Unconventional iOS app extension idea: internal thumbnail generator

The arrival (along with similar features) of extensions in iOS 8, even if it does not solve all problems with the platform’s inclusiveness, represents a sea change in what is possible for third-party developers with iOS, enabling many previously unviable apps such as Transmit iOS. But, even with the ostensibly specific scenarios (document provider extensions, share extensions, etc.) app extensions are allowed to hook themselves to, I feel we have only barely begun to realize the potential of extensions. Today I would like to present a less expected problem extensions could solve: fail-safe thumbnail generation.

The problem is one we encountered back in the day when developing CineXPlayer. I describe the use case in a radar (rdar://problem/9115604), but the tl;dr version is we wanted to generate thumbnails for the videos the user loaded in the app, and were afraid of crashing at launch as a result of doing this processing (likely resulting in the user leaving a one-star “review”), so we wanted to do so in a separate process to preserve the app, but the sandbox on iOS does not allow it.

But now in iOS 8 there may be a way to use extensions to get the same result. Remember that extensions are run in their own process, separate from both the host app process and the containing app process; so the idea would be to embed an action extension for a custom type of content that in practice only our app provides, make the videos loaded in the app provided under that type to extensions, and use the ability of action extensions to send back content to the host to send back the generated thumbnail; if our code crashes while generating the thumbnail, we only lose the extension process, and the app remains fine.

This would not be ideal, of course, as the user would have to perform an explicit action on each and every file (I haven’t checked to see whether there would be sneaky ways to process all files with one extension invocation), but I think it would be worth trying if I were still working on CineXPlayer; and if after deployment Apple eventually wises up to it, well, I would answer them that it’s only up to them to provide better ways to solve this issue.