Supporting Dark Mode: Introduction

I spent a good part of the summer learning about macOS Mojave’s new Dark Mode theme, and how Mac apps can support the theme both in technical and practical ways. I adapted MarsEdit, Black Ink, FlexTime, and FastScripts to the new interface style.

During that process, I learned a lot about where to look for advice, and how to handle common scenarios. I’d like to share that advice with folks who have yet to undertake this work.

The gist of what I have to share comes from tackling challenge after challenge in my own apps. Some interfaces adapted effortlessly to Dark Mode, some needed only a little finessing, while others demanded relatively hard-core infrastructural changes.

My advice will focus on the dichotomy of Light Mode and Dark Mode. The Mac’s appearance support is more nuanced than that. NSAppearance supports a hierarchy of appearances that build upon one another. The light and dark modes are the two most prominent user-facing examples, but variations such as high contrast modes should also be considered.

These articles are loosely organized in order from more fundamental to more arcane, with a priority on establishing knowledge and techniques in earlier articles that you may need to reference in later articles. Feel free to jump around if you’re looking for something special:

Finder Quick Actions

In the What’s New in Cocoa for macOS session at WWDC 2018, Apple announced Quick Actions, which are handy little contextual tasks you can invoke on selected items in the Finder, either from a contextual menu or from the Preview side panel.

The emphasis in the session was on creating Quick Actions via Automator. There, it’s as simple as creating a new workflow document, selecting “Quick Action” from the template palette, and saving. It even puts it in the right place (~/Library/Services).

Essentially, Quick Actions appear to be macOS Services, which have a long history and which Automator has previously been able to create. In fact in macOS Mojave betas, the Quick Action document seems to completely supersede the “Service” type.

But what about native applications that want to provide Quick Actions? I didn’t see anything in the WWDC session to address this scenario, so I started poking around myself. When you click the “More…” button in Finder’s Preview panel, it opens up System Preferences’s Extensions settings, focused on a special “Finder” section. In the list are several built-in extensions.

I thought these were likely to be implemented as binary app extensions, so I instinctively control-clicked on one. A “Reveal in Finder” optionĀ appeared, so I selected it. Sure enough, they live inside Finder itself, and are packaged as “.appex” bundles, the same format that Apple supports for 3rd-party applications.

What’s handy about finding an example of an app extension you want to emulate, is you can open up its bundle and examine the Info.plist. Apple’s approach to identifying app extensions’s capabilities and appearance is based heavily on the specification of values in an NSExtension entry. Looking at one of Apples models, I saw confirmation that at least this variant was of type “com.apple.services” and that its attributes included many useful values. NSExtensionActivationRule, are substantially documented, and can be used to finely tune which types of target items an extension can perform useful actions on.

Others, such as NSExtensionServiceAllowsFinderPreviewItem and NSExtensionServiceFinderPreviewIconName do not appear to be publicly documented yet, but one can guess at what their meaning is. I’m not sure yet if the icon name has to be something public or if you can bundle a custom icon and reference it from the extension. I was alerted on Twitter to at least one other key: NSExtensionServiceAllowsTouchBarItem, which evidently triggers the action’s appearance in the Touch Bar while a qualified item is selected.

Dumping AppKit’s framework binary and grepping for likely matches reveals the following key values which are pretty easy to guess the meaning of:

NSExtensionServiceAllowsFinderPreviewItem
NSExtensionServiceFinderPreviewLabel
NSExtensionServiceFinderPreviewIconName
NSExtensionServiceAllowsTouchBarItem
NSExtensionServiceTouchBarLabel
NSExtensionServiceTouchBarIconName
NSExtensionServiceTouchBarBezelColorName
NSExtensionServiceToolbarPaletteLabel
NSExtensionServiceToolbarIconName
NSExtensionServiceToolbarIconFile
NSExtensionServiceAllowsToolbarItem

Of course, until these are documented, and even when they are, until macOS Mojave 10.14 ships, you should consider these all to be preliminary values which could disappear depending on further development by Apple of the upcoming OS.

Apple Events Usage Description

In case you haven’t heard, macOS Mojave is bringing a new “Apple Events sandbox” that will affect the behavior of apps that send Apple Events to other apps either directly, or by way of running an AppleScript. I wrote more about this on my non-development blog, Bitsplitting: Reauthorizing Automation in Mojave.

Typically, the system is simply supposed to ask users whether they approve of the Apple Events being sent from one app to another, but in some instances it seems the events are rejected without ever prompting the user. My friend Paul Kim of Hazel fame asked in a developer chat room whether any of us were having this kind of trouble specifically with apps built in Xcode 10, against the macOS 10.14 SDK.

This rang a bell for me on two levels: first, I had seen a similar behavior with FastScripts, which I eventually fixed by switching it to a much newer build system, and dropping support for versions of macOS older than 10.12. It was the right time for me to make those changes, so I didn’t mind doing it, but I never quite understood why the behavior was happening.

I noticed after building and running on my developer Mac (which is running the 10.14 beta), I was still experiencing the behavior Paul described. With FastScripts, these kinds of alerts pop up all over the place, because by virtue of running scripts, users are often incidentally sending Apple Events to other apps. Here’s a simple example script that I can run via FastScripts:

tell app "Preview"
    get document 1
end tell

When I run this with a version of FastScripts that was linked against the 10.14 SDK, I get this error message from FastScripts itself. The system never prompts to grant permission:

Scripting error received when attempting to run a script from FastScripts

Until Paul mentioned his own problems, I glossed over these failures because I was satisfied that my production built versions, linked against the 10.13 SDK, were “working fine.” But Paul’s report got me thinking: was it possible there is some unspoken contract here, whereby linking against the 10.14 SDK opens up my app to additional privacy related requirements?

I tapped into Xcode’s Info.plist editor for FastScripts, added a new field, and typed “Privacy” on a hunch, because I’ve come to realize that Apple prefixes the plain-English description for most, if not all, of their “usage explanation” Info.plist fields with this word:

Screenshot of the list of Privacy-related Info.plist strings that appears

Aha, that first one looks promising. You can right-click on an Info.plist string in Xcode to “Show Raw Keys/Values”, and doing so reveals that the Info.plist key in question is “NSAppleEventsUsageDescription”. After adding the key to my app, I built and run again, and running the same script as above now yields the expected authorization panel:

Screenshot of Apple's standard panel requesting access for FastScripts to control another app.

I’m not sure if requiring the usage description string is intentional or not, but it’s probably a good idea even if, as in the case of FastScripts, you have to be pretty vague about what the specific usage is. I don’t think this usage string was covered in the WWDC 2018 session about macOS security. Hopefully if you’ve run into this with your Mac app, this post will help you to work around the problem.

Let it Rip

In the latest Mojave public beta, I noticed a foreboding warning in the console when I build and run FastScripts, my macOS scripting utility:

FastScripts [...] is calling TIS/TSM in non-main thread environment, ERROR : This is NOT allowed. Please call TIS/TSM in main thread!!!

Ruh-roh, that doesn’t sound good. Particularly with the emphasis of three, count them three, exclamation points! I better figure out what’s going on here. But how?

Sometimes when Apple adds a log message like this, they are kind enough to offer advice about what to do to alleviate the problem. Sometimes the advice implores that we stop using a deprecated method, or in a scenario like this, offers a symbolic breakpoint we might set to zero in on exactly where the offending code lies. For example, a quick survey of my open Console app reveals:

default	11:54:18.482226 -0400	com.apple.WebKit.WebContent	Set a breakpoint at SLSLogBreak to catch errors/faults as they are logged.

This particular warning doesn’t seem to apply to my app, but if it did, I would have something good to go on if I wanted to learn more. With the TIS/TSM warning, however, I have no idea where to go. Do I even use TIS/TSM? What is TSM?

I’ve worked on Apple platforms for long enough to know that TSM stands for Text Services Manager. However, I have also worked on these platforms long enough to forget whether I’ve actually used, or am still using, such a framework in my apps! When these kinds of warnings appear in the console, as many times as not they reflect imperfections in Apple’s own framework code. Is it something Apple’s doing, or something I’m doing, that’s triggering this message?

Ideally we could set a breakpoint on the very line of code that causes this console message to be printed. This can be surprisingly difficult though. There have always been a variety of logging mechanisms. Should you set the breakpoint on NSLog, os_log, printf, fprintf, or write? I could probably figure out a comprehensive method for catching anything that might write to the console, but am I even sure this console method is being generated in my app’s main process? There are a lot of variables here. (Hah! In this particular case, I ended up digging deeper and discovering it calls “CFLog”).

This is a scenario where combining lldb’s powerful “regular expression breakpoints” and “breakpoint commands” can help a great deal. Early in my app’s launch, before the warning messages are logged, I break in lldb and add a breakpoint:

(lldb) break set -r TIS|TSM.*

I’m banking on the likelihood that whatever function is leading to this warning contains the pertinent framework prefixes. It turns out to be a good bet:

Breakpoint 5: 634 locations.

I hit continue and let my app continue launching. Here’s the problem, though: those 634 breakpoint locations include quite a few that are getting hit on a regular basis, and for several consecutive breaks, none of them is triggering the warning message I’m concerned about. This is a situation where I prefer to “let it rip” and sort out the details later:

(lldb) break command add 5
Enter your debugger command(s).  Type 'DONE' to end.
> bt
> c
> DONE
(lldb) c
Process 16022 resuming

What this does is add a series of commands that will be run automatically by lldb whenever breakpoint 5 (the one I just set) is hit. This applies to any of the 634 locations that are associated with the regular expression I provided. When the breakpoint is hit, it will first invoke the “bt” command to print a backtrace of all the calls leading up to this call, and then it will invoke the “continue” command to keep running the app. After the app has run for a bit, I search the debugger console for “!!!” which I remembered from the original warning. Locating it, I simply scroll up to see the backtrace command that had most recently been invoked:

  thread #7, stop reason = breakpoint 5.568
    frame #0: 0x00007fff2cd520fd HIToolbox`TSMGetInputSourceProperty
    frame #1: 0x00000001003faef2 RSFoundation`-[RSKeyboardStatus update](self=0x00006000002b8c00, _cmd="update") at RSKeyboardStatus.m:56
    [...]

Command #2 'c' continued the target.
2018-08-14 12:15:40.326538-0400 FastScripts[16022:624168] pid(16022)/euid(501) is calling TIS/TSM in non-main thread environment, ERROR : This is NOT allowed. Please call TIS/TSM in main thread!!! 

Sure enough, that’s my code. I’m calling TSM framework functions to handle key translation for FastScripts’s keyboard shortcut functionality, and I’m doing it (gasp!) from thread #7, which is certainly not the main thread. I oughta be ashamed…

But I’m proud, because I tracked down the root of the problem pretty efficiently using lldb’s fantastic breakpoint commands. Next time you’re at a loss for how or where something could possibly be happening, consider the possibility of setting a broad, regular expression based breakpoint, and a series of commands to help clarify what’s happening when those breakpoints are hit. Then? Let it rip!

Completely Useful

Particularly as a developer coming from an Objective C background, it’s common to head into an override implementation in a subclass thinking of a property as a function. For this reason, I find myself commonly starting to implement a property override by typing something like “override func canBecome” when I want to override UIView’s “canBecomeFirstResponder”. A completion pops up like this:

Screenshot of Xcode offering a code completion with non-pertinent options.

Instead of the expected method, Xcode has twisted itself into knots to contrive that letters from the whole prototype for “addObserver” can be used to spell out “canBecome”. Not particularly useful.

It always takes me a few seconds, or longer, to realize that I haven’t misremembered the existence of a method or property that I want to override, I’ve simply disregarded whether it’s identified in Swift as a “var” or a “func”. One simple change to “override var canBecome” does the trick:

Screenshot of Xcode offering a useful code completion popup list.

In my not so very humble at all opinion, Xcode should go the extra mile here and look for matches in the “var” realm when you’ve type “func”, and vice-versa. If it finds something that perfectly matches everything you’ve typed except whether it’s a func or a var, then it should offer the completion and fix the mistyped designation when you accept it. I’ve filed Radar #42660012 requesting this enhancement.

Update: Several folks have suggested a good workaround: simply get in the habit of omitting the decorative terms, such as “override”, “func”, and “var”. It turns out if you leave out the narrowing term, Xcode does find the pertinent matches, and also inserts the required decoration upon inserting one.

My friend Chris Liscio pointed out that changing the behavior as I recommend might be a questionable move, because it defies a kind of rule for type-completion. In general, whatever the user has already typed should be considered what the user knows they want, and completion should only offer pertinent matches. It’s a compelling argument but I think that in cases like this the computer actually knows more about what I really want than I do.

Icon for File with UIKit

There’s a general consensus among many Mac and (mostly) iOS developers, that AppKit is “old and busted” and UIKit is “new and refined.” I am still fairly limited in my experience with UIKit, but in many ways I agree that in developing the framework, they left some of the more annoying baggage of AppKit behind. However, they also left off many conveniences that AppKit developers like myself have come to rely upon.

One of the easiest things in the world in AppKit is asking the framework for an image to represent a file’s icon. Say you’ve got a Swift source file handy and you want to show it in your app with an appropriate icon. It’s an easy one-liner on the Mac:

let swiftIcon = NSWorkspace.shared.icon(forFile: "/tmp/Test.swift")

Screenshot of Xcode showing code to request an icon from NSWorkspace.

On UIKit, as far as I can tell, it takes a bit more work. There is no UIWorkspace, which is probably fine, but there is also no UIImage.iconForFile, or similar method to make this quite as straightforward as it is on the Mac.

I came across “UIDocumentInteractionController” which seems to be the key to easily obtaining icons for arbitrary image types on iOS. After initializing it with a file URL, you can ask it for an array of icons, which it will reveal in order from smallest to largest. Tying this all together in an extension on UIImage, you could add a pretty handy helper method to your collection of code (sorry, one of these days I’ll get syntax highlighting working on this blog):

import UIKit

extension UIImage {
	public enum FileIconSize {
		case smallest
		case largest
	}

	public class func icon(forFileURL fileURL: URL, preferredSize: FileIconSize = .smallest) -> UIImage {
		let myInteractionController = UIDocumentInteractionController(url: fileURL)
		let allIcons = myInteractionController.icons

		// allIcons is guaranteed to have at least one image
		switch preferredSize {
		case .smallest: return allIcons.first!
		case .largest: return allIcons.last!
		}
	}
}

Now I’ve got basically the same functionality I had on AppKit:

Screenshot of invoking the helper method from code snippet above.

This is cool enough, but what’s even cooler is the UIKit method works on a URL irrespective of whether the underlying file actually exists! This, combined with the fact that a URL can be initialized with just about any String, means we can expand our icon utilities with a method for obtaining icons by file name alone:

extension UIImage {
	public class func icon(forFileNamed fileName: String, preferredSize: FileIconSize = .smallest) -> UIImage {
		return icon(forFileURL: URL(fileURLWithPath: fileName), preferredSize: preferredSize)
	}
}

Here we use it to get the icon for an arbitrary Pages file which may or may not exist:

Screenshot of calling the code snippet above to obtain a file icon for a Pages document.

Ah, now this is starting to feel even cooler than AppKit. But wait, NSWorkspace also supports another handy method:

let zipIcon = NSWorkspace.shared.icon(forFileType: "zip")

Well, we can achieve similar by taking advantage of the icon(forFileNamed:) method:

extension UIImage {
	public class func icon(forPathExtension pathExtension: String, preferredSize: FileIconSize = .smallest) -> UIImage {
		let baseName = "Generic"
		let fileName = (baseName as NSString).appendingPathExtension(pathExtension) ?? baseName
		return icon(forFileNamed: fileName, preferredSize: preferredSize)
	}
}

Now we’re really catching up:

Screenshot of code calling the iconForPathExtension example above.

But AppKit’s equivalent actually works on UTI type strings, as well. Wouldn’t that be cool to support on iOS? Seeing as MobileCoreServices gives us access to low level functions for converting UTI and file extensions, we can take a UTI, convert it, and let our existing helper methods take it from there:

import MobileCoreServices

extension FileManager {
	public func fileExtension(forUTI utiString: String) -> String? {
		guard
			let cfFileExtension = UTTypeCopyPreferredTagWithClass(utiString as CFString, kUTTagClassFilenameExtension)?.takeRetainedValue() else
		{
			return nil
		}

		return cfFileExtension as String
	}
}

extension UIImage {
	public class func icon(forUTI utiString: String, preferredSize: FileIconSize = .smallest) -> UIImage? {
		guard let fileExtension = FileManager.default.fileExtension(forUTI: utiString) else {
			return nil
		}
		return icon(forPathExtension: fileExtension, preferredSize: preferredSize)
	}
}

And voila!

Screenshot of code calling the iconForUTI code above.

It would be fairly easy to further extend this to support creating icon images from MIME types. Hope this helps some of you folks, especially coming from the Mac, who expected getting icons for file types to be slightly easier than it is.

Internal Typealias Promotion

In some scenarios it might be useful to declare a typealias internally to a module, to make it easier to implement the functionality of the module itself, but less useful to export that typealias to clients of the module. For example, consider an image manipulation framework that can work with NSImage or UIImage instances, depending on the platform. Internally to the module, I might define:

#if os(macOS)
	typealias RSPlatformNativeImage = NSImage
#else
	typealias RSPlatformNativeImage = UIImage
#endif

Then I can implement methods, including public facing methods like:

public func monochromeImage(fromImage image: RSPlatformNativeImage) -> RSPlatformNativeImage { ... }

Since I haven’t marked my typealiases as ‘public’, they won’t be exported to clients, but the above will also fail to compile. Swift requires that public methods work only with public types. This makes sense, because if the types aren’t public, how are clients expected to be able to work with them?

But if I mark the typealiases public, I impose a new type “RSPlatformNativeImage” on clients, when as far as they are concerned, this method operates on either an NSImage or UIImage. They might quickly get the idea that RSPlatformNativeImage is just a typealias, but it’s a bit of unwanted clutter on the public-facing API.

Obviously I can solve this by adding more platform-specific directives to the module so that whole functions are declared as working with either NSImage or UIImage, but it would be nice if Swift would help me out here. Instead of giving a compiler error, Swift could simply export the method using the public type that the typealias resolves to. In which case a client of the module for iOS would see the method as:

public func monochromeImage(fromImage image: UIImage) -> UIImage { ... }

And for Mac:

public func monochromeImage(fromImage image: NSImage) -> NSImage { ... }

Handling internal typealiases like this would cause the behavior for Swift clients to match what is already being done for Objective-C clients. The generated Module-Swift.h for this method in a Mac project is:

- (NSImage * _Nonnull) monochromeImageFromImage:(NSImage * _Nonnull)image SWIFT_WARN_UNUSED_RESULT;

Thus for Objective-C clients the clutter of the typelias definition is tidied away, but for Swift clients, it must still be dealt with. I filed a bug requesting this behavior in the Swift bug tracking system.

Getting a CFNumber’s Value in Swift

Recently, as a consequence of working with the CGImageSource API, I found myself in a situation where I had hold of a CFNumber and wanted to get its value, as a CGFloat, in Swift.

CFNumber wraps numeric values in such a way that, to get the value out, you have to specify both the desired type, and provide a pointer to the memory of the variable that will hold the value. This kind of direct memory manipulation is not particularly suited to Swift’s priorities for type safety and memory protection. Here’s the API I’d need to use in Swift:

func CFNumberGetValue(_ number: CFNumber!, 
                    _ theType: CFNumberType, 
                    _ valuePtr: UnsafeMutableRawPointer!) -> Bool

The first two parameters are straightforward, but whenever I see types like “UnsafeMutableRawPointer” in Swift, my brain melts down a little. I have never really sat down to truly understand the nuanced differences between these types, so I usually just try something and hope it works. Here I am hoping for a gift from Swift’s implicit bridging:

// myCFNumber is 30.5
var myFloat: CGFloat = 0
CFNumberGetValue(myCFNumber, .floatType, &myFloat)
print(myFloat) // "5.46688490824244e-315\n"

Welp. That didn’t work. Let’s see if we can refresh our memory about UnsafeMutableRawPointer. In the section titled “Raw, Unitialized Memory” or I read:

You can use methods like initializeMemory(as:from:) and moveInitializeMemory(as:from:count:) to bind raw memory to a type and initialize it with a value or series of values.

Oh jeez, am I really going to have to manually create an UnsafeMutableRawPointer? I’ll try anything:

var myFloat: CGFloat = 0
var myFloatPointer = UnsafeMutableRawPointer(mutating: &myFloat)
CFNumberGetValue(myCFNumber, .floatType, myFloatPointer)
print(myFloat) // "5.46688490824244e-315\n"

Alas, same problem. Surely somebody has figured this out? I try Googling for “CFNumberGetValue Swift GitHub” and find a promising result from an authoritative source. The Swift standard library itself!

var value: Float = 0
CFNumberGetValue(_cfObject, kCFNumberFloatType, &value)

Aha! Practically the same thing I was doing, except for one nuanced detail: the var value is declared as a Float instead of a CGFloat. But wait a minute, what file is this implementation in? NSNumber.swift? Oh, right. NSNumber and CFNumber are toll-free bridged, and Swift’s standard library fulfills that promise too:

let myFloat = (myCFNumber as NSNumber).floatValue
print(myFloat) // 30.5

In fact, Swift’s Float type is even cozier with CFNumber than I expected. What started as a confused mission to make use of CFNumberGetValue and its unsafe pointer argument culminated in a bit of sample code from GitHub that ultimately led me to the understanding that the way to get a CFNumber’s value in Swift is … simply to ask for it:

let myFloat = Float(myCFNumber)
print(myFloat) // 30.5

Helpless Help Menu

I was alerted by Christian Tietze of a pretty bad usability bug in macOS High Sierra. If you are running a Mac app, click the “Help” menu, and then dismiss it, whatever UI element you were focused on in the app loses its focus and does not regain it after dismissing the menu.

The problem is so bad that tabbing, clicking other UI elements, even switching to another app and back does not restore focus on the window’s responders. If the focus was on an NSTextView, such as the editor in MarsEdit, then the blinking cursor continues to animate, but keystrokes are ignored and simply cause the app to beep.

Christian filed a bug, and shared a workaround: set the delegate of the Help menu to your app’s delegate, and listen for the “menuDidClose” delegate method. If it’s the Help menu, restore focus manually.

I generalized this workaround to an approach that should work for whatever window, and whatever responder is currently focused when the Help menu is opened. By saving the window and the responder at “menuWillOpen” time, it can be precisely restored afterwards:

private weak var lastKeyWindow: NSWindow? = nil
private weak var lastResponder: NSResponder? = nil

func menuWillOpen(_ menu: NSMenu) {
   if menu == NSApp.helpMenu {
      if let activeWindow = NSApp.keyWindow {
         self.lastKeyWindow = activeWindow

         if let activeResponder = activeWindow.firstResponder {
            self.lastResponder = activeResponder
         }
      }

      // If the responder is a field editor, then save 
      // the delegate, which is e.g. the NSTextField being edited,
      // rather than the ephemeral NSTextView which will be 
      // removed when editing stops.
      if let textView = lastResponder as? NSTextView,
         textView.isFieldEditor {
         if let realTarget = textView.delegate as? NSResponder {
            lastResponder = realTarget
         }
      }
   }
}

func menuDidClose(_ menu: NSMenu) {
   if menu == NSApp.helpMenu {
      if doWorkaround {
         if let actualKeyWindow = self.lastKeyWindow {
            actualKeyWindow.makeKeyAndOrderFront(nil)
            actualKeyWindow.makeFirstResponder(self.lastResponder)
         }
      }
   }
}

Note that I didn’t clear out the weak var references to the lastKeyWindow and lastResponder. The reason is because part of the bug here involved NSMenu’s menuWillOpen and menuDidClose getting called more often than they probably should be. It’s probably the root issues that is causing the Help menu to excessively take control of the key window. It turns out we are going to get called on menuDidClose twice, so we need to be sure the desired target window and responder are still available the second time around.

As Christian points out, the workaround fixes the worst aspect of the bug: locking up the UI so that typing is ignored, but the focus ring around the target text field doesn’t always get redrawn as expected. My theory is that the focus ring animation is in the process of drawing when the second “menu will open” event is generated, causing the Help menu to reactive itself. The field being reactivate again very shortly after somehow doesn’t trigger the need to redraw the focus ring as you might expect.

I filed an additional bug, Radar #39436005, including a sample project that demonstrates both the bug and the workaround. Until Apple fixes this, Mac developers may want to implement a workaround along the lines demonstrated here. Given the horrible user experience associated with this bug, hopefully Apple will fix it promptly!

Optional Emptiness

Objective-C developers are comfortable with many idioms that fall out of the safety of messaging nil. For example, consider a chunk of Objective-C code that tests the “emptiness” of a UITextField string:

if (myTextField.text.length == 0) {
    // Do something
}

If myTextField.text is nil, what happens? In Objective-C, a message sent to nil will return nil, or zero, depending on the return type of the message. In this case “length” returns an integer, which happens to be zero when text is an empty string, and zero when text is nil. So this code block perfectly expresses “if the text is empty, do something.”

Adapting this code to Swift, you immediately run up against the language’s strict handling of optionals. Because myTextField.text might be nil, it has to be unwrapped before the length method can be called. This leads to less terse code such as:

if myTextField.text?.isEmpty != false {
    // Do something
}

This works! But it’s harder to read, and harder to reason. Similarly to the way the Objective-C version requires deep understanding of that language’s nil-messaging behavior, the Swift version requires deep understanding of optional chaining and comparison of optional and non-optional values. Here’s another example:

if (myTextField.text ?? "").isEmpty {
    // Do something
}

This is much easier to understand: use the non-nil String from myTextField, or else a constant string that is guaranteed to return true for isEmpty. It’s still more cumbersome than the original Objective-C, though.

In my own Swift adventures, I’ve addressed this using Swift’s powerful extension mechanism. It turns out that in Swift, any type that conforms to the “Collection” protocol implements an “isEmpty” method. String is one of these types. So with a small extension, we can add the “isEmpty” method not only to String? but to all optionals that wrap a collection:

extension Optional where Wrapped: Collection {
	public var isEmpty: Bool {
		switch(self) {
		case .none:
			return true
		case .some(let concreteSelf):
			return concreteSelf.isEmpty
		}
	}
}

With this extension in place, our test becomes:

if myTextField.text.isEmpty {
    // Do something
}

Which is both highly readable, behaves correctly when “text” is nil, and doesn’t require any deep language understanding to comprehend.

Thanks to Hwee-Boon Yar for the Objective-C scenario that motivated this post, and to Michel Fortin for putting forward the Swift equivalents cited above. This question came up in the Core Intuition Slack, where interesting discussions like this often take place. Join us!