Project Profile: PetRescue

Posted in Featured

PetRescue (petrescue.com.au) is a charitable organisation on a mission to save Australia’s abandoned pets. They have brought hundreds of rescue groups together under one website to create a dominant unified web presence and significantly improve the chances of people finding the perfect pet.

We invest heavily in promoting the adoption option to millions of pet lovers, and continue to offer our services, programs and online resources for free to hundreds of shelters, pounds and rescue groups Australia-wide.

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When PetRescue first approached us they had a great model for how they wanted to work but needed to grow. Our first round of work helped to revamp the website and also give it the robust growth potential they needed. Our design work was kept simple, clean and all about the pets. The ability to grow revolved around a fresh rails app and a much bigger architecture to support it.

We had the chance to test this growth potential thanks to a Whiskas campaign that required our systems to withstand thousands of concurrent hits per second. We managed this and more without our servers even flinching thanks to some clever caching and a well structured architecture that was living on Amazon’s cloud servers.

piggies

Since that initial round of work, the numbers of visitors and adoptions have been increasing and PetRescue have managed to help rehome a staggering 200,000 animals across Australia with a further 9500 currently sitting on the site ready for new homes.

With such a great experience we were so excited to recently get a call regarding some more work. To enhance their already great offering, the PetRescue team had the idea of providing video content of prospective pets. We saw this as a great opportunity to leverage Amazon’s new video encoding capability named Elastic Transcoder and in a fairly short space of time we are proud to have launched this feature on the site.

donate_dog

This site has been a great exploration of Amazon services for us and with a little tweaking, our ability to template, rollout and spin up many different services has been very positive.

We would also like to congratulate John Bishop, PetRescue’s technical lead who has been working with us closely and received multiple “40 under 40” awards for his great work with the site.

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Photo From: Business News WA

PetRescue is very a worthy cause so if you have any interest in an adorable pet, check out the site or have a look at their facebook page.

Reflecting on RubyMotion Experiences – Part 2

Posted in Code, Inside TFG, iOS, RubyMotion, Tips and Tricks

As part two of our series, Tony Issakov offers a few thoughts when developing on RubyMotion.

rubymotion

Whilst I spend a lot of time in a management role, I’m a developer at heart that cannot stop developing. Here’s a few things that I’ve come across in the RubyMotion space that may be of use.

1: Know the code you are building on

RubyMotion is a relatively young space that is filling quickly with enthusiastic Ruby developers. New gems are coming out regularly to carry over what we know from our native Ruby world and also to make new iOS capabilities more comfortable to access.

One thing to be aware of is that being a new space there are some fairly fresh pieces of code being integrated into common use and some of them haven’t had much time to mature. For this reason I suggest taking a moment to get to know the gems you are about to use.Octocat

Just as with any code, Github gives us a good place to start, checking out the most recent commit activity, the scale of the issues and hopefully checking that there’s a test suite. Whilst testing isn’t as fully fledged for RubyMotion, an attempt to test is a great start.

Reviewing how code is written has also been very informative. If you want to get some diverse exposure, start looking through BubbleWrap, the ever growing mixed bag of RubyMotion functionality. You can see anything from how to leverage the Camera through to observers with the Notification Centre. It gave me some ideas as a ruby developer of what iOS topics I needed to start researching.

2: Memory Matters

One major change moving into the RubyMotion space from a Rails one is that it’s no longer a stateless environment, pages aren’t a regularly discarded entity and what you do over time can mean something. If you don’t know about reference counting in iOS and the commonly mentioned ARC, it’s worth doing a little homework to understand what RubyMotion is doing for you. Apple provides some documentation explaining memory management, here.

One example of why it’s good to know this is I hit a show stopping moment when I started attaching view content from an 3rd party framework to my own controller objects using instance variables. The external library counted on the releasing of those objects as the app moved through multiple sessions and I was inadvertently retaining them. This ended up in some interesting crashes and the word ‘release’ is a real give away.

A protip here (offered initially to me by Jordan Maguire) was to leverage the dealloc method. If you override a class’s dealloc method, clear up your instance variables, put in a bit of logging whilst you are there and then call out to super, in theory your RubyMotion console should give you a bit of feedback that your app is being healthy about releasing it’s memory.

Another key object to figure out for this topic is WeakRef.

The need for WeakRefs comes up when you start passing delegates around and begin to form cyclic references which if not handled well, can in the least cause memory leaks. Wrapping an object in a WeakRef object gives you a programmatic way of ensuring you release an object and again look to the console for that dealloc feedback.

3: Think ‘Performance’

One of the major benefits of RubyMotion is taking a lot of ruby ideas for making code easy to write. One catch is that a lot of layers of abstraction can create the opportunity for a performance hit.

We saw this first hand when first trying gems like Teacup (a gem for layout and styling). When the gem was pretty young, people using it noticed their apps start to grind and scrolling through tables suffered a stutter. This came down to doing things in a programmatic but performance expensive way when styling table cells. From what I’ve seen many of these issues have been resolved and that has come down to both gem improvements and better patterns for developers applying code in a performance friendly way.

One paragraph that really stuck in my head on this topic was reading through the Queries section of the CDQ gem README. CDQ is a slick Core Data helper and the paragraph reads:

Core Data is designed to work efficiently when you hang on to references to specific objects and use them as you would any in-memory object, letting Core Data handle your memory usage for you. If you’re coming from a server-side rails background, this can be pretty hard to get used to, but this is a very different environment.

This sums up my very first moments of walking into RubyMotion from rails which was iOS persistence is handle by Core Data therefore Core Data equals ActiveRecord. We keep pushing the point but it’s not that Core Data isn’t ActiveRecord, its that things like persistence and what it means to each environment are very different.

4: IDE is not a bad word

Vim versus Emacs? How much finger twister can you play to do fairly amazing things with your editor? I’ve been sucked into this a few times over the years and will admit I find myself in the vim space largely because it was the editor I was raised on. In recent times I followed the Textmate to Sublime migration too. For a time though I found myself in the Java community working with IBM’s Application Developer and that’s where I came to terms with what an IDE is.

When I started to explore RubyMotion and got sucked into the “What editors can I use next?” game, I dabbled with RubyMine and was a little surprised. IDEs for me in the past have meant memory bloat and user interface lag but the JetBrains guys have done a great job optimising resource usage and letting you customise behavior.

Ruby_on_Rails_IDE____JetBrains_RubyMine

Why bring this up for RubyMotion? For many who are looking for some form of visual assistance, a nice refactoring capability, a debugger that is interactive, a spec runner that is visual, this might be a good tool for you to consider to give you a safety-net as you develop. This is absolutely not for everyone but I generally take all the help I can get and regularly swap back and forth between command line and visual tools depending on the task at hand.

5: The simulator is not the device

The iOS simulator is rather amazing in what it offers. A highly performant version of the device that you can swap between device types, screens, resolutions and even simulate events with. With all this it does lure you into believing it’ll be an effortless trip to the device but we found there are a few catches.

The first was that sometimes the simulator outperformed the phone and this is due to the simulator having the full resources of the host available to it. A few of our animations that were smooth on the simulator stuttered slightly and it was during a series of changes that it occurred.iOS_Simulator_User_Guide__About_iOS_Simulator

Another situation was when using external Objective C libraries, it’s possible for the library to have different branches of code depending on the environment meaning that the code you run in the simulator is not necessarily the code you will run on the device. In one extreme case we actually needed to set some custom build flags for the app to even compile for the device.

So the recommendation here is run on the device and frequently enough that if the app has some unusual explosion you aren’t left wondering which of the many gems you just added or commits you just made has cause the issue.

RubyMotion: Under the hood

Posted in Code, iOS, RubyMotion, Tips and Tricks

Some time ago I was working on a RubyMotion app and was called over to look at a colleague’s screen only to find an amazing visual.

Just as Firefox jumped on to the scene with a 3D view of a web page, the team at RevealApp presented to me an exploded view of one of our RubyMotion iOS apps. 3D rotation of many wired frame borders and the ability to click through the views to review settings was amazing. Since then a few new players have come along so here’s a quick recap of how you might see what’s going on under the hood.

1: SugarCube

https://github.com/rubymotion/sugarcube

As a very light weight entrant to the field, SugarCube is a RubyMotion gem that provides a lot of syntactic sugar and utility methods. It includes a nice little command called ‘tree’. This was one of the first mechanisms I ever used in gaining insight into how my app was being put together and is still a bit of a reflex when digging around in the console.

This means of seeing the UI structure in code might be a little harder to interpret at first but it’s nice that without any other frameworks or apps you can see what’s going on.

1__bundled_rake_BUILD_ENV_development_frank_symbiote__sim_

So to sum it up, it’s a console tool with a super easy install and requiring no external software to review the results. This is a great place to start debugging your views.

2: Motion Xray

https://github.com/colinta/motion-xray

Stepping up the visual feedback is Motion Xray. This is the only gem I haven’t personally used but I’ve included it as it’s purpose is to get insight into the current view of the app, in the app itself.

This brings a great level of portability as there’s no need for bridging between external software and internal frameworks. It’s all just in the app. It does make me a little nervous that to view my view code I’m changing my view code but I can see the niche that this plugin aims to fill.

motion-xray

3: Frank and Symbiote

http://www.testingwithfrank.com/

This one really surprised me. Working with Frank is something we’ve been dabbling with for years and it’s definitely growing on me as I feel the need to gain more confidence in how my user interface is behaving. In the past I’ve used the calabash console to help me understand how to access view components for my tests but I recently stumbled on Symbiote which is part of Frank.

Frank opens up a communications gateway for sending tests to the device or simulator and Symbiote piggy backs this getting a full view of what the interface looks like on demand. This in itself is impressive but it then renders that out to a webpage with an interactive console.

This tool is tailored towards making writing tests easier but I loved that it was a means of seeing my app state with just a browser on the side. My experience with it so far has been limited but there is definite potential.

Check out this article (Inspect the State of Your Running iOS App’s UI With Symbiote – Pete Hodgson) for a really great overview of this.

Frank is very easy to install, and so in turn was Symbiote.

Symbiote

4: Reveal App

http://revealapp.com/

This is where the excitement began and at the fully fledged highly visual editor end of the spectrum. A separate app is run to do all the viewing and editing. A framework gets included in your app to open up a bridge for communication (much like Frank).

I found in the early beta stages when I was heavily using this, there were occasional connection issues. The framework broadcasts its presence via Bonjour so you should see your device or simulator appear in the list of possible connections. This type of connection process (when it worked) was nice and simple when moving between device and simulator as there were no config files or settings to worry about.

Once in the app with your screen wire framed and ready for editing, the ability to see and change things is phenomenal. Anyone who is used to tweaking the visuals of a web page at a browser console will feel right at home with this kind of tool. Nudging UI by pixels, changing colouring, messing with opacity. All of these are ready to go.

The only downside to this product has been it’s final price. The licensing is not cheap but so far in my experience this is by far the most powerful tool of its kind.

Reveal_App

5: Spark Inspector

http://sparkinspector.com/

After loving Reveal App I took a quick moment to see what else was out in this space and was stunned to find another contender. Spark Inspector at this time feels like a lighter weight version of Reveal. It’s not as fully loaded with features and modifiable fields but it does have a lot of the key parts like a very visual 2D and 3D representation of your app.

I found that the cocoapod installed without any issues, the connections worked first time and generally this was actually a little easier to get going than my early RevealApp experience. The main area of weakness at this time is that not everything is as easy to access and edit as I found in Reveal. It does feel like you can get a little out of sync with the remote UI and it has a few more general quirks as you modify values.

The major redeeming factor to this is it’s price. At time of writing Reveal cost a bit over four times the price of Spark Inspector so if you find Reveal is out of your budgetary league, this may be an alternative.

Spark_Inspector_and_Spark_Inspector_-_Runtime_Inspection_for_iOS_Apps

6: iOS Hierarchy Viewer

https://github.com/glock45/iOS-Hierarchy-Viewer

As a last minute entrant I was really impressed to stumble over this git repo that looks to be doing things a lot like Symbiote using a web page as the external viewing tool. Looking over the Readme it feels like the install will be harder to get through than Spark or Reveal but there’s a cocoapod and it turned out to be rather painless.

The UI is raw in appearance but comprehensive in details. It feels very much like an insight into the state of the UI rather than the editable side that Reveal gives you.

One surprised was the Core Data addition which with an additional line of code gives you a quick view of the state of your data. Having recently been using cdq I tested this and it worked just as expected showing me a table of my data. This is a very interesting addition putting that little bit more at your finger tips but the lack of edit on the views does make this app more about insight than nudging visuals into place.

In Summary

It’s wonderful to see such a diverse set of tools becoming available to developers. Between a RubyMotion console and the many tools on offer, a developer can get a quick understanding of the visual architecture they are working within and even nudge it in the right direction before making a final change. Given we at times rely on the default apple controls and views it’s also good to understand exactly why things are placed where they are or how many views really do make up a button.

As I was writing this article I found this stack overflow thread covering this topic and picking up pretty much all of the above mentioned tools so if you are looking to hear how some others have found these tools, this may be a place to start.

Also as one closing pro-tip – don’t run too many of these together as not surprisingly my app got a little unstable when spinning up the simulator and multiple apps all tried to start up servers and broadcast messages. Also keep in mind that running the specs instance of a RubyMotion app might clash with your main app if you are swapping back and forth.  If things start to misbehave you might need to restart your simulator or close down apps that are in the background.

If you know of any other apps that haven’t been discussed, let us know.

Project Profile: The Tasting Team and BARPOP

Posted in Featured, Project Profile, Rebranding, Ruby on Rails

The Tasting Team are a Perth based company that organise and run tasting sessions in bottle shops, pubs and bars. Originally a Perth based service they have experienced massive growth and have proven to be a great success Australia wide. During this period of growth they came to us with an urgent request; they needed a new booking system and revamped website and they needed it quick.

The new booking system needed to handle a rapidly growing number of tasting sessions and staff, as well as have the SMS capabilities that form the backbone of their business coordination. Due to the need for a quick development we leveraged what we know best and built the booking system as a well tested Ruby and Rails app. With some intense tweaking and refinement the end result has become an efficient and easy to use booking system, with a responsive mobile interface for staff, product representatives and clients to use on the go.

One of the less visible benefits from the work has been improved communication. We have implemented automated reporting and communication which has taken some of the pressure off of management staff giving them more time to coordinate. We have also received positive feedback from the product representatives out in the field who are now getting weekly updates and automated feedback about their many upcoming events.

The revamped website needed to work as a portal for both new and existing clients and staff, as well as show off the services The Tasting Team has to offer. We decided on an continuous scrolling design that’s not only slick to look at but quick to design and build.

tastingteamphone

An important component of the design brief was to show off the small brands and microbreweries The Tasting Team represented.

The Tasting Team Brands

The Tasting Team Brands

It was equally important for the design to reflect the casual, relaxed and professional sessions they run. We decided to integrate photos from The Tasting Team’s own instagram stream into the design.

Near the end of this project the guys at The Tasting Team approached us to design a simple but striking website to show off their latest venture BARPOP, a pop up bar that transforms any space, rooftop, office or event into a licensed bar with a casual atmosphere.

BarPop Website

BarPop Website

The design drew inspiration from the the existing logo and bold colour scheme. It needed to reflect the laid back but professional bar experience BARPOP creates and showcase the brands they have on offer. We wanted to create consistency across all of The Tasting Team websites so used the continuous scrolling idea again interspersed with candid photographs of previous BARPOP events that are pulled straight from the BarPop Instagram feed. The end result is a warm, inviting website that enhances the brand. The clients were thrilled and so were we.

Reflecting on RubyMotion Experiences – Part 1

Posted in Featured, Inside TFG, Ruby on Rails, RubyMotion

At The Frontier Group we develop native and hybrid mobile apps for both iOS and Android. I’ve been developing in RubyMotion since late 2012 and as we begin our 6th RubyMotion app at The Frontier Group, collectively having put over 3000 hours into this technology I have a couple of quick tips for fresh Rails to RubyMotion converts:

rubymotion

1: Forget everything you know about Rails

It’s tempting when you start RubyMotion to assume that since you’re vaguely familiar with MVC that you’ll be able to slap together a fairly decent iOS app. However, MVC in Cocoa Touch and MVC in Rails are completely different.

My advice: Don’t even think of controllers in Rails when you’re trying to build a controller in Cocoa Touch.

Before you start, have a couple of reads through the excellent Apple documentation on view controllers.

Another practice that tripped me up was how used I was to not having any state in Rails applications. That is, in Rails, if you get user input and you don’t need to discard it, you’re probably going to dump it in your database if you want to be able to use it somewhere.

In Cocoa Touch, and really in any client applications, state behaves a lot differently. Data plays a much different role. Persisting data is a fairly expensive operation and is usually not necessary. Many of the apps you make will just be frontends consuming an API. Keep in mind that the way you interact with data will be very different: Objects will persist beyond a single page load.rails

Another interesting idea you might want to familiarize yourselves with is that views in Cocoa Touch are first class citizens. In Rails, we tend to use the terms views and templates interchangeably. I think many Rails developers would benefit from looking up the term ViewModel. Anyway, that’s another post entirely.

In Rails, views are largely just templates. You jam data in, and out pops some markup for the user to see.

In Cocoa Touch, views are entire classes of their own, complete with state and behaviour. You can do a lot in the way of organising your system by leveraging these powerful objects. Have a read about Cocoa Touch views in Apple’s online documentation.

2: Adopt the Cocoa Touch culture

Remember when Rails started getting traction and all the PHP developers jumped over and started writing PHP in Ruby on Rails? Raw SQL everywhere, 12000 LoC controllers, and testless classes in every corner of the app.

I get the feeling that the Rails to RubyMotion expats are doing the same. One of the most egregious practices that RubyMotioners seem to be embracing is the use of snake_case. Have a look at the ProMotion library as an example. ProMotion has created a bunch of mappings between the Cocoa Touch camelCased methods and provided a snake_cased equivalent.

So instead of using Cocoa Touch’s viewDidLoad method, ProMotion wants you to use on_load.

I have a bunch of problems with this practice. Firstly: Cocoa Touch already provides a `viewDidLoad` method, complete with comprehensive documentation, and tonnes of examples available online. Good luck to a newbie developer who isn’t aware that `on_load` and `viewDidLoad` are equivalent, trying to find out how to use the method effectively.

Secondly: What does having snake_case get us here? It feels a lot like a bunch of Rails programmers refusing to let go. Ruby on its own, and in the context of Rails, uses snake_case as a standard. A standard, not a requirement. However: we aren’t working in straight Ruby, nor are we working in Rails. We’re using RubyMotion, a Ruby toolchain that communicates directly with Cocoa Touch. Cocoa Touch, of course, being a massive framework written in Obj-C that uses camelCase as a standard.

If you move to another country, you learn their language. I think it’s the same idea here. We are trying to work in the Cocoa Touch land, so we should use camelCase. Where snake_case has the only benefit of looking familiar to Rubyists and Rails devs, it has the drawbacks of forcing you to either:

Write an interface to all of Cocoa Touch that changes every single method from camelCase to having a snake_case equivalent, or
Mix and match your snake_case methods with Cocoa Touch’s camelCase method.

Both of these options are bad.

The first option requires a tonne of superfluous work that could be avoided by just adopting camelCase (just for the record – Matz won’t track you down and break your legs if you do that!).

The second option requires you to have an inconsistent interface – which is undesirable, to say the least. Consistency is key for writing easily understandable and maintainable code.

My final point on this topic: If you’re ever trying to solve a problem in your app, remember that firstly you should be looking for solutions in the context of Cocoa Touch, not RubyMotion. There are very few bugs you’ll encounter that are actually caused by RubyMotion. For the most part, it’s just going to be you using Cocoa Touch in ways it isn’t meant to be used.

3: Learn some Obj-C

Obj-C looks like the syntax was derived at random from a bag of broken glass, barbed wire, and salt. However, it’s the backbone of the framework you’re working in, so it behooves you to spend some time learning it. There are a lot of benefits, and the main one is this:

XCode

You’re frequently going to have to convert Obj-C code to RubyMotion. You’ll need to understand how Obj-C works to do this.

Here’s another – if you’re going to use CocoaPods, you’re going to need to be able to debug them. This brings me to my next point.

4: Use CocoaPods

CocoaPods is a bundler inspired dependency manager. As a Rails developer the idea should be pretty familiar to you.

CocoaPods has been around since 2011, so suffice it to say anything you need to do can probably be done by one CocoaPod or another.

Think outside the RubyMotion box. You can and should leverage CocoaPods in order to speed up the development of your apps.

Cocoa controls is a good resource for staying up to date on the latest CocoaPods.

RubyMotion’s motion-cocoapods makes using CocoaPods super simple, give it a try!

Here’s a couple of CocoaPods that will give you an idea of how useful they can be:

  • If you’ve ever tried loading remote images in to UITableViewCells, you’ve probably noticed that it can be a real pain. SDWebImage provides an easy to use interface for solving this issue, by providing both downloading and caching of remote images.
  • In client apps, you’re going to have to find a way to communicate to the user that the app is waiting for a remote service. You could spend 15 minutes writing your own loader class, or you could use the wonderful MBProgressHUD.

You can search for CocoaPods on the CocoaPods homepage.

This is the first part of a series on our experiences at The Frontier Group.

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