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Cocoa - Exploring the Delegate Design Pattern

When I first started learning Cocoa I ran across a design pattern that I had seen implemented a few times before

Kevin Hoffman's Blog

When I first started learning Cocoa I ran across a design pattern that I had seen implemented a few times before but I had yet to see it labelled with a name. This pattern is called the Delegate design pattern. Coming from C#, I found this initially confusing because in C# the concept of a delegate is slightly different than the concept of a delegate in the Cocoa world. In C#, a delegate is essentially a function pointer, and when someone in Cocoa refers to a delegate, they are referring to an entire instance of a class to which work is delegated.

To see how this pattern works, I needed an example. So, the example I used was a control that is bound to an array of items. So, let's say you have a control that you want to render a list of customers. There are two really obvious approaches to this problem: data binding and the Delegate design pattern.

In data binding, the idea is that your controller will "stuff" the data into the view in some fashion. Often this involves cramming the entire result set into the view and letting the view deal with things like scrolling or paging. You can almost think of the Delegate design pattern as reverse data binding - the control asks the controller for the data it needs, and only the data it needs. The benefits here are that in some data binding scenarios, it becomes extremely easy to tie the view too closely to the controller - making it difficult to use the view for anything but a specific type of data. In addition, if you're not using something like the delegate design pattern, it also becomes easy to get inefficient and cram immense result sets into the control when you really only need to be working with a small window into the result set at any given time.

So, let's take a look at a quick sample. Assume that you're building a custom view in Cocoa called RadialLayoutView. This view lays out all of its subviews so that they are all arranged in a circle. Each of the subviews is actually a piece of data with a name and description. You could easily (especially if you're coming from the WPF world) data bind the control to an array of a custom type, say RadialNode or something. However, there is a way to make it so that your control only ever has to worry about those nodes that are on the screen at a given time, and it doesn't need to know anything about the underlying model that is supplying the name and description values.

The delegate is going to be a pointer to an object that will do the work required of the delegate. In this case, we're going to want to make a delegate that will provide the control with the count of all nodes in the system, and it will also provide the name and description of a single node. Whenever the control needs an item, it can simply ask the delegate for one. This provides a huge amount of power and flexibility and loose coupling between the view and the model that you don't normally find in standard databinding patterns.

To tell the application what the control demands of its delegate, we can use a protocol:

@protocol RadialLayoutDelegate
@required
  - (unsigned) countNodes;
  - (void) nodeAtIndex: (unsigned)index
                        name: (NSString **)
outName
                 description: (NSString **)
outDescription;
@end

Yes, there's some Leopard syntax here, but it's stuff that you can find elsewhere so there's no NDA problem. With the protocol in mind, we can define (in the .h file) our custom view as:

@interface RadialLayoutView
{
     IBOutlet id<RadialLayoutDelegate> delegate;
}
@end

You may notice some similarity between .NET Interfaces and Cocoa protocols. That, of course, is because they both serve the same purpose - they define a set of constraints to which any object implementing said interface (or protocol) must conform. The difference is that you can have pieces of a protocol be optional using the @optional keyword, whereas in .NET if you implement an interface, you must implement all of it or suffer the consequences.

Now, I can write code inside the custom view that just invokes methods on the delegate in order to get the data it needs in order to create and render its list of subviews. For example, to get the name and description of the root node in the data set:

NSString *rootName;
NSString *rootDescription;

[delegate nodeAtIndex:0 name:&rootName
description:&rootDescription];

That's all there is to it. The nodeAtIndex method coupled with the countNodes method are all that's needed to give the control the ability to render a near-infinite amount of data because it doesn't have to maintain it all at once, and the delegate can be fetching that data from XML, from memory, or from Core Data - the view doesn't care.

In short, using the delegate design pattern (in Cocoa or in WPF, for that matter) gives me a level of flexibility and agility that I don't normally see with desktop applications. I'm finding that there are a lot of things that I can do elegantly, simply, and quickly using this pattern that I found tedious or cumbersome using traditional data binding.

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More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.

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