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iOS8 Day-by-Day :: Day 38 :: Handoff

Posted on 26 Nov 2014 Written by Sam Davies

Updated 9 Apr 2015: This post has been updated to Swift 1.2

This post is part of a daily series of posts introducing the most exciting new parts of iOS8 for developers – #iOS8DayByDay. To see the posts you’ve missed check out the index page, but have a read through the rest of this post first!

To enjoy each of the 39 posts all in one place, you can now also download the iOS8 Day-by-Day eBook free from our website! 


One of the key new concepts introduced at WWDC in 2014 was that of Continuity, describing the ability to seemlessly switch between devices, and continue your task. The underlying technology behind Continuity is called Handoff, and it works across both iOS and Yosemite.

Today’s article introduces the just one of the vectors through which Handoff can work – native iOS app to native iOS app. The app which accompanies the post is called MapOff and is a simple map view. When you open the app via Handoff on a different device, then the currently visible region on the first map will be transferred to the receiving device.

As ever, the code for today’s app is available on the ShinobiControls github at

iPad Map iPhone Map

Handoff Logistics

Handoff is based around user activities. These are objects which encapsulate the current state of what the user is doing, or at least enough to recreate the ‘session’ elsewhere. An activity has a type associated with it, which allows the operating system to determine whether it has an app which can resume a given activity.

Handoff works by first using bluetooth LE to discover devices in the locality that are signed in to the same iCloud account. If the current app is handoff enabled, and it can find a device that is able to resume the current activity, then the inactive device will show an icon notifying the user that they can Handoff from one device to the other.

When the user chooses to continue this activity, the sending device will transfer the activity object to the continuing device, allowing it to continue the same activity.

As a developer, you can either integrate with Handoff manually, or, if you have a document-based app, you can rely on the deep integration with UIDocument. This article will take a look at the manual approach – for further details on integration with UIDocument, take a look at the Handoff programming guide.

Preparing an App for Handoff

In order to Handoff from an app, it needs to prepare an maintain one or more NSUserActivity objects. These encapsulate what the user is currently doing, allowing it to be resumed on another device. iOS8 introduces some new features on UIResponder for handling user activities – one of which is a userActivity property. Since UIViewController is a subclass of UIResponder, you can use the new features to ease the Handoff workflow.

In MapOff, the user activity is created and configured in viewDidLoad():

let activityType = "com.shinobicontrols.MapOff.viewport"

override func viewDidLoad() {
  if userActivity?.activityType != activityType {
    userActivity = NSUserActivity(activityType: activityType)
  userActivity?.needsSave = true

A user activity object has an activityType property, which allows the system to determine whether there is an app that can continue the activity. This is a string, and should be in reverse-DNS form – as shown above.

You’ll also notice that you set the needsSave property to true. Every time the user interacts with your app, and you need to update the ‘resume instructions’, you need to repeat this. This property allows the system to lazy batch updates rather than with every user interaction. When this property is set to true, the system will periodically call updateUserActivityState() on your UIViewController subclass. This gives you an opportunity to save the state.

In MapOff, this method is used to get the currently visible range from the map, and save it into the userInfo dictionary:

override func updateUserActivityState(activity: NSUserActivity) {
  let regionData = withUnsafePointer(&mapView.region) {
NSData(bytes: $0, length: sizeof(MKCoordinateRegion)
} activity.userInfo = ["region" : regionData] }

The userInfo dictionary can use simple types such as NSString, NSNumber, NSData, NSURL etc. Since these types don’t include the MKCoordinateRegion struct, it’s necessary to pack it into an NSData object. Note that you might expect to use some kind of archiver, but MKCoordinateRegion is a pure Swift struct, so doesn’t implement the NSCoding protocol. Since it is a struct value-type (i.e. doesn’t contain references to non-value objects) it’s possible to use NSData to copy the bytes. This won’t always be the case, so be careful.

If you’ve got lots of data to transfer then the userInfo dictionary isn’t the place to do it – in fact Apple recommends that the the user activity object should be kept below 3kb. However, user activities provide functionality for setting up and consuming streams between the devices – at which point you can send whatever you wish.

As mentioned before, the needsSave property should be set to true every time the state of the UI updates. In MapOff this occurs every time the user pans or zooms the map – i.e. the region changes. Implementing the following delegate method has the desired effect:

// MARK:- MKMapViewDelegate
func mapView(mapView: MKMapView!, regionDidChangeAnimated animated: Bool) {
  userActivity?.needsSave = true

At this point, you’ve implemented everything you need to for an app to advertise that it supports Handoff, but you also need an app that the user can resume their activity on.

Resuming an Activity

When the system can see that a a device is advertising the availability of Handoff in the local area, it has to decide whether or not it has an app that can handle it. Apps can use the NSUserActivityTypes key in Info.plist to specify which activities it is capable of Handing off. This is an array of strings, and should include all the reverse-DNS activity types that you require:

User Defaults

Note that you can only Handoff between apps which are signed by the same developer.

Once you’ve done this, then when a user chooses to continue an activity, your app will be started, and two new methods on your application delegate will be called:

func application(application: UIApplication, willContinueUserActivityWithType userActivityType: String) -> Bool {
  println("Will continue \(userActivityType)")
  return true

func application(application: UIApplication, continueUserActivity userActivity: NSUserActivity, restorationHandler: ([AnyObject]!) -> Void) -> Bool {
  if let rootVC = window?.rootViewController {
  return true

The first of these, application(_:, willContinueUserActivityWithType:) notifies you that the activity is going to continue. At this stage, only the type of activity is available to you, not the activity itself. This is because it might take some time for the activity to be transferred between the two devices. At this stage you can prepare your app to continue the specified activity – which is especially useful if your app can continue a variety of different activities. This could involve loading a specific view controller, or navigating to a particular area of your app.

Once the NSUserActivity has arrived on the receiving device, the second delegate method will be called: application(_:, continueUserActivity:, restorationHandler:). At this point you can extract the userInfo dictionary from the userActivity and use the supplied information to update the UI appropriately.

The method also supplies a restorationHandler closure. This takes an array of UIResponder objects, and calls the restoreActivityState(_) method on each of them. Since MapOff is centered around a single view controller, this is what is used there.

Dropping back to the view controller, the implementation of this method is as follows:

override func restoreUserActivityState(activity: NSUserActivity) {
  if activity.activityType == "com.shinobicontrols.MapOff.viewport" {
    // Extract the data
    let regionData = activity.userInfo!["region"] as! NSData
    // Need an empty coordinate region to populate
    var region = MKCoordinateRegion(center: CLLocationCoordinate2D(latitude: 0.0, longitude: 0.0),
                                      span: MKCoordinateSpan(latitudeDelta: 0.0, longitudeDelta: 0.0))
    regionData.getBytes(&region, length: sizeof(MKCoordinateRegion))
    mapView.setRegion(region, animated: true)

This implementation checks that it is responding to the correct activity type, before extracting the data from the userInfo dictionary. Note once again that this process is a little more complex than you might be expecting, since MKCoordinateRegion doesn’t implement NSCoder. Once the region has been extracted, the map view is updated to show the same region.

Starting with the following view on an iPad:

iPad Map

Since MapOff doesn’t have a nice icon, the generic icon appears on the lock screen to signify that Handoff is available. Dragging this up will invoke the Handoff:

Handoff Icon Dragging Icon

This starts MapOff on the iPhone, and passes it the user activity. This causes the map to display the same range:

iPhone Map


Handoff is extremely powerful, and this article only just scratches the surface. In addition to being able to Handoff between different the same app on different iOS devices, you can also Handoff between OSX apps and iOS apps. You can even Handoff between native apps and webpages – in both directions! This means that you could visit a website on your Mac, and then Handoff to an iOS app on your iPhone – I really can’t wait for more websites to start implementing this kind of functionality.

Handoff is one of the coolest things to be introduced in iOS8. It feels to me like a window into the future of personal computing, and goes some way to solving a common problem. It’s a very “Apple” problem and solution: “Why should it matter which of my devices I’m using?”. That’s a technology problem, and this is a good step towards a solution. I’ll be really interested to see how different apps use this, and whether the integration within the OS is good enough to drive significant adoption and changes in my behavior.

The code for today’s sample project, MapOff is available in the iOS8 Day-by-Day repo on github at

Take a look and then come up with some really cool ideas for me to use :)


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