GCUndoManager [Get source from Github]

Note that the GCUndoManager source is now hosted on Github.

A better Undo manager

Cocoa's built-in Undo is a great component of the framework. Those of us who have written apps on the Mac under the classic toolbox and might recall just how difficult writing a really good Undo system was, back in the bad old days. Having the framework take care of the overall management of Undo with a simple way to register actions with it is a genuinely pleasant surprise and advantage to Cocoa.

Unfortunately, while for most people NSUndoManager will be more than adequate, in some kinds of applications it can be somewhat awkward to use, and when things get complicated or misbehave, the inability to "get inside" the undo manager black-box to assist with debugging is problematic. Most Cocoa programmers will run into the dreaded 'Undo Manager is in an invalid state' messages logged to the console sooner or later, which, while indicative of a programming error in client code, can make the entire app cease to remain undoable, as recovering from such problems appears to be difficult. In addition, NSUndoManager has some, shall we say, quirks, which make its use in some situations harder than it might be. When you consider that a well-written app should implement undo pervasively, it's important that Undo is robust and reliable, as every part of the app will be affected by it.

The alternative undo manager presented here addresses a number of concerns with NSUndoManager, while remaining extremely compatible with it for most normal application use.

Multiple event handling

One situation where NSUndoManager can be awkward is when dealing with undoing changes that are the result of a stream of events, rather than fully handled within a single event. This commonly arises when dragging is used as means of editing the data model. Dragging breaks down into a mouse down event, a series of drag events (including the possibility of no event occurring), and a final mouse up event. On the face of it NSUndoManager is equipped to deal with this - just open a group at the start, accumulate changes, then close the group at the end. While that does work, it has two problems. The first is that the case where no drag event is sent is not detected, and NSUndoManager still goes ahead and adds a new, empty Undo action to the stack, resulting in an Undo menu item that does nothing when chosen. Users tend to consider the 'does nothing' Undo item a bug, and quite rightly. Unfortunately they'll blame your app, not Apple's framework, but in any case, proper behaviour is what we want, not shifting of blame. The second problem is that even when drag events are sent, all changes arising from each event are faithfully recorded. That means that when Undoing, you're effectively 'replaying' all of the drag events one by one. In most cases this replay occurs very quickly and is hardly noticeable, but it represents a waste of time and memory, since in the vast majority of cases, you'll want to Undo the entire drag, so only the state at the start of the drag is of any interest. While the responsibility for this could rest with the application, depending on its design, putting the responsibility for handling that into the Undo manager can greatly simplify things, because it is already aware of how tasks are being grouped, and can readily coalesce a series of individual actions within a group as needed. GCUndoManager supports task coalescing if required.

In addition, NSUndoManager strictly requires that groups are carefully balanced, and the responsibility to ensure this is with the client code. If an imbalance arises, NSUndoManager effectively shuts down and ceases to record or replay Undo events. Given the need to take such care, workarounds for the empty Undo bug become needlessly complicated and ugly. The problem is made harder by the automatic grouping by event that NSUndoManager does, which must also be taken into account. A further problem where invoking -endUndoGrouping appears not to actually close the group under some circumstances, but leaves the groupingLevel at 1 was the final motivation for this class, because it was impossible to examine the internal state of NSUndoManager in the debugger to find out just what the problem was. GCUndoManager still expects you to make a reasonable effort to maintain correct group nesting - for every open there should be a close, but is much less precious about it. For example, you can "over close" a group harmlessly - attempts to close an already closed top-level group are merely ignored, instead of leading to an unrecoverable internal state. The general state is also easily reset if things get hopelessly out-of-kilter, so it makes it easy for your app to recover from Undo related bugs. It's surely better to 'limit the damage' of a programming error in one part of your app and have the rest remain working, rather than have Undo fail across the board. GCUndoManager has no secrets - it's a straightforward implementation with no private API and as debuggable as any other part of your app. When Undo gets complicated, the ability to see exactly what is stored and to directly examine its state can be a real benefit for debugging your app.

GCUndoManager is compatible with the public API of NSUndoManager, but it is not a subclass of NSUndoManager (it inherits from NSObject). It can be used with document and non-document based applications in exactly the same way as NSUndoManager, and as far as possible it conforms to the current documentation for NSUndoManager. Where there are differences from the documentation, the source operates to follow NSUndoManager by example. For instance, when used with NSDocument, the document subscribes to notifications from the Undo manager to maintain its 'dirty' status correctly. GCUndoManager sends the same notifications in the same places as NSUndoManager (which slightly differs from documentation) so that the dirty state is correctly maintained. No modifications to NSDocument are required.

Using the class

The project presented here includes the undo manager and a minimal application that tests and demonstrates its use. The undo manager is instantiated as part of the document subclass's -init method, and passed to its -setUndoManager: method, suitably cast. The test application allows you to switch between NSUndoManager and GCUndoManager to compare differences. The data model is a very simple one consisting of a single draggable rectangle with three properties - location, size and colour. All are undoable. For simplicity the 'data model' is implemented directly by the view, and this should not be taken as a good example of MVC design. A direct comparison of the two undo managers with respect to the empty Undo item bug can be made - merely clicking but not dragging the object will trigger the bug with NSUndoManager but not with GCUndoManager.

Task Coalescing

GCUndoManager supports task coalescing, where a series of identical tasks within a group are collapsed to a single task. This can be disabled and is not enabled by default. There are two coalescing approaches available, set using -setCoalescingKind: The first kGCCoalesceLastTask is just to discard tasks based on the most recent one accepted. This is good for property changes consisting only of a single property, for example an object's location, that is repeatedly changed by a drag. Thus task sequences are coalesced as follows:

However, where property changes do not consist of a single property change per drag event, but have several parts, the simple coalescing behaviour will not be able to help, as:

For this kind of sequence, the second coalescing kind kGCCoalesceAllMatchingTasks could be used. This coalesces tasks based on the presence of any match within the group, not just the last one. This results in the following behaviour:

The last example shows that this mode is not as general purpose as the first. Applications can set the coalescing mode as they wish depending on how property changes are made during a repeated sequence. Or they can leave it in the first mode and incur some inefficiency for the second example cases. Note that coalescing is always performed with respect to the current open group, so can be 'restarted' by opening a subgroup.

Implementation details

Unlike NSUndoManager, GCUndoManager is not a 'black box'. Internally, it represents the recorded actions using two kinds of object, GCUndoGroup and GCConcreteUndoTask. Both are subclasses of the semi-abstract GCUndoTask class. GCConcreteUndoTask further stores the actual data change as an NSInvocation which it retains. In turn the invocation retains its arguments and target. Groups can be nested to any depth as with NSUndoManager. There are no special marker or sentinel objects used to demark the start and end of groups, everything is stored and managed as a straightforward tree. The Undo and Redo stacks themselves are NSMutableArray instances, and a group stores its contents also using a NSMutableArray. Like the NSUndoManager in 10.6, GCUndoManager uses a proxy object based on NSProxy that is returned by -prepareWithInvocationTarget: The proxy prevents the situation where a property defined by the undo manager itself can't be recorded because the undo manager will not forward methods it already responds to. While the use of the proxy can be conditionally compiled out, it is recommended and will work on any version of Mac OS. No API is private and internal operations are well factored to permit overriding anywhere that makes sense. You can peek at the current undo and redo tasks, get the stacks themselves, pop the tasks with and without invoking them, and many other things. Also for assistance with debugging complex undo groups consisting of a series of individual tasks, -explodeTopUndoAction will 'unpack' the current top-level group on the Undo stack into separate tasks which can be individually undone.

When a top level group is opened, it is immediately pushed onto the relevant stack. The data member 'mOpenGroupRef' tracks the currently open group, which might be nested within another if it is not a top-level group. All task recording is done with reference to this group. If the top-level group is empty when the top-level is closed, the empty group is popped and discarded, which addresses the empty group bug. Note that this automatic removal can be disabled - for applications that do not submit tasks to the undo manager but merely subscribe to notifications and manage their own undo stacks, disabling this would be appropriate. However, in that case replacing NSUndoManager may not be worthwhile. It is because GCUndoManager adds a top-level group to the stack when the group is opened rather than when it is closed that it is able to be far less finicky about strict balance, and makes recovery from an imbalance much easier.

Update, 1/1/2009

Updated GCUndoManager has now been tested with Core Data and has been found to work correctly, after some minor tweaks. This version changes its memory management policy for retaining of tasks' targets: as per NSUndoManager and general rules, GCUndoManager no longer retains its targets by default. The undo manager should not hold stale targets, because -removeAllActionsWithTarget: is required to be called whenever any such targets are deallocated. However, for some designs retaining targets may simplify the use of the undo manager quite considerably, so you can now opt-in to this behaviour using -setRetainsTargets:passing an argument of YES. When targets are retained, clearing the task stacks must avoid re-entrancy, and GCUndoManager now includes a simple lock to ensure that.

Update, 20/7/2011

Updated to include the new notification used by NSDocument in Lion (10.7). The source is now hosted on Github, so any further changes will be made to the repository there.