Apple Push Notification Device Tokens

In law, the latin phrase stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”) is often used to refer to the doctrine of precedent — the idea that, when deciding a case, a court should look to previous decisions made for cases with similar facts and scenarios. This principle serves as a foundation of the American legal system, and the English common law from which it derives.

For example, consider Apple v. Pepper, which was argued before the Supreme Court of the United States in its most recent session and sought to settle the following question:

If Apple and its App Store constitute a monopoly, can consumers sue Apple for offering apps at higher-than-competitive prices, even when the prices are set by third-party developers?

In its decision, the Court relied on precedent set in 1977 by a case known as Illinois Brick, which itself affirmed a ruling made a decade earlier in a case called Hanover Shoe. On its face, iPhones in 2010’s would seem to have little to do with bricks from the 1970’s (aside from the obvious connotation), but within the context of United States antitrust law, the connection between the two was inescapable.

Adherence to precedence confers inertia in the decision-making process. It promotes stability throughout the legal system and the institutions that rely on a consistent application of laws.

However, like inertia, precedence can also be overcome with sufficiently compelling reasons; we are bound by the past only insofar as to give it due consideration.

Bearing all of that in mind, let’s smash cut to our subject for this week’s brief: Apple Push Notification Device Tokens — and in particular, a single change in iOS 13 that may incidentally break push notifications for thousands of apps.

A Push Notifications Primer

Push notifications allow apps to communicate with users in response to remote events when they aren’t currently in use.

Unlike SMS or email, which allows a sender to communicate with a recipient directly using a unique identifier (a phone number and email address, respectively), communication between the app’s remote server and the user’s local device are facilitated by the Apple Push Notification service (APNs).

Here’s how that works:

The deviceToken parameter in the app delegate method is an opaque Data value — kind of like a really long unique phone number or email address — that the app’s push notification provider uses to route notifications through APNs to reach this particular installation of the app.

In principle, representing this parameter as a Data value makes a lot of sense — the value itself is meaningless. However, in practice, this API design decision has been the source of untold amounts of heartache.

The Enduring Challenges of Sending Device Tokens Back to the Server

When the app delegate receives its deviceToken, that’s not the end of the story. In order for its to be used to send push notifications, it needs to be sent from the client to the server.

The question is, “How”?

Before you jump to a particular answer, consider the historical context of iOS 3 (circa 2009), when push notifications were first introduced:

“Back in My Day…“

You could create an NSURLRequest object, set its httpBody property to the deviceToken, and send it using NSURLConnection, but you’d probably also want to include some additional information — like a username or email address — to associate it with an account in the app. That meant that the data you set as a request’s HTTP body couldn’t just be the device token.

Sending an HTTP POST body withapplication/x-www-form-urlencoded (e.g. username=jappleseed&deviceToken=____) is one possibility for encoding multiple fields into a single payload, but then the question becomes, “How do you encode binary data into text?”

Base64 is a great binary-to-text encoding strategy, but NSData -base64EncodedStringWithOptions: wouldn’t be available until iOS 7, four years after push notifications were first introduced in iOS 3. Without CocoaPods or a strong open-source ecosystem to fill in the gaps, you were left to follow blog posts describing how to roll your own implementation, hoping that things would work as advertised.

Given the complexity in using Base64 encoding on iOS < 7, most developers instead opted to take advantage of what they saw as an easier, built-in alternative:

NSData, in its Own Words

Developers, in an attempt to understand what exactly this deviceToken parameter was, would most likely have passed it into an NSLog statement:

NSLog(@"%@", deviceToken);
// Prints "<965b251c 6cb1926d e3cb366f dfb16ddd e6b9086a 8a3cac9e 5f857679 376eab7C>"

Unfortunately, for developers less versed in matters of data and encoding, this output from NSLog may have led them astray:
“Oh wow, so deviceToken is actually a string! (I wonder why Apple was making this so difficult in the first place). But no matter — I can take it from here.”

// ⚠️ Warning: Don't do this
NSString *token = [[[[deviceToken description]
                    stringByReplacingOccurrencesOfString:@" " withString:@""]
                    stringByReplacingOccurrencesOfString:@"<" withString:@""]
                    stringByReplacingOccurrencesOfString:@">" withString:@""];

It’s unclear whether push notification service providers spurred this practice by requiring Base16 / hexadecimal representations from the beginning, or if they adopted it in response to how folks were already accustomed to doing it, but either way, the practice stuck. And for nearly a decade, this was how a significant percentage of apps were handling push notification device token registration.

That was until Swift 3 and iOS 10.

Relitigating the Past with Swift 3

By 2016, Swift had stabilized and matured to the point that most if not many developers were choosing to write new apps in Swift, or at least write all new code in Swift for existing apps.

For those who did, the transition to Swift 3 was most memorable for its painful migration from Swift 2. As part of “the grand API renaming” common Foundation types, including NSData, dropped their NS prefix in APIs, using a bridged, Swift value type in its place. For the most part, things worked as expected. But there were a few differences in behavior — largely undocumented or incidental behavior that caused a breaking change. For example, consider the following change in application(_:didRegisterForRemoteNotificationsWithDeviceToken:):

// Swift 2: deviceToken is NSData
deviceToken.description // "<965b251c 6cb1926d e3cb366f dfb16ddd e6b9086a 8a3cac9e 5f857679 376eab7C>"

// Swift 3: deviceToken is Data
deviceToken.description // "32 bytes"

However, many developers remained undeterred by what was seen as a minor annoyance, and worked around the issue by recasting to NSData and its former behavior:

// ⚠️ Warning: Don't do this
let tokenData = deviceToken as NSData
let token = "\(tokenData)".replacingOccurrences(of: " ", with: "")
                          .replacingOccurrences(of: "<", with: "")
                          .replacingOccurrences(of: ">", with: "")

Once again, doing things the wrong way managed to keep things working for another couple years.

But that’s all coming to an end with iOS 13.

Overturned in iOS 13

iOS 13 changes the format of descriptions for Foundation objects, including NSData:

// iOS 12
(deviceToken as NSData).description // "<965b251c 6cb1926d e3cb366f dfb16ddd e6b9086a 8a3cac9e 5f857679 376eab7C>"

// iOS 13
(deviceToken as NSData).description // "{length = 32, bytes = 0x965b251c 6cb1926d e3cb366f dfb16ddd ... 5f857679 376eab7c }"

Whereas previously, you could coerce NSData to spill its entire contents by converting it into a String, it now reports its length and a truncated summary of its internal bytes.

So from now on, if you need to convert your push notification registration deviceToken into a Base16-encoded / hexadecimal string representation, you should do the following:

let deviceTokenString = { String(format: "%02x", $0) }.joined()

For clarity, let’s break this down and explain each part:

  • The map method operates on each element of a sequence. Because Data is a sequence of bytes in Swift, the passed closure is evaluated for each byte in deviceToken.
  • The String(format:) initializer evaluates each byte in the data (represented by the anonymous parameter $0) using the %02x format specifier, to produce a zero-padded, 2-digit hexadecimal representation of the byte / 8-bit integer.
  • After collecting each byte representation created by the map method, joined() concatenates each element into a single string.

Was Apple irresponsible in making this particular change?
We’d argue: No, not really.

Developers shouldn’t have relied on a specific format for an object’s description.

Dumping an entire Data value’s contents becomes untenable at a certain point, and this change to a more succinct summary makes debugging larger data blobs significantly easier.

Like we said about laws at the start of this article, precedence is a form of inertia, not an immutable truth.

Stare decisis plays an important role throughout software engineering. Examples like the “Referer” [sic] header” — even the conventions we have about the direction of electricity flow — demonstrate the value of sticking to decisions, unless an opportunity arises to compel change.


Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome.

This article uses Swift version 5.1. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

Written by Mattt

Mattt (@mattt) is a writer and developer in Portland, Oregon.

Next Article

To mark last week’s release of iOS 13, we’re taking a look at some obscure (largely undocumented) APIs that you can now use in your apps.