TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Shell Game: Calling Shell Commands from Applications, Part 2

Volume Number: 20 (2004)
Issue Number: 5
Column Tag: Programming

Mac OS X Programming Secrets

by Scott Knaster

Shell Game: Calling Shell Commands from Applications, Part 2

Well, I really hope you saw last month's column, because it was a fun introduction into how to call a shell command from a Cocoa application, which is a neat trick. If you didn't read that column, stick around anyway - we'll recap. This month, we'll extend our knowledge by performing input and output with a shell command from a Cocoa app.

Task Oriented

Last month, we explained how to use Cocoa class NSTask to represent a shell command that we want to execute. We discussed a few methods of NSTask:

setLaunchPath, which specifies the path to the shell command we call from our application.

setArguments, used to pass arguments to the shell command, which you normally do by typing them on the command line itself in Terminal.

launch, which starts the process running.

These methods get us the basic features we need to run a shell command from a Cocoa app. This time, we're going to take a broader look at what you can do with NSTask. When you create and launch a new task, it gets its own little world to run in. Part of this world includes its own copy of environment variables and its own setting for the current directory. NSTask has methods that let you specify these values. Call setEnvironment to change the process's environment variables to its own custom set, which you pass in as a dictionary. Use setCurrentDirectoryPath to pass a string indicating the directory the task should use as the base for relative paths.

When you call a shell command from Terminal, you can set paths for standard input, standard output, and standard error. These let you choose the source of input for the command, specify where the output should go, and indicate what to do with error messages. NSTask has methods for each of these: setStandardInput, setStandardOutput, and setStandardError. When you call these methods, you pass an object, either an NSPipe or an NSFileHandle, as the input or output. In the next section, we'll discuss what on earth these classes are.

Piece Pipe

NSFileHandle is a class that provides a Cocoa-licious way to exercise control over reading and writing files. NSPipe represents a Unix pipe, a communication channel that reads data from one process and writes it to another. In Cocoa, NSPipe is implemented using two NSFileHandles, one for reading and one for writing. You can use an NSPipe together with an NSTask to send data to a shell command's standard input and then get data from its standard output. As an example, we'll create a application that takes a list of words in an NSTextView and alphabetizes the words by calling the sort shell command. The alphabetized list is then displayed in a another NSTextView. This example is based on code from the course material for the awesome Big Nerd Ranch Cocoa Boot Camp (http://www.bignerdranch.com).


Figure 1. This is what our finished application will look like.

First, go to Xcode and create a new Cocoa Application project. We'll begin our app with the part that's easy to do and so hard to describe in text: the Interface Builder portion. In IB, in the main window, add two NSTextView objects, with a button between them. When you run this app, you'll type words in the first text view, then click the button, and the words will appear, sorted, in the second text view.

Now let's make the obligatory AppController class and object. Select NSObject on the Classes tab and choose Classes a Subclass NSObject. Name the new class AppController. Next, open the Info window (Tools a Show Info), go to the Attributes screen, and add two outlets (inText and outText) and one action (sort). Create the source files for Xcode by choosing Classes a Create Files for AppController. Finally, add an instance of your AppController class by choosing Classes a Instantiate AppController.

Now it's time to get our objects to partner up. We want AppController to be connected to both text views, one for input and the other for output. First, Control-drag from the AppController instance to the text view on the left. Double-click inText. Then Control-drag from the AppController to the text view on the right, and double-click outText to connect it. Finally, we need to make the button perform the sort method. Control-drag from the button to AppController, make sure you're on the Target/Action tab of the info window, then double-click sort. Bueno.


Figure 2. Lay out the user interface in Interface Builder, as usual.

Revealing the Code

Now it's time to write the code, so warm up your brain and your typing fingers. All our code will be the implementation for the sort method in AppController.m. First things first:

- (IBAction)sort:(id)sender
{
   NSTask *task;   
      // Task object that will call "sort"
   NSData *sortResult; 
      // Data object for grabbing sorted text
      
   NSFileHandle *fileToWrite;
      // Handle to standard input for pipe
   NSPipe *inputPipe, *outputPipe;
      // The pipes themselves, for input and output
   NSString *typedText;
      // Holds text typed by the user in the text view
   NSString *sortedText;
      // Will hold sorted text after user clicks button
   task = [[NSTask alloc] init];
   inputPipe = [[NSPipe alloc] init];
   outputPipe = [[NSPipe alloc] init];
      // Don't forget to release these later

After declaring and initializing variables, it's time to get the sort command going. We need to create a task and tell it that it's going to execute sort, set up its other values, then send it out into the world, like so:

   [task setLaunchPath:@"/usr/bin/sort"];
      // Set the path to the executable. You can find
      // the path for a shell command by using the
      // command "which" in Terminal, e.g. "which sort".
   [task setStandardOutput: outputPipe];
   [task setStandardInput: inputPipe];
      // Set the standard input and standard output
      // for the task. By assigning these to pipes,
      // we can feed input to the task and read its output.
   [task setArguments: [NSArray arrayWithObject:@"-f"]];
      // Set the arguments for sort. We're setting one
      // argument, -f, which specifies a case-insensitive
      // sort (you know, the way humans like it).
   
   [task launch];
      // The task is all ready to go - start it up!

Now that sort is ready to run, it's time for us to supply it with something to sort. We'll take the text the user has typed into the view on the left and ship it off to the process, using a pipe:

   fileToWrite = [inputPipe fileHandleForWriting];
      // Get a handle to the pipe that we can use
      // for writing.
   typedText = [inText string];
      // Extract the text out of the
      // first text view (inText).
   [fileToWrite writeData:[
      typedText dataUsingEncoding: NSASCIIStringEncoding]];
      // We've got the text out of the field. Now turn around
      // and write it to the task's standard input as ASCII.
      // Mmm...ASCII.
   [fileToWrite closeFile];
      // Close the pipe when we're done writing.

The sort command can now execute, using the text we've written to its standard input. The command proceeds to do its sorting on the input, then writes the sorted result to standard output. We previously hooked up standard output to outputPipe, so now we can deal with the sorted text:

   sortResult = 
    [[outputPipe fileHandleForReading] readDataToEndOfFile];
      // Grab the sorted text by getting a handle for reading
      // the pipe, then read all the data.
   sortedText = [[NSString alloc] initWithData: sortResult
                           encoding: NSASCIIStringEncoding];
      // Encode the text as ASCII and put the result into 
      // sortedText.
   [outText setString: sortedText];
      // Copy the string into the outText view (the one
      // on the right).

At this point, we're basically finished - the sorted text appears in the text view on the right. But just like Mom said, we need to clean up before we're completely done.

   [sortedText release];
   [task release];
   [inputPipe release];
   [outputPipe release];

All About the Process

Now that you've seen how to wrap a shell command in a Cocoa application, you can use shell commands as you need them in your apps. As we saw in this month's installment, you don't have to show any sign of the underlying command if you don't want to - just get control of standard input and standard output, and you can keep the shell command hidden.

For fun projects that use this technique, try writing apps that wrap your own favorite shell commands. Or, for extra credit, you could write a Cocoa app that lets the user type any shell command and its arguments, then executes that command and shows its output. Whatever you do, remember that it's your computer -- you're in command!


Scott Knaster writes all sorts of stuff for all kinds of people to read, but nothing is more fun than messing around with Cocoa and OS X. Scott's latest book is Mac Toys, from Wiley Publishing. Scott eats a nutritious assortment of fruits and vegetables.

 
AAPL
$96.13
Apple Inc.
+0.53
MSFT
$42.86
Microsoft Corpora
-0.30
GOOG
$566.07
Google Inc.
-5.53

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Data Rescue 3.2.4 - Recover lost data on...
Data Rescue is a robust and reliable hard-drive recovery solution for your Mac. Recover lost or deleted files, mount corrupted drives, and more -- Data Rescue offers complete relief from crippling... Read more
Adobe Lightroom 5.6 - Import, develop, a...
Adobe Lightroom software helps you bring out the best in your photographs, whether you're perfecting one image, searching for ten, processing hundreds, or organizing thousands. Create incredible... Read more
OneNote 15.2 - Free digital notebook fro...
OneNote is your very own digital notebook. With OneNote, you can capture that flash of genius, that moment of inspiration, or that list of errands that’s too important to forget. Whether you’re at... Read more
iStat Menus 4.22 - Monitor your system r...
iStat Menus lets you monitor your system right from the menubar. Included are 8 menu extras that let you monitor every aspect of your system. Some features: CPU -- Monitor cpu usage. 7 display... Read more
Ember 1.8 - Versatile digital scrapbook....
Ember (formerly LittleSnapper) is your digital scrapbook of things that inspire you: websites, photos, apps or other things. Just drag in images that you want to keep, organize them into relevant... Read more
OmniPlan 2.3.6 - Robust project manageme...
With OmniPlan, you can create logical, manageable project plans with Gantt charts, schedules, summaries, milestones, and critical paths. Break down the tasks needed to make your project a success,... Read more
Command-C 1.1.1 - Clipboard sharing tool...
Command-C is a revolutionary app which makes easy to share your clipboard between iOS and OS X using your local WiFi network, even if the app is not currently opened. Copy anything (text, pictures,... Read more
Knock 1.1.7 - Unlock your Mac by knockin...
Knock is a faster, safer way to sign in. You keep your iPhone with you all the time. Now you can use it as a password. You never have to open the app -- just knock on your phone twice, even when it's... Read more
Mellel 3.3.6 - Powerful word processor w...
Mellel is the leading word processor for OS X and has been widely considered the industry standard since its inception. Mellel focuses on writers and scholars for technical writing and multilingual... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.0.4 - Free Open Source o...
LibreOffice is an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing tool) compatible with other major office suites. The Document Foundation is coordinating development and... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Bio Inc. is $0.99 for the Weekend, Recei...
Bio Inc. is $0.99 for the Weekend, Receives Small Update Posted by Ellis Spice on August 1st, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Happy 7th Birthday Readdle! Thank You fo...
Happy 7th Birthday Readdle! | Read more »
Sharknado: The Video Game Review
Sharknado: The Video Game Review By Lee Hamlet on August 1st, 2014 Our Rating: :: SHARKNA-DON'TUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Sharknado: The Video Game brings the craziness of the movies to iOS, though it quickly... | Read more »
Clima (Weather)
Clima 1.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: Weather Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Clima show you all weather information, just beautifully simple. A series of color bars can tell you at a glance exactly current... | Read more »
Sticky Soccer Review
Sticky Soccer Review By Andrew Fisher on August 1st, 2014 Our Rating: :: STICK THIS GAMEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Sticky Soccer puts too much emphasis on the ‘sticky’ and not enough on the ‘Soccer’ or ‘Fun’.   | Read more »
Graphics-less Apocalyptic Adventure A Da...
Graphics-less Apocalyptic Adventure A Dark Room Goes Free for a Limited Time Posted by Rob Rich on August 1st, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Fraud Tycoon Review
Fraud Tycoon Review By Rob Thomas on August 1st, 2014 Our Rating: :: UNHEALTHY CREDITUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Fraud Tycoon is a half-baked, messy, promotional tie-in that does their sponsor no favors whatsoever... | Read more »
Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal W...
Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal Weapon is on Sale for the Weekend Posted by Rob Rich on August 1st, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Mister Beam Review
Mister Beam Review By Jordan Minor on August 1st, 2014 Our Rating: :: ILLUMINATINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Mister Beam’s puzzles are great. But its platforming? Not so much.   | Read more »
Hook Some More Fun With MapHook’s New Up...
Hook Some More Fun With MapHook’s New Update Posted by Jessica Fisher on August 1st, 2014 [ permalink ] iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

13-inch MacBook Airs on sale for $100 off MSR...
B&H Photo has the new 2014 13″ MacBook Airs on sale $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only. They also include free copies of Parallels Desktop and LoJack for... Read more
16GB iPad Air on sale for $399, save $100
Best Buy is offering the 16GB WiFi iPad Air for $399.99 on their online store for a limited time. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Choose free shipping or free store pickup (if available). Price is for... Read more
All Over For Tablets Or Just A Maturing, Evol...
CNN’s David Goldman weighs in on tablet sector doom and gloom, asking rhetorically: “Is this the beginning of the end for the tablet?” Answering that, he contends that hysteria and panic are... Read more
Letterspace 1.0.1 – New Free iOS Text Editor...
Bangkok, Thailand based independent developer Sittipon Simasanti has released Letterspace, a new text editor for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices. Letterspace is a note taking app with an... Read more
Save up to $130 on an iPad mini with Apple re...
The Apple Store has Certified Refurbished 2nd generation iPad minis with Retina Displays available for up to $130 off the cost of new models, starting at $339. Apple’s one-year warranty is included... Read more
iPad Cannibalization Threat “Overblown”
Seeking Alpha’s Kevin Greenhalgh observes that while many commentators think Apple’s forthcoming 5.5-inch panel iPhone 6 will cannibalize iPad sales, in his estimation, these concerns are being... Read more
Primate Labs Releases July 2014 MacBook Pro P...
Primate Labs’ John Poole has posted Geekbench 3 results for most of the new MacBook Pro models that Apple released on Tuesday. Poole observes that overall performance improvements for the new MacBook... Read more
Apple Re-Releases Bugfixed MacBook Air EFI Fi...
Apple has posted a bugfixed version EFI Firmware Update 2.9 a for MacBook Air (Mid 2011) models. The update addresses an issue where systems may take longer to wake from sleep than expected, and... Read more
Save $50 on the 2.5GHz Mac mini, plus free sh...
B&H Photo has the 2.5GHz Mac mini on sale for $549.99 including free shipping. That’s $50 off MSRP, and B&H will also include a free copy of Parallels Desktop software. NY sales tax only. Read more
Save up to $140 on an iPad Air with Apple ref...
Apple is offering Certified Refurbished iPad Airs for up to $140 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free. Stock tends to come and go with some of these... Read more

Jobs Board

Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** The Apple Store is a retail environment like no other - uniquely focused on delivering amazing customer experiences. As an Expert, you introduce people Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** At the Apple Store, you connect business professionals and entrepreneurs with the tools they need in order to put Apple solutions to work in their Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
Sr. Product Leader, *Apple* Store Apps - Ap...
**Job Summary** Imagine what you could do here. At Apple , great ideas have a way of becoming great products, services, and customer experiences very quickly. Bring Read more
Sr Software Lead Engineer, *Apple* Online S...
Sr Software Lead Engineer, Apple Online Store Publishing Systems Keywords: Company: Apple Job Code: E3PCAK8MgYYkw Location (City or ZIP): Santa Clara Status: Full Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.