TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Dec 01 Mac OS X 2

Volume Number: 17 (2001)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Mac OS X

by Dan Wood, Alameda CA

The Tortoise and the Hare

Why Carbon Developers Should Start Learning Cocoa

We all know the fable about the tortoise and the hare. It can be interpreted many ways, but let’s say that it’s about the overconfident rabbit finding himself outpaced by the diligent tortoise.

Having returned from a week at WWDC, I am sad to report that there seems to be a tortoise-and-hare situation brewing in the Macintosh developer community.

In spite of the dominance of Windows and despite a recent economic slowdown, it was clear by looking at the crowds at WWDC that the Macintosh development community is alive and kicking. But let’s take a look at who is developing software for the Macintosh today. First off, you have the old-timers, the one who have been programming the Mac since the days of black/white screens and floppy disks. These guys can patch a trap in their sleep and understand the cosmic significance of Tech Note #31. But due to the acquisition of NeXT by Apple, there’s another group of developers that suddenly find themselves with a marketable skill set and a potential user base, and they were in force at the conference. (After all, the number of copies of Mac OS X sold to date has far surpassed the entire NeXT user base!) These weren’t the only kinds of developers at WWDC — after all, there were people who program in pure Java and are delighted to see a new platform for development and deployment, and there was a large WebObjects crowd as well. But on the desktop application development space, it was clear that there were two separate species — the Carbon-based life forms and the Cocoa-based life forms — and there wasn’t any camaraderie between them.

Two Frameworks

Apple has provided Mac OS X with two first-class frameworks for developing applications, Carbon and Cocoa. Carbon is an evolution of the procedural APIs for the Mac that date back to 1984. It’s the classic way of developing for the Mac, with a few twists to make programs run properly under Mac OS X as a first-class citizen. Cocoa is the object-oriented API for building Mac OS X that comes from OpenStep, which itself is descended from NeXTStep. And at WWDC, the Cocoa developers were outnumbered by the Carbon developers by a pretty big margin.

Perhaps there’s nothing inherently wrong with having two first-class APIs for programming a Macintosh. Nothing like this has ever succeeded before, though many (especially Apple) have tried. In general, an OS has always had a single dominant way of programming. Prior to Mac OS X, that dominant paradigm has been the Classic Macintosh Toolbox, programming in C++, using Metrowerks PowerPlant. So what’s the point of Apple trying to introduce a new framework (along with a new language, to boot) for development? Why is Apple trying to rock the boat? Are they just setting us developers up for a conflict?

Think Different

One thing that Apple has succeeded in doing over the last years has been surprising its detractors by creating amazing products. After the public had written off Apple for dead, here comes the iMac, the stylish G3 and G4, the drool-inducing Titanium PowerBook, killer apps such as iMovie and iTunes, and now an OS that pleases the crowds with Aqua and the geeks with its buzzword compliance and existing developers with its Carbon transition path

I’m going to go out on a limb by expressing the opinion that Cocoa is just such an amazing product, just one for developers. Trouble is, many Macintosh developers are going to have to “Think Different” if they are going to reap the benefits.

I feel qualified to express such an opinion because I straddle both worlds. I’ve been developing for the Mac since the screen was 512 pixels across. I’ve done my fair share of C++; I’ve written full-sized applications in PowerPlant, and I love MacsBug. But shortly after Apple acquired NeXT, I started learning Cocoa (or OpenStep or Yellow Box as it was called) and I started to, well, think different. I’ve since written a full-sized application in Cocoa. And frankly, I’m now spoiled: I don’t want to see another line of C++ again.

A Substantial Investment

Since I still have many friends and acquaintances in the “Carbon” camp, I am interested to hear what they think of Cocoa. It’s disheartening to hear how few of these folks express any desire to learn Cocoa. Some claim that they don’t like the syntax of Objective C. Others say that it’s too much of a learning curve. But I think that for the most part, it’s because long-time Mac developers have spent a long time investing in the Mac toolbox, and don’t want to see that expertise go to waste.

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, getting to know the intricacies of each manager in the Mac toolbox, along with the subtleties of C++ (a language that won’t stand still), learning and keeping up with PowerPlant, and tracking new APIs from Apple, is indeed a lot of effort over the years.

But perhaps a different approach would be to frame one’s expertise as owning a boat. Let’s say you like to race sailboats, and you have a boat that you bought 15 years ago. Every year you have to sink a substantial amount of money into maintaining it. One year, you have to overhaul the engine; another year there’s a leak to repair; perhaps the navigation system needs replacement. After fifteen years, you have a working boat, but you’ve sunk $100,000 into that boat over its lifetime. Somebody suggests you sell it and get a new boat, one that’s faster, more efficient, and less likely to need repair, but you’re going to resist it. After all, look at how much money you’ve spent on yours! And look at the new things you’ll have to learn to pilot and maintain the boat! That old boat will do just fine, thank you.

That kind of thinking may not be rational if you “do the math.” But it’s just as hard to let go of emotional investment as financial investment.

I view Cocoa as that new boat that traditional Mac developers are being offered. And it’s hard to let go of the years of honing your investment. And worst of all, I see a great community of Mac developers with “old boats” that are so immersed in their decision not to look at the new technology called Cocoa that they are going to find themselves the hares in the aforementioned fable.

Hare vs. Tortoise

Back to our Tortoise and Hare allegory. The tortoises, who have learned Cocoa — perhaps because they started out as NeXT developers, or perhaps because they had an open enough mind to try it out — have been quietly sneaking up with their shiny new boats made out of Cocoa. We haven’t quite reached this point yet, but I believe that the traditional Mac developers are going to find themselves “beaten” by the Cocoa developers — not in the sense of a one-on-one race, but in the marketplace. Why? Because once you have made the initial investment in learning Cocoa, the long and short of it is that it’s easier and faster to bring products to market.

Carbon’s advantages over Cocoa

Analogies are great, but they don’t work in real-world situations. And in the real world, there are lots of applications that need to be brought forward to Mac OS X. And Carbon is just the technology for that. Carbon means that you don’t have to throw away your code base and start over. Carbon means you can crank out new versions of your application in PowerPlant. Carbon means you get your application finished now instead of later. No learning of new languages or frameworks is required.

Cocoa’s advantages over Carbon

When you are starting to write any new application, however, you have to start designing and programming from ground zero. With Cocoa, ground zero is several floors above Carbon. Here is my take on why.

  • Already object-oriented. Rather than needing to graft a framework such as PowerPlant over a procedural API (while still leaving all the underpinnings fully exposed), Cocoa is object-oriented at the most fundamental level.
  • Heterogeneous data types. To represent a simple piece of data such as a string using C++ and PowerPlant and the Mac Toolbox, you may have to keep track of resources and pointers and handles, Pascal strings, null-terminated C strings, PowerPlant classes such as LStr255, C++ string objects, and so forth. Converting among all those types is half of your work! Cocoa has a string class called NSString. Other objects (such as dictionaries, numbers, booleans, colors, arbitrary data encapsulation, etc.) all have their own classes, and they all fit together in a modular fashion. You never have to parse through bits and bytes unless you’re reading a legacy data structure. Containers of objects contain other objects, enabling a complex structure can be read or written in a single line of code.
  • Easier language than C++. Learning Java or learning Objective C shouldn’t be that difficult for an experienced developer. And the syntax is so much simpler that you can probably get by without a “language lawyer” on staff to help you understand the subtle intricacies of C++. To quote Tom Cargil from the C++ Journal, “If you think C++ is not overly complicated, just what is an abstract virtual base pure virtual private destructor, and when was the last time you needed one?”
  • More Object-Oriented than C++. While C++ has the object-oriented properties of inheritance, polymorphism, and encapsulation, what is lacks is dynamism. With Objective-C (and, to some extent, Java), you can send an arbitrary message to an arbitrary object. The “fragile base class” problem of C++ does not exist in Objective C. Most of the classes in Cocoa take advantage of this, making it very easy build an application.
  • No more “hookup” code. Even with the aid of a C++ framework like PowerPlant, much code needs to be written to access the user interface from the code (e.g. FindPaneByID()) and to dispatch user input to the code via switch() statements. In Cocoa, you hook up the code to the UI using Interface Builder. No code is written or generated, meaning significantly smaller programs.
  • Flatter Class Hierarchy. Because of the dynamic nature of Objective C and the notion of delegation, the class hierarchy of Cocoa is extremely flat. Your applications rarely need to subclass Cocoa classes. The delegation model of Cocoa emphasizes cooperation between classes rather than extension of existing classes. By avoiding subclassing, your objects avoid having to know about the workings of their parent class.
  • Gestalt. No, I’m not talking about an API for querying a Mac’s capabilities. All of the above reasons combined, somehow, make up an experience for the developer that is more than just their sum. Simple applications in Cocoa are just that — simple. Complex applications are possible and surprisingly manageable.

The Finish Line?

There is no real finish line; Cocoa and Carbon will continue to exist for some time. Each has their advantages, but Carbon is the winner when there are business reasons; Cocoa is the winner when there are technical reasons. As time goes on, the business advantages of Carbon will fade away, and the market for Cocoa programmers will be larger than the market for Carbon programmers. The developers that insist on defending their investment in Carbon avoid Cocoa when it comes time to build new projects may find that the Cocoa developers have beaten them to market. I hope that this doesn’t happen. If you are a carbon developer, start learning Cocoa in your spare time — Pick up the new Learning Cocoa book from O’Reilly and try it out. The smartest developers in the world are Mac developers — Imagine how much better off we will all be if they can leverage Cocoa.


Dan Wood is a long-time Macintosh developer who started learning about Mac OS X technologies immediately after Apple acquired NeXT. He has programmed for the Mac using Forth, Pascal, Scheme, 680x0 assembly, C, C++, Java, and Objective-C, using object frameworks such as Think Class Library, Metrowerks PowerPlant, Swing, and Cocoa. You can reach him at dwood@karelia.com.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Fresh From the Land Down Under – The Tou...
After a two week hiatus, we are back with another episode of The TouchArcade Show. Eli is fresh off his trip to Australia, which according to him is very similar to America but more upside down. Also kangaroos all over. Other topics this week... | Read more »
TouchArcade Game of the Week: ‘Dungeon T...
I’m a little conflicted on this week’s pick. Pretty much everyone knows the legend of Dungeon Raid, the match-3 RPG hybrid that took the world by storm way back in 2011. Everyone at the time was obsessed with it, but for whatever reason the... | Read more »
SwitchArcade Round-Up: Reviews Featuring...
Hello gentle readers, and welcome to the SwitchArcade Round-Up for July 19th, 2024. In today’s article, we finish up the week with the unusual appearance of a review. I’ve spent my time with Hot Lap Racing, and I’m ready to give my verdict. After... | Read more »
Draknek Interview: Alan Hazelden on Thin...
Ever since I played my first release from Draknek & Friends years ago, I knew I wanted to sit down with Alan Hazelden and chat about the team, puzzle games, and much more. | Read more »
The Latest ‘Marvel Snap’ OTA Update Buff...
I don’t know about all of you, my fellow Marvel Snap (Free) players, but these days when I see a balance update I find myself clenching my… teeth and bracing for the impact to my decks. They’ve been pretty spicy of late, after all. How will the... | Read more »
‘Honkai Star Rail’ Version 2.4 “Finest D...
HoYoverse just announced the Honkai Star Rail (Free) version 2.4 “Finest Duel Under the Pristine Blue" update alongside a surprising collaboration. Honkai Star Rail 2.4 follows the 2.3 “Farewell, Penacony" update. Read about that here. | Read more »
‘Vampire Survivors+’ on Apple Arcade Wil...
Earlier this month, Apple revealed that poncle’s excellent Vampire Survivors+ () would be heading to Apple Arcade as a new App Store Great. I reached out to poncle to check in on the DLC for Vampire Survivors+ because only the first two DLCs were... | Read more »
Homerun Clash 2: Legends Derby opens for...
Since launching in 2018, Homerun Clash has performed admirably for HAEGIN, racking up 12 million players all eager to prove they could be the next baseball champions. Well, the title will soon be up for grabs again, as Homerun Clash 2: Legends... | Read more »
‘Neverness to Everness’ Is a Free To Pla...
Perfect World Games and Hotta Studio (Tower of Fantasy) announced a new free to play open world RPG in the form of Neverness to Everness a few days ago (via Gematsu). Neverness to Everness has an urban setting, and the two reveal trailers for it... | Read more »
Meditative Puzzler ‘Ouros’ Coming to iOS...
Ouros is a mediative puzzle game from developer Michael Kamm that launched on PC just a couple of months back, and today it has been revealed that the title is now heading to iOS and Android devices next month. Which is good news I say because this... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Amazon is still selling 16-inch MacBook Pros...
Prime Day in July is over, but Amazon is still selling 16-inch Apple MacBook Pros for $500-$600 off MSRP. Shipping is free. These are the lowest prices available this weekend for new 16″ Apple... Read more
Walmart continues to sell clearance 13-inch M...
Walmart continues to offer clearance, but new, Apple 13″ M1 MacBook Airs (8GB RAM, 256GB SSD) online for $699, $300 off original MSRP, in Space Gray, Silver, and Gold colors. These are new MacBooks... Read more
Apple is offering steep discounts, up to $600...
Apple has standard-configuration 16″ M3 Max MacBook Pros available, Certified Refurbished, starting at $2969 and ranging up to $600 off MSRP. Each model features a new outer case, shipping is free,... Read more
Save up to $480 with these 14-inch M3 Pro/M3...
Apple has 14″ M3 Pro and M3 Max MacBook Pros in stock today and available, Certified Refurbished, starting at $1699 and ranging up to $480 off MSRP. Each model features a new outer case, shipping is... Read more
Amazon has clearance 9th-generation WiFi iPad...
Amazon has Apple’s 9th generation 10.2″ WiFi iPads on sale for $80-$100 off MSRP, starting only $249. Their prices are the lowest available for new iPads anywhere: – 10″ 64GB WiFi iPad (Space Gray or... Read more
Apple is offering a $50 discount on 2nd-gener...
Apple has Certified Refurbished White and Midnight HomePods available for $249, Certified Refurbished. That’s $50 off MSRP and the lowest price currently available for a full-size Apple HomePod today... Read more
The latest MacBook Pro sale at Amazon: 16-inc...
Amazon is offering instant discounts on 16″ M3 Pro and 16″ M3 Max MacBook Pros ranging up to $400 off MSRP as part of their early July 4th sale. Shipping is free. These are the lowest prices... Read more
14-inch M3 Pro MacBook Pros with 36GB of RAM...
B&H Photo has 14″ M3 Pro MacBook Pros with 36GB of RAM and 512GB or 1TB SSDs in stock today and on sale for $200 off Apple’s MSRP, each including free 1-2 day shipping: – 14″ M3 Pro MacBook Pro (... Read more
14-inch M3 MacBook Pros with 16GB of RAM on s...
B&H Photo has 14″ M3 MacBook Pros with 16GB of RAM and 512GB or 1TB SSDs in stock today and on sale for $150-$200 off Apple’s MSRP, each including free 1-2 day shipping: – 14″ M3 MacBook Pro (... Read more
Amazon is offering $170-$200 discounts on new...
Amazon is offering a $170-$200 discount on every configuration and color of Apple’s M3-powered 15″ MacBook Airs. Prices start at $1129 for models with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage: – 15″ M3... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Systems Engineer - Chenega Corporati...
…LLC,** a **Chenega Professional Services** ' company, is looking for a ** Apple Systems Engineer** to support the Information Technology Operations and Maintenance Read more
Solutions Engineer - *Apple* - SHI (United...
**Job Summary** An Apple Solution Engineer's primary role is tosupport SHI customers in their efforts to select, deploy, and manage Apple operating systems and Read more
*Apple* / Mac Administrator - JAMF Pro - Ame...
Amentum is seeking an ** Apple / Mac Administrator - JAMF Pro** to provide support with the Apple Ecosystem to include hardware and software to join our team and Read more
Operations Associate - *Apple* Blossom Mall...
Operations Associate - Apple Blossom Mall Location:Winchester, VA, United States (https://jobs.jcp.com/jobs/location/191170/winchester-va-united-states) - Apple Read more
Cashier - *Apple* Blossom Mall - JCPenney (...
Cashier - Apple Blossom Mall Location:Winchester, VA, United States (https://jobs.jcp.com/jobs/location/191170/winchester-va-united-states) - Apple Blossom Mall Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.