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

Live Home 3D Pro 3.6.2 - $49.99
Live Home 3D Pro is powerful yet intuitive home design software that lets you build the house of your dreams right on your Mac, iPhone or iPad. It has every feature of Live Home 3D, plus some... Read more
RapidWeaver 8.2 - Create template-based...
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
Opera 60.0.3255.109 - High-performance W...
Opera is a fast and secure browser trusted by millions of users. With the intuitive interface, Speed Dial and visual bookmarks for organizing favorite sites, news feature with fresh, relevant content... Read more
DEVONthink Pro 3.0beta2 - Knowledge base...
DEVONthink Pro is your essential assistant for today's world, where almost everything is digital. From shopping receipts to important research papers, your life often fills your hard drive in the... Read more
Tunnelblick 3.7.9 - GUI for OpenVPN.
Tunnelblick is a free, open source graphic user interface for OpenVPN on OS X. It provides easy control of OpenVPN client and/or server connections. It comes as a ready-to-use application with all... Read more
Carbon Copy Cloner 5.1.9 - Easy-to-use b...
Carbon Copy Cloner backups are better than ordinary backups. Suppose the unthinkable happens while you're under deadline to finish a project: your Mac is unresponsive and all you hear is an ominous,... Read more
Dropbox 73.4.118 - Cloud backup and sync...
Dropbox is an application that creates a special Finder folder that automatically syncs online and between your computers. It allows you to both backup files and keeps them up-to-date between systems... Read more
Postbox 6.1.18 - Powerful and flexible e...
Postbox is a new email application that helps you organize your work life and get stuff done. It has all the elegance and simplicity of Apple Mail, but with more power and flexibility to manage even... Read more
Wireshark 3.0.2 - Network protocol analy...
Wireshark is one of the world's foremost network protocol analyzers, and is the standard in many parts of the industry. It is the continuation of a project that started in 1998. Hundreds of... Read more
BetterTouchTool 2.856 - 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

AFK Arena guide - Everything you need to...
Ok, so if you're like me, you've been playing (and sometimes waiting) your way through AFK Arena, only to learn there's a lot more to it than there appears on the surface. There's guilds, a PvP arena, and all sorts of other systems and game modes... | Read more »
Explore an epic fantasy world in MMORPG...
Webzen have just announced the official launch date for its stunning MMORPG ‘MU Origin 2’ which will arrive for iOS and Android on May 28th. It will be the second spinoff from the classic PC-based MU Online, and it looks to further refine the... | Read more »
Solar Explorer: New Dawn guide - Tips an...
Solar Explorer: New Dawn is a lunar lander game that really ratchets the intensity up to 11. With all of the asteroids flying around as you fly around at seemingly breakneck speeds, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed bythe whole thing. | Read more »
The Dalaran Heist - How Hearthstone...
I am someone who wrote Hearthstone off a while ago. It was hard not to try and stick with it. The game has incredible production values and a core of really great talent working on the game continuously to keep it feeling fresh and fun (full... | Read more »
Steam Link App - Everything You Need to...
Steam Link has finally released for iOS! That’s right, you can play your epic backlog of PC games on the go now. Well… sort of. While the Steam Link app was announced seemingly ages ago, it only got actual approval for release last night. Check out... | Read more »
Pre-register now for endless superhero r...
Talking Tom Hero Dash is set to take the ever-popular Talking Tom and Friends franchise in a brand new direction as it opens pre-registration to players worldwide. Not only does it promise to be a beautifully rendered, fast-paced, action-packed... | Read more »
AFK Arena - Guild Wars guide
Ok, so if you're like me, you've been playing (and sometimes waiting) your way through AFK Arena, only to learn there's a lot more to it than there appears on the surface. There's guilds, a PvP arena, and all sorts of other systems and game modes... | Read more »
Superhero-themed Talking Tom Hero Dash i...
One of the exciting releases that we’re looking forward to is Talking Tom Hero Dash, an upcoming superhero-themed runner created by Outfit7. This new game is an action-packed endless runner that takes you on an epic adventure to assemble the... | Read more »
Kingdom Rush Vengeance Update Guide 2 -...
Kingdom Rush: Vengeance just got updated once again to add more content to the game. This addition, called The Frozen Nightmare, adds three new levels, five new enemies, two new heroes, and some new achievements. | Read more »
Save the world with SCIENCE in the upcom...
Previous versions of space colonization game TerraGenesis encouraged you to explore the galaxy and settle its planets. The eagerly-awaited 5.0 update will try to smash them to bits. Yep, with a new "world killers" setting, you can unleash... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

12″ 1.2GHz MacBooks on sale for $999, $300 of...
Amazon has current-generation 12″ 1.2GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for $300 off Apple’s MSRP. Shipping is free: 12″ 1.2GHz Space Gray MacBook: $999.99 $300 off MSRP 12″ 1.2GHz Silver MacBook: $999.99 $... Read more
Here’s how to save $200 on Apple’s new 8-Core...
Apple has released details of their Education discount associated with the new 2019 15″ 6-Core and 8-Core MacBook Pros. Take $200 off the price of the new 8-Core model (now $2599) and $150 off the 15... Read more
Price drops! 2018 15″ 2.2GHz 6-Core MacBook P...
Amazon has dropped prices on clearance 2018 15″ 2.2GHz 6-Core Touch Bar MacBook Pros by $300 with models now available for $2099. These are the same models sold by Apple in their retail and online... Read more
Apple drops prices on 2018 13″ 2.3GHz Quad-Co...
Apple has dropped prices on Certified Refurbished 2018 13″ 2.3GHz 4-Core Touch Bar MacBook Pros with prices now starting at $1489. Apple’s one-year warranty is included, shipping is free, and each... Read more
Apple drops prices on 2018 Certified Refurbis...
Apple has dropped prices on clearance 2018 15″ 6-Core Touch Bar MacBook Pro, Certified Refurbished, with models available starting at only $1999. Each model features a new outer case, shipping is... Read more
Price drops! Clearance 2018 13″ Quad Core Mac...
Amazon has dropped prices on 2018 13″ Apple Quad-Core MacBook Pros with models now available for $250 off original MSRP. Shipping is free. Select Amazon as the seller, rather than a third-party, to... Read more
How Much Is ‘Solace’ Of Mind Worth When Buyin...
COMMENTARY: 05.22.19- Smartphone cases give us peace of mind by providing ample protection for such a fragile gadget and the sky’s the limit as far as choices go with a plethora of brands, styles,... Read more
Get a 13″ Touch Bar MacBook Pro for the lowes...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2017 13″ 3.1GHz Dual-Core i5 Touch Bar MacBook Pros available starting at $1439, ranging up to $390 off original MSRP. Each MacBook features a new outer case, shipping... Read more
Apple adds new 15″ 8-Core MacBook Pro to line...
Apple has added a new 15″ MacBook Pro to its lineup featuring a 9th generation 2.3GHz 8-Core Intel i9 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and a Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB of GDDR5 memory for $2799.... Read more
21″ 2.3GHz iMac available for $999 at B&H...
B&H Photo has the 2018 21″ 2.3GHz Apple iMac on sale for $100 off MSRP. This is the same model offering by Apple in their retail and online stores. Shipping is free: – 21″ 2.3GHz iMac (MMQA2LL/A... Read more

Jobs Board

Best Buy *Apple* Computing Master - Best Bu...
**690427BR** **Job Title:** Best Buy Apple Computing Master **Job Category:** Sales **Location Number:** 000860-Charlottesville-Store **Job Description:** **What Read more
*Apple* Mobile Master - Best Buy (United Sta...
**696430BR** **Job Title:** Apple Mobile Master **Job Category:** Store Associates **Location Number:** 001012-Bismarck-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Read more
Manager - *Apple* Team - SHI International...
…opportunity available in the Hardware & Advanced Solutions Department as the Manager of the Apple Team The Manager must be familiar with all aspects of Apple Read more
Best Buy *Apple* Computing Master - Best Bu...
**696375BR** **Job Title:** Best Buy Apple Computing Master **Job Category:** Sales **Location Number:** 000203-North Austin-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Read more
Geek Squad *Apple* Master Consultation Agen...
**696286BR** **Job Title:** Geek Squad Apple Master Consultation Agent **Job Category:** Services/Installation/Repair **Location Number:** 000172-Rivergate-Store Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.