TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Grokking OS X's Undo Support

Volume Number: 24 (2008)
Issue Number: 04
Column Tag: Programming

Grokking OS X's Undo Support

How to effectively use the Undo Manager built into Cocoa

by Marcus S. Zarra

Introduction

One of the great benefits of working with Cocoa is that the APIs give the developer numerous features "for free". One of those features is undo support. Any Cocoa application, without any work from the developer, will automatically get undo support at some basic level. In this article I walk through exactly how Undo support works in Cocoa and how you as the developer can take some control over undo to provide the functionality you are looking for.

Overview

Undo is one of those features that is rarely thought about. Most developers do not check it off as a feature in their application and most users do not immediately look for it when reviewing a new application. However, it is a feature that if not present when you need it, it is sorely missed. Fortunately, Apple has recognized this and included undo support for the developer so that, in most cases, we do not need to think about it.

Unfortunately, when your application strays from the beaten path then you need to roll up your sleeves and make sure that undo support works exactly as you expect it to. As it is said, the devil is in the details, and having inconsistent undo support is worse than having none at all.

What is Undo?

Apple defines undo as:

An undo operation is a method for reverting a change to an object, along with the arguments needed to revert the change (for example, its state before the change)

Undo is performed on a stack. What this means to those not familiar with the term is that each action, or event, that is "undoable" is added to the top of the stack and therefore can be removed from the stack. When you remove an item from the stack it is also removed from the top and thus reversing the order it was added. For example, if you were editing a paragraph of text in a Cocoa NSTextArea and you typed "Hello World", that text would be added to the stack as an undoable event. If you then selected "Hello" and hit ?B, the text would become bold and the action of bolding that selection of text would be added to the stack.


The reason that the "stack" aspect of this is important is when you want to undo something. When you choose undo then the first time is removed from the top of the stack (in this example, the bolding of "Hello") and undone. If the items were processed in a FIFO (First In, First Out) order then the text would be deleted instead, which is definitely not what the user would expect to happen.

The Undo Stack

What exactly is the stack? Probably the easiest way to describe the stack is to describe how to put things onto it. As an example, lets say that we have a value that we want to be undoable and therefore we want to add any changes to that value to the stack. To do that we would perform the following:

-(void)setName:(NSString*)newName;;
{
   [[self undoManager] registerUndoWithTarget:self 
      selector:@selector(setName:) 
      object:[self name]];
   [newName retain];
   [name release];
   name = newName;
}

For those familiar with Cocoa/Objective-C, this is a fairly standard setter call to set the attribute name. The change from the normal is the additional call to the NSUndoManager. Note that in this example I am passing it a reference to the object to call the method on (self), the method name to call (setName:) and the previous value of that attribute.

Internally, the NSUndoManager, is going to remember these values that you are passing in and retain them as an undo event. That event will then be stored on a stack (presumably in an NSArray) to be recalled at a later time. Therefore the stack is really an array of structures/objects that reference a target, a selector and another object. One thing that is interesting in this design is that the object (the previous value of name) is actually retained by the undo event. This guarantees that the value will still be around if the undo event is ever invoked.

When the user of the application invokes the undo command, the last item added to the NSUndoManager is retrieved and then the selector is called upon the target with the object that is being passed in, thereby reversing the event. Of note: When an event is removed from the undo stack, it is automatically added to the redo stack. This allows a user to undo and redo their actions as needed.

Grouping Undo

In addition to being able to undo and redo individual events such as the setter above, it is possible to group individual events together so that they are undone and redone as a single operation. An example of this would be an extension of the example above. For instance, lets imagine that the setName: method above actually breaks the string apart into a first name and last name. And instead of having an undo registration at the setName, we want to have the first and last name register events, then grouping would come into play when the full name is set.

-(void)setName:(NSString*)name;
{
   [[self undoManager] beginUndoGrouping];
   NSArray *words = [name componentsSeparatedByString@" "];
   [self setFirstName:[words objectAtIndex:0];
   [self setLastName:[words objectAtIndex:1];
   [[self undoManager] endUndoGrouping];
}
- (void)setFirstName:(NSString*)name
{
   [[self undoManager] registerUndoWithTarget:self 
      selector:@selector(setFirstName:) 
      object:[self firstName]];
   [name retain];
   [firstName release];
   firstName = name;
}
- (void)setLastName:(NSString*)name
{
   [[self undoManager] registerUndoWithTarget:self
      selector:@selector(setLastName:)
      object:[self lastName]];
   [name retain];
   [lastName release];
   lastName = name;
}

As can be seen in the listing, the individual parts of the name have stored their changes in the NSUndoManager's stack but the setName: method does not store its changes in the undo stack. Instead, it starts a group, sets the individual components and then ends the grouping. What this does is still the NSUndoManager that all undo events it receives between the begin and end are to be performed together. By using grouping in an example like this you do not risk polluting the stack with a setName:, setFirstName: and setLastName: call and thereby causing an issue when the user attempts to undo the action.

Naming the event

In addition to being able to control the undo/redo events, it is also possible to name these events. That name is then used by the undo and redo menu items to help explain to the user exactly what they will be undoing and redoing.

- (void)setFirstName:(NSString*)name
{
   [[self undoManager] registerUndoWithTarget:self 
      selector:@selector(setFirstName:) 
      object:[self firstName]];
   [[self undoManager] setActionName:
      NSLocalizedString(@"First Name", 
      @"First Name undo action")];
   [name retain];
   [firstName release];
   firstName = name;
}

The only change from the previous example is the addition of [undoManager setActionName:]. This call instructs the NSUndoManager to attach the passed in string as the name of the previous event. In this example, it attaches the name of "First Name" to the event of setFirstName:. If the user were to look in the edit menu after changing the first name they would see something like "Undo First Name". As you can see, we localized the action name so that we can easily go back and localize the name of the action at a later time.

It should be noted that groupings can also be named. If an event and a grouping are both named then the grouping name will win out. For example, if our setName: method also set the ActionName to "Name" then when the setName: method is called the edit menu would display "Undo Name" and not "Undo First Name" or "Undo Last Name".

Levels of Undo

As can be expected, since the NSUndoManager actually retains the objects being passed around it is quite possible to begin to have a memory issue. This is especially true if the object of the function call is in itself quite large. One option to help contain this is to limit the number or "levels" of undo available to the application. This is controlled by a simple call to:

[[self undoManager] setLevelsOfUndo:10];

which will limit the application to remembering only the last 10 undo events.

Blocking Undo Support

As you can probably imagine, since undo support is managed as such a low level (all the way down in the setters), it is possible to build up a large undo stack just by populating an object from another source. Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this. For example, imagine you are populating our example object from an XML feed. Naturally, you do not want to start building up the undo stack while setting the values from the xml document but you do want to add to the stack when a user changes something. How can you instruct your application to tell the difference?

The secret is to pause the undo registration while loading your document and then resuming it after your load is complete. See the following example:

- (MyObject*)buildMyObjectFromXML:(NSXMLDocument*)doc
{
   NSString *tempFirstName = ...;
   NSString *tempLastName = ...;
   NSUndoManager *undo = [self undoManager];
   [undo disableUndoRegistration];
   MyObject *object = [[MyObject alloc] init];
   [object setFirstName:tempFirstName];
   [object setLastName:tempLastName];
   [undo enableUndoRegistration];
   return [object autorelease];
}

In this example, we instruct the NSUndoManager to stop registering events and then we build the data object and set its attributes. The data object itself has no knowledge of whether or not the NSUndoManager is disabled (although we could check if needed for some reason) and continues to register events. The NSUndoManager receives these events and since it is disabled simply throws them away. When the object has been completely loaded we then turn the registration back on so that any events afterwards will be registered properly.

Initializing the NSUndoManager

In all of these examples, I have just been calling [self undoManager] to get a reference to the NSUndoManager. In an actual program you should have very few NSUndoManagers. Each NSUndoManager should be in a logical location. For instance, if you have a document style application then each document should have its own NSUndoManager. Otherwise you probably only want one NSUndoManager for the entire application.

To initialize an NSUndoManager, you simply call:

NSUndoManager *undoManager = [[NSUndoManger alloc] init];

Naturally, you are going to want to hold onto a reference to this object so that you can make it available to other parts of your application.

Getting the UI to use your NSUndoManager

If you are going to build and/or use your own NSUndoManager then you will want to let the user interface access that same NSUndoManager to avoid having multiple stacks trying to act on the same data. Fortunately, all views get their NSUndoManager from their window and the window gets its NSUndoManager from its delegate. Therefore if you have set up your controller (or another object) as the delegate for your window, add the following method call:

- (NSUndoManager *)windowWillReturnUndoManager:(NSWindow *)window
{
   return [self undoManager];
}

The window will then call this method to get its NSUndoManager. If you do not supply a delegate then the window will initialize its own NSUndoManager.

Conclusion

Once the curtain has been pulled back you can see that the NSUndoManager is in fact a simple array containing structures with two objects and a selector. That is all there is to Undo. However that simplicity belies the power of the design. The application of that simple data structure allows for the sense of wonder and awe that is an application with a properly implemented undo subsystem.


Marcus S. Zarra is the owner of Zarra Studios, based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has been developing Cocoa software since 2003, Java software since 1996, and has been in the industry since 1985. Currently Marcus is producing software for OS X. In addition to writing software, he assists other developers by blogging about development and supplying code samples.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

iFFmpeg 6.2.5 - Convert multimedia files...
iFFmpeg is a comprehensive media tool to convert movie, audio and media files between formats. The FFmpeg command line instructions can be very hard to master/understand, so iFFmpeg does all the hard... Read more
DaisyDisk 4.4 - $9.99
DaisyDisk allows you to visualize your disk usage and free up disk space by quickly finding and deleting big unused files. The program scans your disk and displays its content as a sector diagram... Read more
iFFmpeg 6.2.5 - Convert multimedia files...
iFFmpeg is a comprehensive media tool to convert movie, audio and media files between formats. The FFmpeg command line instructions can be very hard to master/understand, so iFFmpeg does all the hard... Read more
DaisyDisk 4.4 - $9.99
DaisyDisk allows you to visualize your disk usage and free up disk space by quickly finding and deleting big unused files. The program scans your disk and displays its content as a sector diagram... Read more
BetterTouchTool 2.07 - Customize Multi-T...
BetterTouchTool adds many new, fully customizable gestures to the Magic Mouse, Multi-Touch MacBook trackpad, and Magic Trackpad. These gestures are customizable: Magic Mouse: Pinch in / out (zoom... Read more
BetterTouchTool 2.071 - Customize Multi-...
BetterTouchTool adds many new, fully customizable gestures to the Magic Mouse, Multi-Touch MacBook trackpad, and Magic Trackpad. These gestures are customizable: Magic Mouse: Pinch in / out (zoom... Read more
BetterTouchTool 2.07 - Customize Multi-T...
BetterTouchTool adds many new, fully customizable gestures to the Magic Mouse, Multi-Touch MacBook trackpad, and Magic Trackpad. These gestures are customizable: Magic Mouse: Pinch in / out (zoom... Read more
PDFpen 8.3.2 - $74.95
PDFpen allows users to easily edit PDF's. Add text, images and signatures. Fill out PDF forms. Merge or split PDF documents. Reorder and delete pages. Even correct text and edit graphics! Features... Read more
DiskCatalogMaker 6.5.20 - Catalog your d...
DiskCatalogMaker is a simple disk management tool which catalogs disks. Simple, light-weight, and fast Finder-like intuitive look and feel Super-fast search algorithm Can compress catalog data for... Read more
Things 2.8.9 - Elegant personal task man...
Things is a task management solution that helps to organize your tasks in an elegant and intuitive way. Things combines powerful features with simplicity through the use of tags and its intelligent... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Pokémon GO Generation 2 evolution guide
At long last, Niantic Labs finally unleashed the Generation 2 Pokémon into the wild. Pokémon GO trainers are scrambling to grab up this new set of 80 Pokémon. There are some special new tricks required to catch all of these new beasties, though.... | Read more »
The best new games we played this week
It feels as though the New Year got off to a creaking start as far as mobile games go, but that's changed over the past few weeks. The last few days alone have seen the debut of a number of wonderful games, so we thought we'd take the time to... | Read more »
Recruit more scallywags and discover new...
Get ready to show off your sea legs all over again in Oceans & Empires’ new grand update, which aims to make the act of rising to the role of seven seas ruler even more fresh and appealing, thanks to a richness of new content on both iOS and... | Read more »
Mage the Ascension: Refuge (Games)
Mage the Ascension: Refuge 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: The groundbreaking roleplaying game Mage: The Ascension manifests in our turbulent present with Refuge, an... | Read more »
Vampire: Prelude (Games)
Vampire: Prelude 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: The classic roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade returns to digital games with a Prelude of things to come. Experience a... | Read more »
Digby Forever Guide: How to dig to the d...
Digby Forever is a sparkling homage to arcade classics, and while you may be tiring of the number of arcade games being thrown at you, this endless digger finds many ways to stand out from the rest of the pack. The game manages to be challenging... | Read more »
The best sales on the App Store this wee...
It's been quite the week in mobile games, but if the latest releases(there were some pretty darn good ones, in case you missed out) aren't really doing the trick, perhaps some of these discounted games will. Many of these premium games had their... | Read more »
Why the new Fire Emblem Heroes update sh...
It’s exciting to see Nintendo delving into the mobile sphere, regardless of whether it’s to give fans another platform to enjoy their fans or simply a sound business venture. Two of the company's announced mobile games have finally come to... | Read more »
New Fire Emblem Heroes update adds new h...
Fire Emblem Heroes received a sizeable update first thing this morning. The update features a batch of fresh content along with a few updates to the game's systems. [Read more] | Read more »
The Deep Paths (Games)
The Deep Paths 1.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: 25% off launch sale!!! The Deep Paths: Labyrinth Of Andokost is a first-person, dungeon crawling RPG, with traditional grid-based... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

15-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale for up...
Amazon has 15″ Touch Bar MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for up to $150 off MSRP including free shipping: - 15″ 2.7GHz Touch Bar MacBook Pro Space Gray: $2720.38 $79 off MSRP - 15″ 2.7GHz... Read more
Apple’s Education discount saves up to $300 o...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad using Apple’s Education Store and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free: -... Read more
13-inch 1.6GHz/256GB MacBook Air on sale for...
Newegg has the 13″ 1.6GHz/256GB MacBook Air (MMGG2LL/A) on sale for $1029.99 including free shipping. Their price is $170 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this model. Choose Newegg... Read more
Save up to $600 with Apple refurbished Mac Pr...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Mac Pros available for up to $600 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each Mac Pro, and shipping is free. The following... Read more
12-inch 1.1GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for $1...
B&H has 12″ 1.1GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 12″ 1.1GHz Space Gray Retina MacBook: $1149 $150 off MSRP - 12″ 1.1GHz... Read more
InTouch Health Expands iOS And Windows Produc...
Specialty telehealth enterprise provider InTouch Health has announced an expanded range of FDA Class I listed medical devices and software solutions for ambulatory, non-acute and non-emergent... Read more
iMobie Airs World’s 1st iCloud Manager with M...
iMobie Inc., an Apple-related software company, announced their newly-updated iPhone manager AnyTrans with exclusive feature to sync and manage contents across multiple iCloud accounts. With it,... Read more
New Proactive Apple Support Professional Cert...
Watchman Monitoring has announced Proactive Support Professional Certification at MacTech Pro. Watchman Monitoring is a premier Proactive Support Software as a Service (SaaS) tool for IT... Read more
13-inch 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2015 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina Apple MacBook Pro on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY tax only: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro (MF839LL/A): $... Read more
Back in stock: Apple refurbished 13-inch Reti...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2015 13″ Retina MacBook Pros available for up to $360 off original MSRP, starting at $1099. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Technician - nfrastructure (United S...
Let’s Work Together Apple Technician This position is based in Portland, ME Life at nfrastructure At nfrastructure, we understand that our success results from our Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
Manager *Apple* Systems Administration - Pu...
Req ID 3315BR Position Title Manager, Apple Systems Administration Job Description The Manager of Apple Systems Administration oversees the administration and Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
SalesSpecialist - Retail Customer Service and SalesTransform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* macOS Systems Integration Administra...
…most exceptional support available in the industry. SCI is seeking an Junior Apple macOS systems integration administrator that will be responsible for providing Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.