Morphic GUI

The library offers some support for using an actor as a model for Morphs in Squeak’s Morphic GUI systems.

A Morph can be configured to use an ActorProxyModel as its model, meaning that when information is needed from the model for UI display and interaction, requests are sent to an actor.

Morphic support is experimental.

I am a novice when it comes to Morphic programming. I am no doubt making incorrect assumptions about how it is supposed to work. I’d very much appreciate some help in improving the interaction between Morphic and actors.

Challenges in integrating Morphic with Actors

Morphic really isn’t set up for an actor-style approach to concurrency.

The main problem is that morphs and model objects must run in the UI process, because some of the interplay between morphs and their models is synchronous.

Dependents protocol

In particular, there’s the back-and-forth dance between changed: and update: that one must remain painfully aware of.

Normal Morphic models use changed to cause a synchronous notification to be delivered to dependents (i.e. morphs), in the form of calls to their update: methods. This causes problems for using an actor as a model in two ways:

  1. The call to update: has to happen on the UI process, while the call to changed must run on the actor’s own process.
  2. The calls to update: cannot be synchronous in an actor system, because the view may wish to call back into the actor to read its updated state, and if the actor is blocked waiting for a reply to the update: message, deadlock will occur.

Synchronous UI actions

It is quite easy to lock up the user interface while developing. The interrupt key (Alt-.) is helpful when this happens. However, don’t rely on it: from time to time you will simply have to kill and restart your VM. Save often.

Model callbacks invoked by morphs are synchronous, waiting for an answer from the model before the UI becomes responsive again. For example, clicking on a PluggableButtonMorph causes an “action” selector to be invoked on the morph’s model, and the UI pauses until that call returns.

A similar, simpler example is the kind of lockup that can occur if you run a blocking do-it in a Workspace. For example, the following creates a new actor, and immediately invokes its halt method in the actor’s process. The UI process then waits for the reply. Because the code uses blocking, the UI process will wait forever for the Promise to be resolved.

ActorBehavior spawn blocking halt.

However, the implementation of halt queues a request to the UI process to open a debugger—but the UI process is waiting for the actor to finish before it checks its work queue.

Pressing Alt-. interrupts the wait, bringing up a debugger on the do-it and allowing the actor’s halt debugger to open.

In addition, I have implemented heuristic support for preemptively interrupting the UI process when a halt happens in a situation where it is likely that the UI process is waiting for the thing that has halted.

Perhaps (post-hoc: following the logic that exceptions traverse links) a halt should halt all causally dependent processes as well? Ultimately, new tooling will be needed to properly show the branching contexts that arise once there are cross-process dependencies.


Class DemoSocketTerminal implements a simple TCP/IP terminal program that can connect to an arbitrary host and port. Input from the server is displayed in the main panel, and input from the user is accepted in the lower input text field.

DemoSocketTerminal screenshot

The implementation of DemoSocketTerminal relies on a component called TerminalOutputMorphActor, which backs a PluggableTextField with an actor. That actor in turn accepts appendText: messages. A TerminalOutputMorphActor is the implementation of the main panel in each DemoSocketTerminal.

DemoSocketTerminal structure

In the diagram above, on the left we see ordinary Morphic structure, with a PluggableSystemWindow having five submorphs. Four of those submorphs, and the window itself, have an ActorProxyModel connected to the DemoSocketTerminal actor as their model. The remaining morph, the large output panel, has an ActorProxyModel connected to the TerminalOutputMorphActor as its model.

When connected, the DemoSocketTerminal has an associated SocketActor in its sock instance variable, which in turn has a pair of worker actors for performing blocking reading and writing actions.

The double orange lines in the diagram denote links between actors. When any actor dies, all the actors linked to it are terminated automatically.

Actors inheriting from MorphActor, as both TerminalOutputMorphActor and DemoSocketTerminal do, enjoy a postExitCleanup: method which abandons their associated morph. Hence, if the DemoSocketTerminal actor terminates, its window is automatically closed.


ActorProxyModel is a subclass of Model, part of the Morphic user interface framework.

Its purpose is to act as a model for a morph, relaying Morphic callbacks to an actor, thus reconciling the tension between Morphic models needing to be run in the UI process and Actors running in separate processes.

Instances of ActorProxyModel are normally constructed by instances of MorphActor.

The approach of using an ActorProxy (or a BlockingTransientActorProxy) as the model for a morph fails for a few reasons:

  1. an ActorProxy returns Promises for callback invocations, which Morphic is not expecting;
  2. a terminated Actor invoked via its ActorProxy yields Promise rejections and signalled BrokenPromise exceptions, which Morphic doesn’t expect; and
  3. a BlockingTransientActorProxy waits forever for a reply, which can lead to UI deadlock.

These reasons motivate the existence of ActorProxyModel. Instances of ActorProxyModel directly handle reasons 1 and 3 by way of their proxySend: method, and handle reason 2 by way of their proxyStub: method and related functionality.

Relationship between ActorProxyModel and its Actor

Every ActorProxyModel holds an ActorProxy for its actor in its proxy instance variable.

Furthermore, every ActorProxyModel installs itself as a dependent of its actor, via proxy addDependent: self. When the actor calls changed on itself, this will trigger the ActorProxyModel’s update methods.

In turn, the update: and update:with: methods on ActorProxyModel are relayed to its own changed: and changed:with: methods, relaying the change notification to the dependents of the ActorProxyModel, such as its associated morphs.

Synchronous requests to the actor

When morphic calls methods on the actor, it blocks waiting for the reply. In order to avoid some cases of UI lockup, by default ActorProxyModel makes such calls with a five-second timeout.

Stub behavior after actor termination

In some cases, it is necessary for an ActorProxyModel to respond to requests after its associated actor has terminated. Actors may install an ad-hoc dictionary of behavior by calling ActorProxyModel >> #proxyStub:. Following a call to proxyStub:, the ActorProxyModel will no longer invoke its actor, instead preferring to call blocks in the ad-hoc dictionary to respond to morphic model methods.

An example of this can be seen in senders and implementors of MorphActor >> #buildProxyStub.


MorphActor is an Actor behavior responsible for acting as a model to a Morph, mediated by the ActorProxyModel held in the model instance variable.

A MorphActor’s associated Morph(s) have model as their model. The model then delegates their requests to the MorphActor, taking care of timeouts, promises, and so forth.

Subclass MorphActor to add application-specific functionality. For example, both DemoSocketTerminal and TerminalOutputMorphActor are subclasses of MorphActor.

Subclasses should implement:

  • buildSpecWith: (mandatory), to produce a build specification for constructing their main Morph. See MorphActor >> #open for the use of buildSpecWith:.
  • customizeMorph:builtWith: (optional), to invoke methods on newly-constructed morphs that were not catered for in the pluggable-spec API.
  • buildProxyStub (optional), to provide custom behavior in case the actor terminates but morphic still needs to access the model in the moments before the view is destroyed.

The postExitCleanup: method of MorphActor destroys its main Morph when the actor terminates.