The Invisible Interface: APIs

Let’s talk about APIs. Like UIs, APIs provide an interface (hence the “I”) to a class of users. In this case, the users are programmers. Because of this, many times you have APIs that are cluttered and overly difficult to use since programmers can probably figure that stuff out. It’s unfortunate as many just see APIs as a way to expose functionality without any regard for design.

I feel a hallmark of a good UI is one that avoids presenting the user with unnecessary decisions. The more you can either filter or figure out on the user’s behalf, the better. I’ve touched upon this before: 1 2

I feel the same holds true for APIs. APIs should do more than just provide functionality. They should strive to do more for the user without burdening them with unnecessary details. Provide power with little effort on the user’s part. Let the programmer worry about the “what” and not about the “how”.

This leads me to my favorite API: NSArray

Yes, NSArray.

What is an NSArray? It’s an ordered collection of objects. Doesn’t sound terribly exciting but ask yourself this: what data structure does it implement? If you ask around, you’ll get a bunch of different answers but the real answer here is “It doesn’t matter.”

Now, you may be thinking that NSArray is insufficient to cover all the different cases where you’d need an ordered list. Surely, you have to use a skip list in this one case or a circular queue in this other one. Before going further, I highly recommend reading this oldie but goodie (and one of my favorite blog posts): Array.

As it turns out, NSArray is adaptive. It’s not implementing a single data structure but instead changes depending on usage. Every time I, or a colleague, has implemented their own special data structure, it has ended up performing no better, or sometimes even worse, than NSArray. Now, I’m sure you can come up with some special set of circumstances where you’d need to roll your own, but from my experiences with Cocoa over the years, I’d say that for 99% of the cases, NSArray is fine.

Another example of adaptive behavior is Introsort, which will use either quicksort or heapsort depending on the circumstances. Quicksort has great average performance but has a horrible worst case (O(n2)). Introsort is able to detect when things are headed towards that worst case and switches to heap sort instead (worst case: O(n log n)). No need for the user to evaluate the data to figure out which sort algorithm to use.

Now, sometimes things are inherently complex (threading comes to mind). It does take a bit of care and experience to make sure that instead of making something simple, you end up making it simplistic. Nonetheless, I feel that NSArray hits that sweet spot of providing what you need while at the same time cutting out what you really don’t.

Hopefully this shows that APIs can be so much more than a simple wrapper around some code. The use of proper abstraction as well as going the extra mile on the user’s behalf can go a long way towards making a merely functional API something wonderful.


Category: Cocoa, OS X, Programming Comment »

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