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iOS 5 Programming Cookbook by Vandad Nahavandipoor

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1.19. Delegating Tasks with Protocols

Problem

You want to make sure a certain object implements a set of methods or properties.

Solution

Use a protocol.

Discussion

A protocol is the declaration (as opposed to implementation) of a set of methods and/or properties in a header file (usually with the extension of .h). Any object that you declare to conform to such protocol is responsible for writing the implementation of those methods and properties, depending on whether the protocol specifies them as required or optional.

Think of protocols as set of rules (some rules being optional and some mandatory). Any object saying that it conforms to that protocol must follow those rules. Let’s see a simple example of this. We will go ahead and define a protocol called PersonProtocol. For this, you need to create a new protocol file, so follow these steps first:

  1. In Xcode, while your project is open, go to the File menu and then choose NewNew File...

  2. Now make sure iOS is the main category on the left side of the New File dialog and then choose the Cocoa Touch subcategory. Once that is done, choose the Objective-C Protocol item and press Next (see Figure 1-26).

  3. Now you will be asked to save this file and specify a name for it. Give it the name PersonProtocol and press Save (see Figure 1-27).

Now we have our header file. Let’s get on with the actual declaration of our protocol. Our objective with this new PersonProtocol protocol is to govern the rules on any class that impersonates a “Person”, or in other words, says that it is a Person class. For instance, in your application, you can have a class named Infant, Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, Stranger, etc. You can then make all these classes conform to the PersonProtocol protocol, which will define the types of behavior each of these classes must implement. Let’s say that, for every person, we need at least a first name, a last name, and an age:

Creating a new protocol

Figure 1-26. Creating a new protocol

Saving the new protocol

Figure 1-27. Saving the new protocol

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>

@protocol PersonProtocol <NSObject>

@property (nonatomic, strong) NSString *firstName;
@property (nonatomic, strong) NSString *lastName;
@property (nonatomic, unsafe_unretained) NSUInteger age;

@end

Now let’s create a class called Father and make sure that this class conforms to our PersonProtocol protocol. To create this class, follow these steps:

  1. In Xcode, while in your project, go to the File menu and then select NewNew File...

  2. In the New File dialog, make sure iOS is the main category and then choose the Cocoa Touch subcategory. After that is done, select the Objective-C class item in the list on the righthand side. Now press the Next button (see Figure 1-28).

Creating a Father class

Figure 1-28. Creating a Father class

  1. In this screen (see Figure 1-29), make sure we are creating a subclass of NSObject. Once that is done, press the Next button.

  2. Now you are asked to save the new class. Give it the name of Father, and press the Create button (see Figure 1-30).

Subclassing NSObject to create a Father class

Figure 1-29. Subclassing NSObject to create a Father class

Saving the Father class on disk

Figure 1-30. Saving the Father class on disk

Fantastic, we now have our Father class and the PersonProtocol protocol. Open the header file of the Father class and make sure that it conforms to the PersonProtocol protocol:

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>
#import "PersonProtocol.h"

@interface Father : NSObject <PersonProtocol>

@end

Now if you attempt to compile your app (by pressing Command+Shift+R simultaneously), you will get warnings from the compiler, similar to those shown in Figure 1-31.

Warnings from the compiler related to the protocol we are conforming to

Figure 1-31. Warnings from the compiler related to the protocol we are conforming to

As you can see, the compiler understands that the Father class wants to conform to the PersonProtocol protocol. However, the Father class isn’t implementing the required setter and getter methods of the properties defined in the PersonProtocol protocol. We are seeing these warnings because anything defined in a protocol by default is required from its conforming classes. Required methods and properties in a protocol can explicitly be marked with the @required keyword. If you want to specify that followers of a protocol are free to choose to implement or not implement your methods or properties, you can simply tell the compiler that those methods/properties are optional, using the @optional keyword.

Let’s go back to PersonProtocol.h and mark the firstName, lastName, and age properties as optional, but add a method to the protocol called breathe and make it a required method, because, let’s face it, everybody has got to breathe:

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>

@protocol PersonProtocol <NSObject>

@optional
@property (nonatomic, strong) NSString *firstName;
@property (nonatomic, strong) NSString *lastName;
@property (nonatomic, unsafe_unretained) NSUInteger age;

@required
- (void) breathe;

@end

Now if you compile your application, you will get completely different warnings (see Figure 1-32).

The Father class does not implement the breathe method defined in the PersonProtocol protocol

Figure 1-32. The Father class does not implement the breathe method defined in the PersonProtocol protocol

Now if you go to the Father class and define and implement the breathe method, even if the method implementation is empty, the compiler will be happy with that. Remember, the Father class now doesn’t have to implement the three aforementioned properties because they are now defined as optional in the PersonProtocol protocol. Here is now the correct definition of the Father class:

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>
#import "PersonProtocol.h"

@interface Father : NSObject <PersonProtocol>

- (void) breathe;

@end

And here is the correct implementation of the Father class:

#import "Father.h"

@implementation Father

- (void) breathe{
  /* Implement this method here */
}

@end

Attempt to compile your app now and you’ll notice that the compiler is perfectly happy with our implementation.

Cocoa Touch has given protocols a really nice meaning in Objective-C. In Cocoa Touch, protocols are the perfect means for defining delegate objects. A delegate object is an object that another object consults when something happens in that object. For instance, a repairman is the delegate for a broken-down car. If something happens to your car, you go to your repairman and ask him to fix the car for you (although some prefer to repair the car themselves, in which case, they are their own delegate for their car). So in Cocoa Touch, many classes expect a delegate object and make sure that whatever object is assigned as their delegate conforms to a certain protocol.

For instance, as we will see in Chapter 3, the UITableView class defines and implements a property called delegate, which is required to conform to the UITableViewDelegate protocol. This protocol simply lays down the law to those objects that want to become the delegate object of a table view. The protocol requires those objects to implement certain methods or in some cases, specifies that some methods/properties are optional so the delegate object is free to implement or not implement them. Now, when a user selects a row in a table, the UITableView can call the tableView:didSelectRowAtIndexPath: method with the assurance that the UITableViewDelegate at least defined the method. The method may be correctly or incorrectly coded, but at least it’s present, so the program won’t crash at runtime because of a nonexistent method (selector).

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