Written by Mattt Thompson on

Want to know what's coming next in Objective-C? Keep your ear to the ground.

Objective-C is a rapidly evolving language, in a way that you just don't see in established programming languages. ARC, object literals, subscripting, blocks: in the span of just three years, so much of how we program in Objective-C has been changed (for the better).

All of this innovation is a result of Apple's philosophy of vertical integration. Just as Apple's investment in designing its own chipsets gave them leverage to compete aggressively with their mobile hardware, so too has their investment in LLVM allowed their software to keep pace.

Clang developments range from the mundane to paradigm-changing, but telling the difference takes practice. Because we're talking about low-level language features, it's difficult to understand what implications they may have higher up with API design.

One such example is instancetype, the subject of this week's article.

In Objective-C, conventions aren't just a matter of coding best-practices, they are implicit instructions to the compiler.

For example, alloc and init both have return types of id, yet in Xcode, the compiler makes all of the correct type checks. How is this possible?

In Cocoa, there is a convention that methods with names like alloc, or init always return objects that are an instance of the receiver class. These methods are said to have a related result type.

Class constructor methods, although they similarly return id, don't get the same type-checking benefit, because they don't follow that naming convention.

You can try this out for yourself:

[[[NSArray alloc] init] mediaPlaybackAllowsAirPlay]; // ❗ "No visible @interface for `NSArray` declares the selector `mediaPlaybackAllowsAirPlay`"

[[NSArray array] mediaPlaybackAllowsAirPlay]; // (No error)

Because alloc and init follow the naming convention for being a related result type, the correct type check against NSArray is performed. However, the equivalent class constructor array does not follow that convention, and is interpreted as id.

id is useful for opting-out of type safety, but losing it when you do want it sucks.

The alternative, of explicitly declaring the return type ((NSArray *) in the previous example) is a slight improvement, but is annoying to write, and doesn't play nicely with subclasses.

This is where the compiler steps in to resolve this timeless edge case to the Objective-C type system:

instancetype is a contextual keyword that can be used as a result type to signal that a method returns a related result type. For example:

@interface Person
+ (instancetype)personWithName:(NSString *)name;

instancetype, unlike id, can only be used as the result type in a method declaration.

With instancetype, the compiler will correctly infer that the result of +personWithName: is an instance of a Person.

Look for class constructors in Foundation to start using instancetype in the near future. New APIs, such as UICollectionViewLayoutAttributes are using instancetype already.

Further Implications

Language features are particularly interesting because, again, it's often unclear of what impact they'll have on higher-level aspects of software design.

While instancetype may seem to be a rather mundane, albeit welcome addition to the compiler, it can be used to some rather clever ends.

Jonathan Sterling wrote this quite interesting article, detailing how instancetype could be used to encode statically-typed collections, without generics:

NSURL <MapCollection> *sites = (id)[NSURL mapCollection];
[sites put:[NSURL URLWithString:@""]
[sites put:[NSURL URLWithString:@""]

NSURL *jonsSite = [sites at:@"jon"]; // =>

Statically-typed collections would make APIs more expressive--no longer would a developer be unsure about what kinds of objects are allowed in a collection parameter.

Whether or not this becomes an accepted convention in Objective-C, it's fascinating to how a low-level feature like instancetype can be used to change shape of the language (in this case, making it look more like C#.

instancetype is just one of the many language extensions to Objective-C, with more being added with each new release.

Know it, love it.

And take it as an example of how paying attention to the low-level details can give you insights into powerful new ways to transform Objective-C.

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