figure it out. It would be at this point that I would realize that I wasn't as smart as I thought.

So it is with Mac programming. The first time I tried to put a list in a dialog I carefully read through Inside Macintosh, Volume IV, and I crashed and burned when they started talking about event filter procedures and drawing procedures, with implementation left as an exercise for the programmer.

Things are different from 1986 and 1987, when the List Manager was young, and System 3.2/Finder 5.3 was new and exciting. There are numerous books and good examples of introductory techniques. There are very good guides to the proper construction of a Mac GUI, using standard design elements. Apple has improved its sample code considerably, and I would argue that it is fairly easy to get started if you are willing to spend the time.

The road gets rockier when we get to the next level of sophistication. How do you customize a menu? How do you get the Notification Manager to notify the user? How do you add the little things that make a program special and professional? Certainly, there is an accumulated lore and body of experience which is available on the Internet, in various college and university repositories, the Apprentice CD series, and even from Apple. However, the information is diffuse, often poorly documented, and highly variable in quality and content. For the "every man" mainstream programmer, the person using an unmodified MacHeader straight from Metrowerks or Symantec, bootstrapping to the next level of sophistication can involve an unreasonably steep learning curve.

Enter Mac Programming FAQs

Mac Programming FAQs, by Stephen Baker with Dave Mark, is this needed organized repository of more advanced programming techniques. It is a wonderful book. It consists of a 600 plus page book plus a CD (we'll get back to the CD contents in a bit.) After an introduction, the book consists of 650 frequently asked questions about Macintosh programming, each answered concisely and usually illustrated with code.

I enjoyed this book for several reasons. First, it is simply well written. Baker and Mark are a good team, and they used a terse, but easy to read style. There was little ambiguity in the presentation, but at the same time it was not technical or handbook-like; the information flowed freely from the page. Second, it is written in a single voice; the approach is that of one individual, and it is easy to stay tuned to the presentation. Third, the information was accurate. While there were a few typos and misstatements, there were very few errors of fact. Fourth, this book is a gold mine of information. I learned a heck of a lot of new stuff, and got a bunch of questions on some murky topics (for me, at least) answered concisely.

The book purports to address the needs of a wide spectrum of programming skill. While a few of the questions are those posed at the beginner level, the bulk of the book addresses advanced and intermediate programming techniques. I suspect that a beginning programmer who tried to attack this book would certainly get something out of it, but the experience would be akin to learning to swim at the deep end of the pool.

Topics

This book covers questions about mainstream programming. It does not cover networking issues, writing PCI card drivers, maximizing efficiency of QuickDraw GX printer drivers, etc. It does cover events, dialogs, lists, menus, printing, notification, windows, resources and the like. The book is organized along the lines of the various Managers. Typical questions include:

"How do I get the full path of a file referenced by a vRefNum, parent directory ID, and filename?" (File Manager.)

"How do I attach an icon to an application?" (Finder and Desktop.)

"How do I change the title of a menu in the menu bar after it has been installed?" (Menus.)

"Why can't I access QuickDraw globals like ‘thePort' anymore?" (QuickDraw: Drawing.)

"Given a handle to a resource, how can I determine which resource file it came from?" (Resources.)

"How do I draw dimmed (grayed out) text?" (Text: Fonts and Drawing.)

"How do I put a list in a Macintosh model dialog box?" (Lists and the List Manager.)

Some only take a line or two of text to answer. Others, such as the list question, took three or four pages. In general, I had a pretty good idea of how to do something once I had read the answer to the question. Questions are cross-referenced, with respect both to specific FAQs and other more general topics. The only serious criticism I have of this book is that it tries to address the Apple Event issue. I have found this to be one of the most difficult areas of mainstream Macintosh programming, and it seems almost silly to have a few pages of FAQs about this incredibly complex Manager. Fortunately, the authors have the sense to direct the reader to more appropriate, in-depth resources, and acknowledge the limited scope of coverage in the book.

Code

The great majority of articles include some code, even if it just shows how to call a Toolbox function. The code varies from a snippet to a short program, but in my experience it a) always illustrated the point and b) worked when ran. Examples tended to be simple enough to follow, but complex enough not to be trivial and to illustrate the demonstration points successfully. Baker and Mark resisted the temptation to throw in tricks and to hot dog; I think Apple would approve of just about every technique demonstrated. All coding and examples are in ANSI C. There is a short series of FAQs about Pascal versus C, which was the only departure from this observation.

A CD Too!

The CD has three components. First, it contains complete projects (Code Warrior) for the longer examples. This means source, project file, and resource, as well as a compiled executable. Second, snippets are contained within Simple Text files for use in any environment. Third, there is a searchable database that includes every question asked in the book, with its answer, similarly cross referenced. As I said above, I experimented extensively with the code, compiled and ran as advertised; the quality assurance on this material was very good. The database worked well and delivered as promised. If you like working from the screen and using a search engine better than using a book and an index, you'll be very happy with the database.

Can I Ask for Better?

Not really. Frankly, I think this is the best forty bucks I've spent in a long time. I feel as though I have the resources to make my programs more professional in appearance, and I will waste less time in future projects. Indeed, I suspect that it is people such as myself, the serious hobbyist/intermediate level programmer who will find this book the most valuable, precisely for the reasons I just stated. Enjoy!

Mac Programming FAQs, by Stephen H. Baker with Dave Mark. IDG Books, Foster City, CA. Copyright 1996. ISBN 0-7645-4001-7. List price $39.95.

 
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