Sometimes, You Just Want A Button

GUIs, in Python, on the Mac, made easy for back-end developers.

I like making computers do stuff. I find that getting a computer to do what I want it to produces a tremendously empowering feeling. I think Python is a great language to use to tell computers what to do.

In my experience, the most empowering feeling (albeit often, admittedly, not the most useful or practical one) is making one’s own computer do something cool. But due to various historical accidents, the practical bent of the Python community mainly means that we get “server-side” or “cloud” computers to do things: in other words, “other people’s computers”.

If you, like me, are a metric standard tech industry hipster, “your own computer” means “Mac OS X”. Many of us have written little command-line tools to automate things, and thank goodness OS X is enough of a UNIX that that works nicely - and it’s often good enough. But sometimes, you just want to press a button and have a thing happen; sometimes a character grid isn’t an expressive enough output device. Sometimes you want to be able to take that same logical core, or some useful open source code, that you would use in the cloud, and instead, put it into an app. Sometimes you want to be able to learn about writing desktop apps while leveraging your existing portfolio of skills. I have done some of this, and intend to do more of it at work, and so I’d like to share with you some things I’ve learned about how to do it.

Back when I was a Linux user, this was a fairly simple proposition. All the world was GTK+ back then, in the blissful interlude between the ancient inconsistent mess when everything was Xt or Motif or Tk or Swing or XForms, and the modern inconsistent mess where everything is Qt or WxWidgets or Swing or some WebKit container with its own pile of gross stylesheet fruit salad.

If you had a little script that you wanted to put a GUI on back then, the process for getting started was apt-get install python-gtk and then just to do something like

1
2
3
4
5
import gtk
w = gtk.Window("My Window")
b = gtk.Button("My Button")
w.add(b)
gtk.main()

and you were pretty much off to the races. If you wanted to, you could load a UI file that you made with glade, if you had some complicated fancy stuff to display, but that was optional and reasonably straightforward to use. I used to do that all the time, for various personal computing tasks. Of course, if I did that today, I’m sure they’d all laugh at me.

So today I’d like to show you how to do the same sort of thing with OS X.

To be clear, this is not a tutorial in Objective C, or a deep dive into Mac application programming. I’m going to make some assumptions about your skills: you’re a relatively experienced Python programmer, you’ve done some introductory Xcode material like the Temperature Converter tutorial, and you either already know or don’t mind figuring out the PyObjC bridged method naming conventions on your own.

If you are starting from scratch, and you don’t have any code yet, and you want to work in Objective C or Swift, the modern Mac development experience is even smoother than what I just described. You don’t need to install any “packages”, just Xcode, and you have a running app before you’ve written a single line of code, because it will give you a working-by-default template.

The problem is, if you’re a Python developer just trying to make a little utility for your own use, once you’ve got this lovely Objective C or Swift application ready for you to populate with interesting stuff, it’s a really confusing challenge to get your Python code in there. You can drag the Python.framework from homebrew into Xcode and then start trying to call some C functions like PyRun_SimpleString to get your program bootstrapped, but then you start running into tons of weird build issues. How do you copy your scripts to the app bundle? How do you invoke distutils? What about shared libraries that you’ve linked against? It’s hard enough to try to jam anything like setuptools or pip into the Xcode build system that you might as well give up and rewrite the logic; it’ll be less effort.

If you’re a Python developer you probably expect tools like virtualenv and pip to “just work”. You expect to be able to put a file into a folder and then import it without necessarily writing a whole build toolchain first. And if you haven’t worked with it a lot, you probably find Xcode’s UI bewildering. Not to mention the fact that you probably already have a text editor that you like already, and don’t want to spend a bunch of time coming up to speed on a new one just to display a button.

Luckily, of course, there’s pyobjc, which lets you write your whole application in Python, skipping the whole Xcode / Objective C / Swift side-show and just add a little UI logic. The problem I’m trying to address here is that “just adding a little UI logic” (rather than designing your program from the ground up as an App) in the Cocoa / ObjC universe is famously and maddeningly obscure. gtk.Window() is a reasonably straightforward first function to call; [[NSWindow alloc] initWithContentRect:styleMask:backing:defer:] not so much.

This is not even to mention the fact that all the documentation, all the tutorials, and all the community resources pretty much expect you to be working with .xibs or storyboards inside the Interface Builder portion of Xcode, and you’re really on your own if you are trying to do everything outside of that. py2app can help with some of the build issues, but it has its own problems you probably don’t want to be tackling if you’re just getting started; it’ll sap all your energy for actually coding.

I should mention before we finally dive in here that if you really just want to display a button, a text area, maybe a few fields, Toga is probably a better option for you than the route that I'm describing in this post; it's certainly a lot less work. What I am assuming here is that you want to be able to present a button at first, but gradually go on to mess around with arbitrary other OS X native APIs to experiment with the things you can do with a desktop that you can't do in the cloud, like displaying local notifications, tracking your location, recording the screen, controlling other applications, and so on.

So, what is an enterprising developer - who is still lazy enough for my rhetorical purposes here - to do? Surprisingly enough, I have a suggestion!

First, you want to make a new, empty Xcode project. So fire up Xcode, go to File, New, Project, and then:

Just-A-Button-1

Just-A-Button-2

Go ahead and give it a Git repository:

Just-A-Button-3

Now that you’ve got a shiny new blank project, you’ll need to create two resources in it: one, a user interface document, and the other, a Python file. So select File, New, and then choose OS X, User Interface, Empty:

Just-A-Button-4

I’m going to call this “MyUI”, but you can call it whatever:

Just-A-Button-5

As you can see, this creates a MyUI.xib file in your project, with nothing in it.

Just-A-Button-6

We want to put a window and a button into it, so, let’s start with that. Search for “window” in the bottom right, and drag the “Window” item onto the canvas in the middle:

Just-A-Button-7

Just-A-Button-8

Now we’ve got a UI file which contains a window. How can we display it? Normally, Xcode sets all this up for you, creating an application bundle, a build step to compile the .xib into a .nib, to copy it into the appropriate location, and code to load it for you. But, as we’ve discussed above, we’re too lazy for all that. Instead, we’re going to create a Python script that compiles the .xib automatically and then loads it.

You can do this with your favorite text editor. The relevant program looks like this:

 1
 2
 3
 4
 5
 6
 7
 8
 9
10
11
12
import os
os.system("ibtool MyUI.xib --compile MyUI.nib")

from Foundation import NSData
from AppKit import NSNib

nib_data = NSData.dataWithContentsOfFile_(u"MyUI.nib")
(NSNib.alloc().initWithNibData_bundle_(nib_data, None)
 .instantiateWithOwner_topLevelObjects_(None, None))

from PyObjCTools.AppHelper import runEventLoop
runEventLoop()

Breaking this down one step at a time, what it’s doing is:

1
2
import os
os.system("ibtool MyUI.xib --compile MyUI.nib")

We run Interface Builder Tool, or ibtool, to convert the xib, which is a version-control friendly, XML document that Interface Builder can load, into a nib, which is a binary blob that AppKit can load at runtime. We don’t want to add a manual build step, so for now we can just have this script do its own building as soon as it runs.

Next, we need to load the data we just compiled:

1
nib_data = NSData.dataWithContentsOfFile_(u"MyUI.nib")

This needs to be loaded into an NSData because that’s how AppKit itself wants it prepared.

Finally, it’s time to load up that window we just drew:

1
2
(NSNib.alloc().initWithNibData_bundle_(nib_data, None)
 .instantiateWithOwner_topLevelObjects_(None, None))

This loads an NSNib (the “ib” in its name also refers to “Interface Builder”) with the init... method, and then creates all the objects inside it - in this case, just our Window object - with the instantiate... method. (We don’t care about the bundle to use, or the owner of the file, or the top level objects in the file yet, so we are just leaving those all as None intentionally.)

Finally, runEventLoop() just runs the event loop, allowing things to be displayed.

Now, in a terminal, you can run this program by creating a virtualenv, and doing pip install pyobjc-framework-Cocoa, and then python button.py. You should see your window pop up - although it will not take focus. Congratulations, you’ve made a window pop up!

One minor annoyance: you’re probably used to interrupting programs with ^C on the command line. In this case, the PyObjC helpers catch that signal, so instead you will need to use ^\ to hard-kill it until we can hook up some kind of “quit” functionality. This may cause crash dialogs to pop up if you don’t use virtualenv; you can just ignore them.

Of course, now that we’ve got a window, we probably want to do something with it, and this is where things get tricky. First, let’s just create a button; drag the button onto your window, and save the .xib:

Just-A-Button-9

And now, the moment of truth: how do we make clicking that button do anything? If you’ve ever done any Xcode tutorials or written ObjC code, you know that this is where things get tricky: you need to control-drag an action to a selector. It figures out which selectors are available by magically knowing things about your code, and you can’t just click on a thing in the interface-creation component and say “trust me, this method exists”. Luckily, although the level of documentation for it these days makes it on par with an easter egg, Xcode has support for doing this with Python classes just as it does with Objective C or Swift classes.1

First though, we’ll need to tell Xcode our Python file exists. Go to the “File” menu, and “Add files to...”, and then select your Python file:

Just-A-Button-10

Here’s the best part: you don’t need to use Xcode’s editor at all; Xcode will watch that file for changes. So keep using your favorite text editor and change button.py to look like this:

 1
 2
 3
 4
 5
 6
 7
 8
 9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
import os
os.system("ibtool MyUI.xib --compile MyUI.nib")

from objc import IBAction
from Foundation import NSObject, NSData
from AppKit import NSNib

class Clicker(NSObject):
    @IBAction
    def clickMe_(self, sender):
        print("Clicked!")

the_clicker = Clicker.alloc().init()

nib_data = NSData.dataWithContentsOfFile_(u"MyUI.nib")
(NSNib.alloc().initWithNibData_bundle_(nib_data, None)
 .instantiateWithOwner_topLevelObjects_(the_clicker, None))

from PyObjCTools.AppHelper import runEventLoop
runEventLoop()

In other words, add a Clicker subclass of NSObject, give it a clickMe_ method decorated by objc.IBAction, taking one argument, and then make it do something you can see, like print something. Then, make a global instance of it, and pass it as the owner parameter to NSNib.

At this point it would probably be good to explain a little about what the “file’s owner” is and how loading nibs works.

When you instantiate a Nib in AppKit, you are creating a collection of graphical objects, connected to an object in your program that you construct. In other words, if you had a program that displayed a Person, you’d have a Person.nib and a Person class, and each time you wanted to show a Person you’d instantiate the Nib again with the new Person as the owner of that Nib. In the interface builder, this is represented by the “file’s owner” placeholder.

I am explaining this because if you’re interested in reading this article, you’ve probably been interested enough in Mac programming to do something like the aforementioned Temperature Converter tutorial, but such tutorials almost universally just use the single default “main” nib that gets loaded when the application launches, so although they show you how to do many different things with UI elements, it’s not clear how the elements got there. This, here, is how you make new UI elements get there in the first place.

Back to our clicker example: now that we have a class with a method, we need to tell Xcode that the clicking the button should call that method. So what we’re going to tell Xcode is that we expect this Nib to be owned by an instance of Clicker. To do this, go to MyUI.xib and select the “File’s Owner” (the thing that looks like a transparent cube), to to the “Identity Inspector” (the tiny icon that looks like a driver’s license on the right) and type “Clicker” in the “Class” field at the top.

If you’ve properly added button.py to your project and declared that class (as an NSObject), it should automatically complete as you start typing the name:

Just-A-Button-11

Now you need to connect your clickMe action to the button you already created. If you’ve properly declared your method as an IBAction, you should see it in the list of “received actions” in the “Connections Inspector” of the File’s Owner (the tiny icon that looks like a right-pointing arrow in a circle):

Just-A-Button-12

Drag from the circle to the right of the clickMe: method there to the button you’ve created, and you should see the connection get formed:

Just-A-Button-13

If you save your xib at this point and re-run your python file, you should be able to click on the button and see something happen.

Finally, we want to be able to not just get inputs from the GUI, but also produce outputs. To do this, we want to populate an outlet on our Clicker class with a pointer to an object in the Nib. We can do this by declaring a variable as an objc.IBOutlet(); simply add a from objc import IBOutlet, and change Clicker to read:

1
2
3
4
5
class Clicker(NSObject):
    label = IBOutlet()
    @IBAction
    def clickMe_(self, sender):
        self.label.setStringValue_(u"\N{CHECK MARK}")

In case you’re wondering where setStringValue_ comes from, it’s a method on NSTextField, since labels are NSTextFields.

Then we can place a label into our xib; and we can see it is in fact an NSTextField in the Identity Inspector:

Just-A-Button-14

I’ve pre-filled mine out with a unicode “BALLOT X” character, for style points.

Then, we just need to make sure that the label attribute of Clicker actually points at this value; once again, select the File’s Owner, the Connections Inspector, and (if you declared your IBOutlet correctly), you should see a new “label” outlet. Drag the little circle to the right of that outlet, to the newly-created label object, and you should see the linkage in the same way the action was linked:

Just-A-Button-15

And there you have it! Now you have an application that can open a window, take input, and display output.

This is, as should be clear by now, not really the preferred way of making an application for OS X. There’s no app bundle, so there’s nothing to code-sign. You’ll get weird behavior in certain cases; for example, as you’ve probably already noticed, the window doesn’t come to the front when you launch the app like you might expect it to. But, if you’re a Python programmer, this should provide you with a quick scratch pad where you can test ideas, learn about how interface builder works, and glue a UI to existing Python code quickly before wrestling with complex integration and distribution issues.

Speaking of interfacing with existing Python code, of course you wouldn’t come to this blog and expect to get technical content without just a little bit of Twisted in it. So here’s how you hook up Twisted to an OS X GUI: instead of runEventLoop, you need to run your application like this:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
# Before importing anything else...
from PyObjCTools.AppHelper import runEventLoop
from twisted.internet.cfreactor import install
reactor = install(runner=runEventLoop)

# ... then later, when you want to run it ...
reactor.run()

In your virtualenv, you’ll want to pip install twisted[osx_platform] to get all the goodies for OS X, including the GUI integration. Since all Twisted callbacks run on the main UI thread, you don’t need to know anything special to do stuff; you can call methods on whatever UI objects you have handy to make changes to them.

Finally, although I definitely don’t have room in this post to talk about all the edge cases here, I will address two particularly annoying ones; often if you’re writing a little app like this, you really want it to take keyboard focus, and by default this window will come up in the background. To fix that, you can do this right before starting the main loop:

1
2
3
4
from AppKit import NSApplication, NSApplicationActivationPolicyAccessory
app = NSApplication.sharedApplication()
app.setActivationPolicy_(NSApplicationActivationPolicyAccessory)
app.activateIgnoringOtherApps_(True)

And also, closing the window won’t quit the application, which might be pretty annoying if you want to get back to using your terminal, so a quick fix for that is:

1
2
3
4
class QuitWhenClosed(NSObject):
    def applicationShouldTerminateAfterLastWindowClosed_(self, app):
        return True
app.setDelegate_(QuitWhenClosed.alloc().init().retain())

(the “retain” is necessary because ObjC is not a garbage collected language, and app.delegate is a weak reference, so the QuitWhenClosed would be immediately freed (and there would be a later crash) if you didn’t hold it in a global variable or call retain() on it.)

You might have other problems with this technique, and this post definitely can’t fit solutions to all of them, but now that you can load a nib, create classes that interface builder can understand, and run a Twisted main loop, you should be able to use the instructions in other tutorials and resources relatively straightforwardly.

Happy hacking!


(Thanks to everyone who helped with this post. Of course my errors are entirely my own, but thanks especially to Ronald Oussoren for his tireless work on pyObjC and py2app over the years, as well as to Mark Eichin and Amber Brown for some proofreading and feedback before this was posted.)


  1. If it didn’t, we could get Xcode to produce the appropriate XML by simply writing appropriately-shaped classes in Objective C - or possibly Swift - and then never bothering to build them, since all Xcode cares about in this part of the process is that it can see the source. My understanding is that’s how it worked when PyObjC was first developed, and it might always become necessary again if Xcode ever stops supporting Python. I have no idea if that’s likely, but unfortunately it seems clear Python isn’t a very popular language for mac apps.