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

Boom 2 1.0.1 - System-wide pro audio app...
Boom 2 is a system-wide volume booster and equalizer app that is designed especially for OS X 10.10 Yosemite. It comes with a smart interface, self-calibrates itself according to your Mac, offers... Read more
Apple Security Update 2015-001 - For OS...
Apple Security Update 2015-001 is recommended for all users and improves the security of OS X. For detailed information about the security content of this update, please visit: http://support.apple.... Read more
Drive Genius 4.0.1 - Powerful system uti...
Drive Genius 4 gives you faster performance from your Mac while also protecting it. The award-winning and improved DrivePulse feature alerts you to hard drive issues before they become major problems... Read more
Yosemite Cache Cleaner 9.0.3 - Clear cac...
Yosemite Cache Cleaner is an award-winning general purpose tool for OS X. YCC makes system maintenance simple with an easy point-and-click interface to many OS X functions. Novice and expert users... Read more
xScope 4.1.1 - Onscreen graphic measurem...
xScope is powerful set of tools that are ideal for measuring, inspecting, and testing on-screen graphics and layouts. Its tools float above your desktop windows and can be accessed via a toolbar,... Read more
OS X Yosemite 10.10.2 - Apple's lat...
OS X Yosemite is Apple's newest operating system for Mac. An elegant design that feels entirely fresh, yet inherently familiar. The apps you use every day, enhanced with new features. And a... Read more
Apple iOS 8.1.3 - The latest version of...
The latest version of iOS can be downloaded through iTunes. Apple iOS 8 comes with big updates to apps you use every day, like Messages and Photos. A whole new way to share content with your family.... Read more
SpamSieve 2.9.19 - Robust spam filter fo...
SpamSieve is a robust spam filter for major email clients that uses powerful Bayesian spam filtering. SpamSieve understands what your spam looks like in order to block it all, but also learns what... Read more
RapidWeaver 6.0.5 - Create template-base...
RapidWeaver is a next-generation Web design application to help you easily create professional-looking Web sites in minutes. No knowledge of complex code is required, RapidWeaver will take care of... Read more
Duet 1.2.2 - Use your iPad as an externa...
Duet is the first app that allows you to use your iDevice as an extra display for your Mac using the Lightning or 30-pin cable. Note: This app requires a $14.99 iOS companion app. Version 1.2.2:... Read more

Storm & Skye – Magical Adventure Sto...
Storm & Skye – Magical Adventure Story For Kids Review By Amy Solomon on January 28th, 2015 Our Rating: iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad The first book in the Storm & Skye series includes... | Read more »
New WOTA: U-Boat Compass ‘Wets’ Your App...
New WOTA: U-Boat Compass ‘Wets’ Your Appetite for WOTA: Wolves of the Atlantic. Posted by Jessica Fisher on January 27th, 2015 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Warship Solitaire Review
Warship Solitaire Review By Nadia Oxford on January 27th, 2015 Our Rating: :: A WAR OF NUMBERSUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Warship Solitaire might lack frills and looks, but it offers some thought provoking... | Read more »
Keep Track of Your Hectic Work Schedule...
Keep Track of Your Hectic Work Schedule With Shifts Posted by Jessica Fisher on January 27th, 2015 [ permalink ] iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad | Read more »
All Star Quarterback Review
All Star Quarterback Review By Campbell Bird on January 27th, 2015 Our Rating: :: PLAY YOUR PARTUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Train your way to the Super Bowl in this free-to-play sports management game.   | Read more »
Sentinel 4: Dark Star Adds New Campaign...
Sentinel 4: Dark Star Adds New Campaign and More Posted by Ellis Spice on January 27th, 2015 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Wheel & Deal Review
Wheel & Deal Review By Tre Lawrence on January 27th, 2015 Our Rating: :: SIMPLE FUNUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad A simple arcade shooter that has a retro feel.   | Read more »
Join the NAVY in a Big New Update for WW...
Join the NAVY in a Big New Update for WW2: Sandbox. Strategy & Tactics Posted by Jessica Fisher on January 27th, 2015 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Earthworm Alchemy Review
Earthworm Alchemy Review By Campbell Bird on January 27th, 2015 Our Rating: :: FEED THE WORMUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Feed this funny looking worm and dodge bombs in this charming, free-to-play arcade game.   | Read more »
Graphic Novel App netwars – The Butterfl...
Graphic Novel App netwars – The Butterfly Attack has Received Some New Episodes Posted by Jessica Fisher on January 27th, 2015 [ permalink ] | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

New Good Management Suite Simplifies Enterpri...
Good Technology has announced the availability of the Good Management Suite, a comprehensive cross-platform solution for organizations getting started with mobile business initiatives. Built on the... Read more
15-inch 2.0GHz Retina MacBook Pro (refurbishe...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished previous-generation 15″ 2.0GHz Retina MacBook Pros available for $1489 including free shipping plus Apple’s standard one-year warranty. Their price is... Read more
15-inch 2.5GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for...
Amazon has the 15″ 2.5GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $2319.99 including free shipping. Their price is $180 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this model from any reseller. Read more
iPad Turns Five – The ”Book Mystique
Five years ago this week, the late Steve Jobs took the stage at an Apple special press event to unveil the first Apple iPad — a slab-shaped, hand-holdable device that was to shake the personal... Read more
Sale! 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros for up to $...
B&H Photo has the new 2014 15″ Retina MacBook Pros on sale for $150 off MSRP for a limited time. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro: $1889.99... Read more
Apple refurbished Mac minis for up to $150 of...
The Apple Store has restocked Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 Mac minis, with models available starting at $419. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each mini, and shipping is free: - 1.4GHz... Read more
Apple Releases New Tranche Of OS Updates For...
Apple has released incremental bugfix and security updates for its most recent Mac and iOS versions. OS X Yosemite 10.10.2 Update Apple says this update includes the following improvements: Resolves... Read more
Samsung To Be Main Supplier Of A9 Chips For i...
Korea’s Maeil Business Newspaper reports that Samsung has beat out its chipmaking rivals, Taiwan’s Qualcomm and TSMC, as supplier of chipsets for the next generations of both its own Galaxy S6 and... Read more
Save up to $340 on iMacs with Apple Certified...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available for up to $340 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. These are the best prices on... Read more
AppleCare Protection Plans on sale for up to...
B&H Photo has 3-Year AppleCare Warranties on sale for up to $105 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - Mac Laptops 15″ and Above: $244 $105 off MSRP - Mac Laptops 13″ and... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Retail Sales...
As an ambassador of the Apple brand, the ASC is accountable for driving sales performance by: Connecting with customers. Discovering customers' needs and values. Showing Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Retail Sales...
As an ambassador of the Apple brand, the ASC is accountable for driving sales performance by: Connecting with customers. Discovering customers' needs and values. Showing Read more
*Apple* Tree Children's Center is hirin...
Apple Tree Learning Center is Hiring Preschool Teachers! Phoenix Childrens Academy is a national leader in the early childhood education industry and we are currently Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Retail Sales...
**Job Summary** As an Apple Solutions Consultant (ASC) you are the link between our customers and our products. Your role is to drive the Apple business in a retail Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Retail Sales...
As an ambassador of the Apple brand, the ASC is accountable for driving sales performance by: Connecting with customers. Discovering customers' needs and values. Showing Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.