Tech News Back Issues Issue: 081006

External Objects

By David Swain
Polymath Business Systems

So far, we have discussed every type of Object that we can create in an Omnis application except one: the External Object. This is an Object that we create using a special type of external component that is designed as a nonvisual component. The externals that we can use with this facility will be found in the Xcomp folder inside our Omnis Studio installation. But not every Xcomp can be used in this way. Most Xcomp files only contain GUI component objects that we place on our Windows, Remote Forms and Reports. But some special Xcomp files also contain a nonvisual Object component that we can use as the base class for an Object variable or as the superclass for an Object Class.

There are relatively few of these special Xcomps. One way to discover them is to browse through the external components available for use with our libraries. We can do this by opening the External Components link in the Omnis Studio Library Browser. Perhaps this is a good time for us to explore external components briefly, since we're here.

External Components Link

Exploring External Components

Omnis Studio ships with a large number of external components. But just because an external component is contained within the Xcomp folder does not mean that Omnis Studio is ready to use it. The component must first be loaded into Omnis Studio since it is not part of the core code of Omnis. The easiest way to do this is to set the preload status of a component in the External Components dialog that appears when we click the link illustrated above. That dialog should look something like this:

External Components Dialog

Windows users will see more groups in the list on the left, but all platforms offer the External Components group shown at the top of the tree list on the left side of this dialog. That is the one in which we are interested for now. If we expand that node of the tree list, we will see a list of the foreground Window, Report and Object Xcomps currently installed with our copy of Omnis Studio:

List of External Components

We can browse for external component libraries located elsewhere on our system, but it is best to keep those we need in the Xcomp folder.

Component Libraries that are currently loaded are shown with a green dot in the Component Libraries list. Those that are not loaded display with a red dot in this list. If we choose a Component Library from this list, we can set it to preload when either Omnis starts up or when we open the current library by clicking the appropriate radio button in the Pre-Load Status group. If we change the Pre-Load Status of a component library, the color of the dot shown with its name in the Component Libraries list will not change immediately. We must first submit our status changes by clicking the OK button, which closes the dialog - so we won't see this specific result until the next time we open this dialog. But we will be able to use newly introduced Xcomps without restarting Omnis Studio and without closing and re-opening our library.

The items displayed in this list are called component "libraries" for a reason. As we browse through this list selecting different libraries, we notice that many of them contain more than one component. We can see a list of the Component Controls in a selected library in the list on the right side of this dialog. This list shows us the names of the components along with icons that indicate which type of component each line represents. Components that we find in the External Components group of the Component Libraries list can contain three types of components: Window foreground components, Report foreground components and Object components. Remote Form components are found in a separate group called Form External Components in the Component Libraries list. Background components for Remote Forms and other class types are also found in their own separate groups. In this article, we are mostly concerned with Object components, which are displayed here with an icon that looks like a cube with a plug in it in the Component Controls list.

Graph2 Component Controls

Here we see the controls for the Graph2 component library. Notice that there are two separate controls: one that can be used on either a Window or a Report Class layout and one that is for use as an Object. The icons that indicate the type(s) of a control should be easily recognized by an experienced Omnis Studio developer.

Once an external component is loaded into Omnis, it can then be selected for various purposes within our library. For example, we can locate any GUI component in the Component Store window and drag it to the layout for any appropriate class in design mode. But we use our nonvisual Object components in different ways.

Using an External Object

There are two basic ways we can use an Object component. We can select an Object component as the subtype for an Object variable (or specify it later using the $new() method applied to the external component itself) or we can use an Object component as the superclass for an Object Class. There are various reasons why we might choose one of these techniques over the other.

For the moment, we will use the second technique. This technique gives us the opportunity to explore the properties and methods that an Object contains. So let's create a new Object Class and give it the name timerObject. Using the Property Manager, we will then assign the Timer Xcomp as the superclass for our Object Class. When we click on the property value in the Property Manager, a dialog appears that allows us to make this choice from a list. Notice that only Xcomps of the Object type are displayed for selection. Think of this as being the Component Store for Object Xcomps:

Setting the Timer Xcomp as the Superclass for an Object Class

We can now open the timerObject class and explore what Omnis Studio has given us for our efforts so far. This Object Class inherits methods and properties from the external component. When we open an Object Class, we see its methods in the Method Editor:

Inherited Methods in Timer Object

Inherited items appear in blue by default in Omnis Studio. But if we wish to, we can change the color for this and other color coded items by modifying the Omnis Studio Preference properties ($root.$prefs) in the Property Manager or using Notation:

Omnis Studio Preference Properties

Inheritance is a feature of object orientation that we can use to advantage in Omnis Studio. When an instance of our Object is spawned, it receives the methods and properties of the current version of its superclass. If this Xcomp is updated (as the Timer was for Omnis Studio version 4.1), our subclass is also automatically updated.

But there may be situations where we want to replace an inherited method with one of our own - retaining the method name, but replacing the code. We can do this by overriding that method. In the case of the Timer, the method named $timer is the method that is called when the timer reaches zero in its countdown. It is currently empty, so we must override it to give the Timer Object a method to perform. We do that using an item in the context menu for that method as shown here:

Overriding the $timer Method

This is an example of overriding an inherited, but empty, placeholder method. But we may have a need to override a method that actually does something as well. For example, perhaps we want to add a few steps to the $resettimer method in our Timer Object to reset some other variables as well. Once we have overridden the method and have put our own code into it, we can invoke the inherited method at any point within our code by injecting the Do inherited command:

The Do Inherited Command

The Method Editor allows us to see the names of inherited methods, but the Interface Manager allows us to see quite a bit more. We access the Interface Manager from the View menu of the Method Editor. Here we see two views of this tool: the Methods view and the Properties view:

Interface Manager

We can examine any parameters available to the selected method in the Methods view or we can read its description. For non-inherited methods, including overridden ones, we can even add our own descriptions. The Properties view allows us to read any description of the selected property. The astute developer who has used the Timer Object in the past will notice two new properties here: $queueevent and $timeleft. These were added to this Object component in Studio 4.1. My demonstration library was originally written for a much earlier version of Omnis Studio, but through the magic of inheritance, these new properties automatically appeared when I opened this Object Class.

Even if we don't intend to use an external Object as the superclass for an Object Class, this is a useful exercise because it lets us examine the programming interface to the Object. But how else might we use it?

Instead, we can simply inherit the functionality of the Xcomp directly into an Object variable. The simplest way to do this is to set the Xcomp as the subtype of the Object variable in the Variable Definition Pane of the Method Editor.

Defining an External Object Variable

An Object variable defined in this way inherits all the methods and properties we saw in the Object Class above. In fact, we could choose to use an Object Class that was subclassed from the Xcomp instead of the Xcomp itself in the Object variable definition. We would do this in the case of the Timer Object to make it easier to override the $timer method.

If we need to examine the methods and properties of an Object variable in greater detail, we can open the Interface Manager from the Variable Context Menu anywhere in the Method Editor we see the name of this variable:

Accessing the Interface Manager Using the Variable Context Menu

If we prefer, we can use the $new() method to instantiate an Object variable for an Xcomp. Since most Xcomps do not contain a $construct method, there is not much reason to do so, but it is certainly allowed. The syntax for this is as follows (either line is correct):

Dynamic Instantiation of an External Object

Note that we must give the name of the Component Library followed by $objects and then the name of the Control within that Library.

And finally, we could use an Object reference variable instead of an Object variable. Remember that this variable (or the instance that it points to) must be populated using the $newref() method applied to the Xcomp as with the $new() method shown above.

Populating an External Object Reference

And in Omnis Studio version 4.1, we are allowed to specify a subtype for an Object reference variable, as shown here:

Object Reference Variable with Subtype

The only function for this subtype is to allow us to use the Interface Manager to view methods and properties for this Object while we work. We still must populate the Object reference variable using $newref() as shown above. Omnis Studio is kind enough to give us this warning to that effect:

Object Reference Subtype Warning

But beyond these setup operations, we use Object Externals just as we do any other Object Instance. The scope we choose for our variable determines where we can access the Object. We use Notation to invoke its methods and to get and set values for its properties. We can even add our own instance, class and local variables within the Object if we create an Object Class as a subclass of the Xcomp. The great thing is: We can create as many instances of a given Xcomp as we need!

Next Time

The next few issues of Omnis Tech News will most likely cover new and improved features in Omnis Studio version 4.2, which I expect will ship between now and then. After that flurry of activity, we will come back to Objects and examine a special group of Xcomps: the Omnis Studio DAMs.

I hope to see some of you at the OmnisCentral Americas 2006 conference at the end of this month. If I don't, have an enjoyable time with Omnis Studio until we meet again!

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