Dan Wood: The Eponymous Weblog (Archives)

Dan Wood Dan Wood is co-owner of Karelia Software, creating programs for the Macintosh computer. He is the father of two kids, lives in the Bay Area of California USA, and prefers bicycles to cars. This site is his older weblog, which mostly covers geeky topics like Macs and Mac Programming. Go visit the current blog here.

Useful Tidbits and Egotistical Musings from Dan Wood

Categories: Business · Mac OS X · Cocoa Programming · General · All Categories

Thu, 01 May 2008

A Cool Way to Integrate Web and Desktop

Following the example of Panic and others, we've put some code into our applicatons that, upon first launch, will ask people if they want to join our email announcement list.

One thing I don't like is when computers are dumb. And what I thought would seem dumb would be the case where you are already on our email list, and you hear about our new app, so you download it from the link we provide, and upon launching said app, it asks you if you want to join the email list. Well, duh!

So I mulled this over in the back of my head for a long time. Should we have a special version of our application that skips this question? Wow that would be a lot of hassle and be potentially confusing. Or would there be some way we could use AppleScript to set the user defaults for our application so that it wouldn't ask? That would probably be pretty invasive and require the user running a script in ScriptEditor. Or download a helper application that sets the stage in advance, then launches the real application? Geez, that's not going to be obvious. There must be a better way....

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me: Cookies. Yeah, that's it. We can access the cookie store from Cocoa; it's the same cookie store used by Safari or other Webkit-based browsers. True, some Mac users are using Firefox or Camino, but this might solve it for a good chunk of users.

So what I did was to store a cookie associated with our website onn the page that a person goes to when they have confirmed that they want to sign up for our mailing list. I also set that same cookie when somebody clicks on the download link in our email blast; the link takes them to a page that sets the cookie and starts downloading the desired file.

Our application, upon launching, first checks the user default that will be set to prevent being asked more than once. If that has not been set yet, it checks the cookie store. If the cookie indicating that the they are on our email list is present, then they will be spared the redundant question. Only if the default and the cookie are absent will they be bothered.

The cool thing is that this cookie works across multiple applications. The cookie check is built into iMedia Browser 1.1, which we just released this morning, but we will be building it into Sandvox as well. Once that cookie is set, they won't be asked again from any of our applications. Well, at least until the cookie expires — but by then they will have stored the user default to prevent being asked.

Clearly, this is not a fool-proof technique. The cookie store might not have been written to disk by the time somebody launches the application. The user might have cleared out their cookies, or isn't using a Webkit-based browser. But it's an interesting, light-weight mechanism for "communicating" between Browser and Desktop.

Naturally the next thing to think about is "What else could you accomplish with this technique?" You could set cookies on your company's website that your desktop application might be able to take advantage of, e.g. your most recent login ID (but not password of course), recently visited pages, and so forth. The "communication" could go the other way as well; a desktop application might set some cookies that help give the corresponding website some hints for web content.

This is a very "weak" form of communication. If you want to literally control your Desktop application from a website, you could put in hyperlinks to custom URLs that your application can respond to by implementing this kind of code. (For instance, this link, if you already have been running iMedia Browser, will open up the application's feedback window with some pre-populated fields; we've set this up to help people follow up on tech support issues.) And of course from your desktop application you can open up arbitrary URLs in your browser using NSWorkspace operations.

But when you want non-obtrusive passing of interesting data or settings between desktop and browser, this may be a useful technique.