An App Group roller coaster ride
I’ve been struggling with a very random bug when using an App Group to sync data between an app and its keyboard extension. The reason turned out to be quite a nice combination of human error and Xcode being Xcode. Let’s jump on the App Group roller coaster for a fun ride - enjoy!
A client of mine is using KeyboardKit Pro to add dictation to their keyboard. Since a keyboard extension can’t access the microphone, it must open the main app and perform dictation there.
The keyboard uses a deep link to open the main app, which then starts dictation, writes the dictated text into a shared data container, then pops back to the keyboard, which sends the text to the document.
The library has tools that make this pretty complicated operation easy to manage. It’s a feature that I am quite proud over, since it solves a hard problem in an elegant and developer-friendly way.
In this app, however, the dictation feature didn’t work well at all. The keyboard would consistently open the main app, but dictation would randomly not start.
To understand this problem, let’s first take a look at how data sharing works, how the app is configured and finally how all these factors were combined into a problem that was really tricky to understand.
How to share data between an app and its extension
To share data between the app and its keyboard, you can use an
App Group and a
UserDefaults that uses that app group as
suiteName. This makes any peristed data accessible to both targets.
For this to work, the app group must be registered for both targets, and both targets must use the same app group ID as
suiteName when setting up the user defaults instance. KeyboardKit Pro has tools to do this in a reliable way, so it has never been a problem before.
The first problem I faced was that the app is a
DocumentGroup-based app. Unlike other
SwiftUI apps, the
DocumentGroup at the heart of a document app is not a view. The only view you have is the one you define for your documents, which only becomes available when you open a document.
Since KeyboardKit uses deep links to start dictation and
SwiftUI uses the
onOpenURL view modifier to handle deep links, I was in trouble. I didn’t have a view to add
onOpenURL to, and also didn’t have a view to reliably present the dictation screen from.
To solve this problem, I added a new shared property that the keyboard could use to tell the app to start dictation. It could now trigger the deep link as usual, but instead of checking the deep link, the app could now check this new flag. I tried it on a test app and it worked great.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work well in this app. It did work, but the flag was randomly not set, which meant that dictation would not start. If I restarted the app, the data was there…but not if I kept the app running and continuously checked the shared data container.
I tried adding explicit synchronization, but it didn’t fix the random problems. I also tried creating explicit user default instances, with the same result. I felt like I was missing something, which I was.
The app setup
The app in question is actually two apps - the same code is used to build an App Store facing app and an educational variant that is used by schools. To handle this, I have multiple build configurations to build debug and release builds of both apps. I also use custom settings to setup bundle ID, display name etc.
This meant that when adding this feature, I had to use two different app groups, which I define like this:
I also had to add separate deep links for the two apps:
Spoiler alert! Turns out that I made a mistake in this configuration, which in combination with an Xcode bug caused this problem in a way that was very hard to detect. Let’s take a look.
The Xcode bug
The two build variants of the app has different display names, which is configured in
However, for some reason (and for this app only), Xcode randomly resets this name to
Oribi Writer for both apps. This means that even if I run the edu app, it can be displayed as Oribi Writer. When this happens, I must reset or revert the change.
The configuration bug
As I struggled with the dictation problem, I noticed that Xcode had once again changed the display name. As I once again reset it and resumed hunting the dictation bug, I suddently noticed it.
The non-edu keyboard randomly opened the edu app, and vice versa!
Turns out that I had accidentally added both deep links to both build configurations. As such, any of the two deep link would therefore randomly open any of the two apps if both were installed on the device.
Since app groups are not shared between the apps, data that is written by one keyboard extension will only be available to that extension’s main app. So when the wrong app launched, nothing happened.
All it took to fix this was to set up a single deep link that used app-specific build configurations to define the ID and the scheme of the link:
With this single deep link, the keyboard will now always open its own main app, even when both apps are installed on the same device.
This problem has had be struggling for a few days, and I’m sooooo relieved to finally understand what caused this strange behavior. I hope you enjoyed this roller coaster ride. God knows I didn’t :)
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