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Building a Jabber Client for iOS: Custom Chat View and Emoticons

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This post is part of a series called Building a Jabber Client for iOS.
Building a Jabber Client for iOS: XMPP Setup

In this part of the series, we will build a custom view to make chat messages look more professional. Moreover, we will also add real emoticons to display in place of their textual counterparts.

Small Bug Fix

Before going on we have noticed a small bug introduced in part 3 of the series. When we receive a notification that a new buddy is online, we add it to the array of online people and refresh the view.

This could work if we received an online notification just once. In reality, such a notification is sent out periodically. This might be due to the nature of the XMPP protocol or the ejabbered implementation that we are using. In any case, to avoid duplicates, we should check whether we have already added to the array the buddy carried in the notification. So, we refactor like this:

And the bug is fixed.

Building Custom Chat Messages

During the series we have built a chat view controller which displays messages using standard visual components included in the iOS SDK. Our goal is to build something prettier, which displays the sender and the time of a message. We take inspiration from the SMS application bundled in iOS, which displays the content of the message wrapped by a balloon like bubble. The result that we want to achieve is shown in the following figure:

The expected resultThe expected resultThe expected result

The components for the input are on the top, as in the current implementation. We need to create a custom view for the cells of the table. This is the list of requirements:

  • Each cell shows the sender and the time of the message by means of a label at the top
  • Each message is wrapped by a balloon image with some padding
  • Background images for the message are different according to the sender
  • The height of the message (and its background image) may vary according to the length of the text

Saving the Timestamp of a Message

The current implementation does not save the time at which a message as been sent/received. Since we have to perform this operation in more than one place, we create a utility method which returns the current date and time in the form of a string. We do it by means of a category, extending the NSString class.
Following the convention suggested by Apple we create two source files named NSString+Utils.h and NSString+Utils.m. The header file contains the following code:

In the implementation, we define the static method getCurrentTime as follows

Such a method will return strings like the following: Sep 12, 2011 7:34:21 PM

If you want to customize the format of the date you can consult the documentation of NSFormatter.
Now that we have the utility method ready we need to save the date and time of sent and received messages. Both modifications pertain to the SMChatViewController when we send a message:

And when we receive it:

Now we have all the data structures we need to build our custom interface, so let's start by customizing our cell view.

The Balloon View

Most of the modifications we are going to introduce are related to the SMChatViewController, and particularly to the method -(UITableViewCell *)tableView:(UITableView *)tableView cellForRowAtIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath, which is where the content of each cell is drawn.
The current implementation uses a generic UITableViewCell, but that is not enough for our requirements, so we need to subclass it. We call our new class SMMessageViewTableCell.

The class needs three visual elements:

  • A label to show date and time
  • A textual view to show the message
  • An image view to display a balloon shaped custom view

Here is the corresponding interface file:

The first step of the implementation is to synthesize properties and set up the deallocation of instances.

Then we can override the constructor to add the visual elements to the contentView of the cell. The senderAndTimeLabel is the only element with a fixed position so we can set its frame and appearance right in the constructor.

The image view and the message field do not need any positioning. That will be managed in the table view method, for we need to know the length of the message to calculate its frame. So the final implementation of the constructor is the following.

Now let's rewrite the -(UITableViewCell *)tableView:(UITableView *)tableView cellForRowAtIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath method using the new custom cell we have built. First, we need to substitute the old cell class with the new one.

Since it makes no sense to assign geometrical dimensions in the constructor we start with zero. Here is a crucial step. We need to calculate the size of the text according to the length of the string sent or received. Fortunately the SDK provides a handy method called sizeWithFont:constrainedToSize:lineBreakMode: which calculates the height and width of a string as rendered according to the constraints we pass as parameter. Our only constraint is the width of the device which is 320 logical pixels in width. Since we want some padding we set the constraint to 260, whereas the height is not a problem, so we can set a much higher number.

Now, size is a parameter that we will use to draw both the messageContentView and the balloon view. We want messages sent to appear left-aligned, and messages received to appear right-aligned. So the position of messageContentView changes according to the sender of the message, as follows:

Now we have to display the balloon image as a wrapper for the message view. First, we need to get graphical assets. You can build your own or use the following ones.

Balloon image for received message
Balloon image for sent message

The first, with the "arrow" on the left will be used for sent messages, and the other for received ones. You might wonder why the assets are so small. We won't need big images to be adapted in size, but we will stretch those assets to adapt to the frame of the message view. The stretching will spread only the central part of the assets, which is made of a solid color, so there won't be any unwanted deformation effect. To achieve that we use a handy method [[UIImage imageNamed:@"orange.png"] stretchableImageWithLeftCapWidth:24 topCapHeight:15];. The parameters represent the limit (from borders) where the stretching can start. Now our image is ready to be positioned.

The final implementation is the following:

We should not forget that the height of the whole cell is dynamic, so we should also update the following method:

Now we are ready to run our new implementation of custom view cells. Here is the result:

The chat custom viewThe chat custom viewThe chat custom view


Many chat programs like iChat, Adium, or even web-based chats like Facebook Chat, support emoticons, that is expressions made of letters and punctuation that represent an emotion like :) for happyness, :( for sadness, and so on. Our goal is to customize the the message view so that images are displayed instead of letters and punctuation. To enable this behavior we need to parse each message and substitute occurrences of emoticons with the corresponding Unicode characters. For a list of emoticons available on the iPhone you can check out this table. We can add the substitution method in the Utils category we have already used to calculate the current date. This is the implementation:

Here we replace only three emoticons just to give you an idea of how the method works. Such a method needs to be called before storing messages in the array which populates the SMChatViewController. When we send a message:

When we receive it:

Our Jabber Client is now complete. Here is a screenshot of the final implementation:

The final resultThe final resultThe final result

Ready to chat?

Source Code

The complete source code for this project can be found on GitHub here.

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