Smalltalk Basic Skills – Creating New Classes and Methods

I generally assume that readers of this blog will have basic Smalltalk skills (that is, are able to at least create and edit Smalltalk code). But just in case you’re coming in from the outside, and have no experience with any kind of Smalltalk, I would like to help walk you through some of the basics.
If you find this post helpful, leave a comment, so I know to post similar walkthroughs in the future.

Main Concept – Separate Class and Method Definitions

A quick note before we start. In other programming environments, the basic unit of code is a file. Whether you’re coding in Java, PHP or Ruby, and whether you’re using Emacs, vim, TextMate or Eclipse, the process is very similar. You create a new file in your code editor window, and start typing Class and Method (function) definitions. Everything important happens in the file, in the single code window. You have other list views and panes – there’s often a section of your text editor that lists all the files you’re working on, in your project. Many IDEs and code editors also have panes that list Classes and Functions defined in a particular file. Clicking on a class or function usually jumps you to their definition in the file – these list panes are aids to navigation. But in general, package/module declarations, Class definitions and Method definitions all live in the same file.

Smalltalk (especially in modern Smalltalk environments like VisualWorks, Squeak and Pharo), separates these definitions out, each to their own little window. The Class definition gets its own window, class comments and documentation (similar to JavaDoc blocks) gets its own, and each individual method is shown separately. If this sounds confusing, or slow to work with, do not worry. The Smalltalk IDE is built for this from the ground up. In practice, once you get used to finding your way around, navigating between different classes and methods is incredibly fast, often faster than in any other coding environment.

How to Create Your First Class

Ok, let’s get to it! Open your Seaside One-click Image. That window in the middle, titled WACounter? That’s the code/system browser. If you close it by accident, you can always either press Meta-B (that’s Alt-B on windows) or click on anywhere on the background in the Pharo window and select System Browser off the World Menu.

The leftmost pane of the System Browser should be a list of categories, containing entries like Seaside-Examples-Misc. Categories are ways to group code into conceptual areas, a way to divide code into projects or applications. They are the philosophical equivalent of Packages in other programming languages.

Let’s create a Category to house our first class. Right-click on the Packages pane, and select Add category. Enter something like Tutorials-Zen in the text window that pops up, and press Enter. That category gets created and highlighted – in the bottom code pane, you will now see the following:

Object subclass: #NameOfSubclass
	instanceVariableNames: ''
	classVariableNames: ''
	poolDictionaries: ''
	category: 'Tutorials-Zen'

This is, essentially, the ‘Create a New Class’ interface. You can just start typing over the sample template text displayed there, and hit Meta-S to Save.

So, let’s create a class called MyFirstClass – highlight the word NameOfSubclass and type over it. This is what your code should look like, before you save:

Object subclass: #MyFirstClass
	instanceVariableNames: ''
	classVariableNames: ''
	poolDictionaries: ''
	category: 'Tutorials-Zen'

When you hit Meta-S, you will see the class appear in the second pane on the top.

Side Question: What happpens when I create a class without a category? Nothing much – the class gets created with a blank category. The blank category gets listed as a blank line in the Package/Category list pane, at the bottom. And now your class is harder to find. So don’t do it.

Next step: let’s create a method in our new class. So far, you’ve used two panes on the top half of the System browser. The first (leftmost) one is the Packages/Categories pane. The second one is a pane listing Classes. The third one lists method categories (also called Protocols), which is an optional way to conceptually group methods within a class. We’re going to ignore these for now, and just use the default ‘–all–‘ method category.

So, click on MyFirstClass class to highlight it. Then click on the --all-- category in the next pane (to show that you want this new method to be in the default category). The ‘new method’ code template will appear, already highlighted (making it easier for you to delete it, and start writing your own code):

messageSelectorAndArgumentNames
	"comment stating purpose of message"

	| temporary variable names |
	statements

Delete all of that sample code, and type in your own (and hit Meta-S to save). Here’s the code for a simple method that returns a string:

myFirstMethod
	"My very first method. Simply returns a literal string."

	^'Hi there!'.

Once again, after you type the code and hit Meta-S to save, the method appears in the rightmost pane of the System browser.

Question: When I hit Meta-S for the first time, a popup window prompts me for my name! What is this?
Answer: Ah, this is the system prompting you for your name or intials, so it can know who edited what code. You know how most version control systems (CVS, Subversion, Git, what have you) keep track of user names, so you can figure out who made what change to a file? This is similar. Squeak/Pharo keeps track of the revision history for each method, and it prompts you for your name the first time you change anything during a coding session.

Finally, let’s add a second method to MyFirstClass. Again, click on the ‘--all--‘ method category, highlight the sample method template, and start typing:

mySecondMethod
	"A second method of my very own"

	| aTempVariable |
	aTempVariable := 1.
	^aTempVariable.

That’s it! Now you know how to create categories, classes and methods in Smalltalk.

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“Setting It Up Right” – Loading Useful Extensions into Pharo

Table of Contents:

Ok, so this section turns out to be much shorter than I expected. I mostly wanted to write about installing OmniBrowser, which is an extension/rewrite of the system-provided code editors in Squeak/Pharo. It adds all sorts of nifty icons and helpful behaviors (such as right-click on a method and be able to see its Senders and Implementors), and is a great package. And I wanted to point out that it’s kind of indispensable (at least I found it so), which is I why I would want to side-track a simple Hello World tutorial with the explanation of how to install it.

However, it turns out that OmniBrowser already comes pre-installed on the Seaside One Click Pharo image. And my adventures in trying to install it come from plain Squeak, of several years ago.

Same thing with code code coloring/syntax highlighting, and code auto-completion – installed out of the box (again, I used to have to install it manually).

With the time we saved not setting things up, it’s time to actually start learning Smalltalk syntax. For those few who are actually learning Smalltalk (or refreshing their memories after a long absense), I highly recommend diving right into the excellent free online book, Pharo By Example, and taking it from page 1.

Next up, a simple Seaside Hello World running on your desktop.