Objective-C: Tips for a Java Programmer

// October 12th, 2008 // instruments, iphone, iphone sdk, java, java objective-c comparison, key-value coding, learning, objective-c, programming, xcode

I have been learning Objective-C part-time. Partly to learn something new and different but also partly out of curiosity. As a Java programmer, I initially thought it would be a doddle but as soon as I looked at the code I realised it was going to take a bit of getting used to. After going through Apple’s excellent, yet verbose, guide: The Objective-C 2.0 Programming Language – I started to get used to the syntax. Its not that hard, especially if you come from a C or Java background. Here are some of the differences and some of the highlights I have encountered so far.

1. Methods, Functions, Messaging

The most difficult thing to get used to initially is the syntax for calling methods, or as its called in Objective-C: messaging. In Java calling a method on an object looks like this:

Car car = new Car();
car.drive(10, 100);

This piece of code creates an instance of type car and then tells it drive 10 kilometres at 100 kilometres and hour. If we were to write the same thing in Objective-C it would look something like this:

Car car = [[Car alloc] init];
[car drive:10 speed:100];

Whoaaa! Hold on a minute. That is completely different from Java and C. Well, don’t panic. If you have ever programmed with C or C++ you will probably understand the first bit – Car *car. We are creating a pointer to a place in memory that holds a car. The part after the equals is a little more confusing. The designers of Objective-C have dropped the dot-notation completely for messaging objects. The piece of code [Car alloc] can be rewritten in Java as Car.alloc(). In Objective-C, this is the way to allocate a piece of memory for your instance. It is also the way you call methods on instances.

The closest equivalent to a constructor that I can find in Objective-C is the init message call. All objects have an init method – inherited from the base object NSObject (in Java this would be equivalent to Object). You can override the init method in your classes to add initialisation code.

So the first line in our example now makes sense, but what about the second line? Objective-C uses the concept of named arguments. This may seem redundant or a little verbose, but once you get used to it, it does make it easier to read. This syntax scheme is an adaptation of the way you would message objects in Smalltalk. So we are basically messaging our instance of car to drive 10 at the speed of 100. I could have possibly made the method a little more informative and written it as: [car driveFor:10 speed:100].

2. Garbage Collection vs. Retain Counts

Since Mac OS X 10.5, Mac developers have been treated to the simplicity of writing code without having to worry about memory management – in other words, Garbage Collection has been introduced. The only thing to bear in mind is that if you want to write code that is supported by older versions of Mac OS X, namely, 10.4 and the iPhone you will still need manage your memory manually. Fortunately, detecting memory leaks is fairly simple with the Apple developer tool Instruments.

The mechanism by which you manage memory manually is called retain counts. Every time you make an object point to another object you increase that object’s retain count. This loosely means that if you have 10 pointers pointing to an instance, the instance will have a retain count of 10. Whenever you are finished with a pointer you need to release the object. This drops the instance’s retain count by 1. When an instance’s retain count reaches 0 it will be deallocated.

There are many pitfalls with manual memory management. Having a memory leak means that over time your application will consume more and more memory and it will crash the system eventually. There are 2 main ways you can create a memory leak. The first is to have an orphaned object. This is where the object has a retain count greater than zero but there are no other objects pointing to it. The other is to have a retain cycle. This is where Object A points to Object B and Object B points to Object A, and nothing else points to these two objects.

If you want to build applications for the iPhone or for older versions of Mac OS X then you need to be more meticulous with your code. Make sure that your objects always clean up after themselves and use the application Instruments to ensure you have no memory leaks. On the iPhone memory leaks can be disastrous, since you only have a very limited amount of memory to play with. Should your application run out of the allocated memory on the iPhone, it will reboot – basically quit your application.

3. Cool Extras

Objective-C has some really cool features built into it and some downright weird ones. Two really cool features that have no equivalents in Java are: Key-Value Coding and @synthesize/@property directives.

Key-Value Coding is a very neat and dynamic way of querying objects by name. Some people would say that you can do similar tricks in Java with Reflection but Key-Value Coding has a lot more useful features that you cannot leverage in Java without writing a lot of code.

Key-Value Coding works like this:

Car *car = [[Car alloc] init];
[car setValue:@”BMW” forKey:@”carMaker”];

Basically, we are setting the value for the property carMaker to BMW. This seems cumbersome, but bear with me. We can now retrieve the value in the following manner:

NSString *carMakerString = [car valueForKey:@”carMaker”];

We can now read and set objects by their values. The cool thing is that you don’t need to cast any values. The valueForKey method will automatically cast the value for you. Programmer’s used to dynamic languages will probably laugh at the significance of this but if you are from a Java background you will appreciate not having to check and cast the result of the call.

You can also describe keypaths for key-values. A keypath is basically a way of navigating a pointer graph to a property from object to object. For example:

NSNumber topSpeed = [car valueForKeyPath:@”carMaker.topSpeed”];

Where topSpeed is a method that returns an int for the car’s top speed. The int will be auto-boxed to an NSNumber at runtime.

In addition to keypaths, there are also aggregator functions you can use on key-values in arrays. So for instance, if we have an array of car objects and we want the average top speed of all the cars at the BMW dealer we could do the following:

double averageSpeed = [bmwDealer valueForKey:@”cars.@avg.topSpeed”];

If we wanted to something similar in Java or without key-values we would have to loop through the whole array of cars, add the top speeds to a variable and then divide by the number of cars in the array. If you want to learn more about Key-Value Coding, including the most powerful feature for binding values, called Key-Value Observing, check this article out.

Another cool feature that Objective-C contains, that I use all the time are the @property/@synthesize preprocessor directives. The combination of these eliminates the need to write boilerplate getter and setter code. The @property directive, used in the header file for a class, tells the compiler that this is a property of the class. In addition you can make the property read only or readable/writable, by adding read or readwrite in brackets like this:

@property(read) int topSpeed;


@property(readwrite) NSString carMaker;

You can also tell the compiler how to manage the memory for the getter and setter of that property by putting a retain, assign or copy after. Like this:

@property(read, retain) NSString carMaker;

By adding @synthesize in your class file for your properties. The compiler will automatically generate getter and setter methods for you.

@synthesize carMaker;

4. So Far, So Good

So far my experiences with Objective-C have been favourable. I do get confused sometimes when my code won’t compile and it looks correct, only to realise that it would be correct in Java but will never work in Objective-C. Apple’s Interface Builder software is top notch and makes designing and hooking up your interface very simple. XCode’s code editore on the other hand, in my opinion, is a bit behind compared to Eclipse. A Mac developer would, however, probably class Eclipse as bloatware. Instruments is my favourite and makes optimising your application and finding memory leaks a doddle.

7 Responses to “Objective-C: Tips for a Java Programmer”

  1. Dave Newton says:

    IMO the easiest way to grok Obj-C is to spend a few days w/ Smalltalk; back in the day (I was a Smalltalk coder and was much in favor of Obj-C over C++) the leap was pretty painless (well, in all fairness, I did device drivers in C, too).

  2. YK says:

    Nice post!!! I am also interested in getting started with Mac OS X programming using Obj C, and am curious to know what hardware set up you use for your work. I don’t want to invest in an expensive Mac just yet while I learn programming it. But, I can’t really seem to figure out what options I have to learn without getting a Mac. I have tried virtualizing but it is not stable. Any ideas from you would be quite helpful.

  3. Michael Gaylord says:

    I use a MacBook Pro but you can take a look at GNUStep. While it’s not very pretty it is Objective-C based and you can get a good idea from using it, whether you enjoy programming in Objective-C.

    It doesn’t, unfortunately, include the iPhone SDK libraries as those are propietary and until recently have been very restricted in terms of sharing information openly with other programmers about them.

  4. tank says:

    If you used properties in an iphone environment, would you be responsible to use release on every getter and setter for :

    @property(read, retain) NSString carMaker;

    somewhere in the main program you need to do this.

    NSString* carMaker = [car carMaker];

    [carMaker release];

    From what I understand the ‘retain’ attribute will generate code that will call retain on the returned variable from carMaker.

    However, if I change the property attribute to readonly, would this affect the calling code? eg. a simple return would be made without the retain being called.

  5. Ben says:

    Very insightful. However you missed one of the most glaring differences between Java and Objective-C. Java is strongly typed (hence generics in Java 5) while Objective-C is not.

  6. maclord says:

    IMHO, Mac-mini is a great deal starting from $599 in the US for beginning XCode development.

    Having been doing elementary level development on Pentium PCs for a few years, I had finally felt compelled to get a Mac without investing much on it in a PC World.

    The more I looked into and got involved in the Mac world, however, last year I ended up with a MacBook Pro, and doing development both on the Mac OS and the .NET platform on the same notebook, today.

  7. Amit says:

    Thanks a lot … :-)

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