The app ‘Postcards’ from my iPhone developer training class is a utility app for quickly sending a customized postcard, and one thing that makes it super easy is that you can grab pictures from Flickr to include in the postcard design. Postcards makes simple HTTP calls Flickr’s REST API to download public domain images and displays them in a UITableView for the user to pick from. Cocoa Touch makes this all simple and easy to code, and my first development version used synchronous calls to get the images by using
NSData* data = [NSData dataWithContentsOfURL:[NSURL URLWithString:urls]];
Making synchronous calls to remote web servers from the thread that’s running the apps GUI is of course a bad idea that results in a laggy UI and unsatisfied users. Using synchronous calls in UITableView cellForRowAtIndexPath to load all the images results in a problem six times worse (for 6 rows on the screen) and makes scrolling basically broken as the table won’t scroll until it has the next cell, which it can’t get while the app is waiting for an image to download. Then imagine that on the Edge network! Obviously we need something multi-threaded that can load the images in parallel in the background and update the UI as they finish downloading. Multi-threaded programming is hard and should be avoided whenever possible, and in this case Cocoa’s beautiful design came to my rescue: UIView heirachy + URL loading system + delegate design = multi-threaded image loading with no multi-threaded coding!
How can you have your cake and eat it too? Every iPhone app is a multi-threaded program, or at least its running in conjuction with the multi-threaded iPhone operating system. Use the right delegate methods in the right ways, and you can take advantage of extra threads of execution that the iPhone gives you for free without writting any multi-threaded code of your own, hence sidesteping the problem of threading bugs in your code. An iPhone app is one big event loop – your classes have methods that the event loop calls in response to stuff happening on the device and in your app. When you use the URL loading system’s asynchronous APIs, the iPhone uses a different thread than the one running your app’s event loop to load the contents of the URL, and it makes callbacks via your apps event loop when data has been downloaded.
connection = [[NSURLConnection alloc] initWithRequest:request delegate:self]; – (void)connection:(NSURLConnection *)theConnection didReceiveData:(NSData *)incrementalData
Note carefully, when data has arrived from the remote webserver, that other iPhone thread doing the downloading doesn’t make calls into your objects at the same time as your methods are running, it puts messages into your apps event loop. If it called your app directly then chances are your app would be running some UI code or something and you’d have to write thread safe code. Instead, the call that data is ready arrives as an event on the event loop. Events on the event loop run single threaded, one at a time. Using this we can get asynchrous image download from Flickr without writting thread safe code ourselves. Even better, Cocoa’s URL loading system will download those URLs in parallel! For free!
That’s all well and good, but how do you get a table view to update the UITableViewCell with the image after its already been returned? A UIImage is imutable (right?) so you can’t change its image later when the image data has downloaded. Turns out Apple made this super easy too. Instead of putting a UIImage in the UITableViewCell, you put your own UIView object, that is sized correctly for the image you want to display, into the content view of the UITableCell (as a subview). At first your view object it can be empty, or it can have a dummy image in it, or you can pop in one of those spinny ‘something is happening’ views. Then when the image data is downloaded, create a UIImageView with the image and pop it in your view in the cell. Hey presto… it appears. While all this is happening the user can be scrolling and going back and forth with a fully functioning UI.
I put this all together in a class AsyncImageView, listed below. It’s use is simple alloc and initWithRect: add it to a view, eg in a table cell’s content view; send it the loadImageFromURL: message. LoadImageFromURL will return right away, the image will load in the background, and will automatically appear in the view when its finished downloading. The code posted below is something I whipped up pretty quickly (and I didn’t leak check yet!), but hey – parallel, asynchronous image download and display in about 40 lines of code with no thread-safe worries? Works in smooth scrolling tables, even on the Edge network? I rate it a big win, and wanted to share the technique. I’ve developed an iPhone programming training class that I will be teaching soon in the SFBay Area (though my partners and I could probably bring it to you). It’s very hands on, and specially designed to help professional programmers new to Cocoa and Objective-C over the difficult initial learning curve. In the class we build the Postcards app from start to finish, including AsyncImageView.