Value​Transformer

Of all the Foundation classes, ValueTransformer is perhaps the one that fared the worst in the shift from macOS to iOS.

Why? Here are two reasons:

First, ValueTransformer was used primarily in AppKit with Cocoa bindings. There, they could automatically transform values from one property to another, like for negating a boolean or checking whether a value was nil, without the need of intermediary glue code. iOS, of course, doesn’t have bindings.

The second reason has less to do with iOS than the Objective-C runtime itself. With the introduction of blocks, it got a whole lot easier to pass behavior between objects — significantly easier than, say ValueTransformer or NSInvocation. So even if iOS were to get bindings tomorrow, it’s unclear whether ValueTransformer would play a significant role this time around.

But you know what? ValueTransformer might just be ripe for a comeback. With a little bit of re-tooling and some recontextualization, this blast from the past could be the next big thing in your application.


ValueTransformer is an abstract class that transforms one value into another. A transformation specifies what kinds of input values can be handled and whether it supports reversible transformations.

A typical implementation looks something like this:

class ClassNameTransformer: ValueTransformer {
    override class func transformedValueClass() -> AnyClass {
        return NSString.self
    }

    override class func allowsReverseTransformation() -> Bool {
        return false
    }

    override func transformedValue(_ value: Any?) -> Any? {
        guard let type = value as? AnyClass else { return nil }
        return NSStringFromClass(type)
    }
}
@interface ClassNameTransformer: NSValueTransformer {}
@end

#pragma mark -

@implementation ClassNameTransformer
+ (Class)transformedValueClass {
  return [NSString class];
}

+ (BOOL)allowsReverseTransformation {
    return NO;
}

- (id)transformedValue:(id)value {
    return (value == nil) ? nil : NSStringFromClass([value class]);
}
@end

ValueTransformer is rarely initialized directly. Instead, it follows a pattern familiar to fans of NSPersistentStore or NSURLProtocol, where a class is registered and instances are created from a manager — except in this case, you register a named instance to act as a singleton:

extension ClassNameTransformer {
    static let name = NSValueTransformerName(rawValue: "ClassNameTransformer")
}

// Set the value transformer
ValueTransformer.setValueTransformer(ClassNameTransformer(),
                                     forName: ClassNameTransformer.name)

// Get the value transformer
let valueTransformer = ValueTransformer(forName: ClassNameTransformer.name)
NSValueTransformerName const ClassNameTransformerName = @"ClassNameTransformer";

// Set the value transformer
[NSValueTransformer setValueTransformer:[[ClassNameTransformer alloc] init] forName:ClassNameTransformerName];

// Get the value transformer
NSValueTransformer *valueTransformer = [NSValueTransformer valueTransformerForName:ClassNameTransformerName];

A common pattern is to register the singleton instance in the +initialize method of the value transformer subclass so it can be used without additional setup.

Now at this point you probably realize ValueTransformer’s fatal flaw: it’s super annoying to set up! Create a class, implement a handful of simple methods, define a constant, and register it in an +initialize method? No thanks.

In this age of blocks, we want — nay, demand — a way to declare functionality in one (albeit gigantic) line of code.

Nothing a little metaprogramming can’t fix. Behold:

let TKCapitalizedStringTransformerName =
    NSValueTransformerName(rawValue: "TKCapitalizedStringTransformerName")

ValueTransformer.registerValueTransformerWithName(TKCapitalizedStringTransformerName,
    transformedValueClass:NSString.self) { object in
        guard let string = object as? String else { return nil }
        return string.capitalized
}
NSValueTransformerName const TKCapitalizedStringTransformerName = @"TKCapitalizedStringTransformerName";

[NSValueTransformer registerValueTransformerWithName:TKCapitalizedStringTransformerName
           transformedValueClass:[NSString class]
returningTransformedValueWithBlock:^id(id value) {
  return [value capitalizedString];
}];

Now with a fresh new look, we can start to get a better understanding of how we might take advantage of ValueTransformer:

Making Business Logic More Functional

ValueTransformer objects are a great way to represent an ordered chain of fixed transformations. For instance, an app interfacing with a legacy system might transform user input through a succession of string transformations (trim whitespace, remove diacritics, and then capitalize letters) before sending it off to the mainframe.

Thinking Forwards and Backwards

Unlike blocks, value transformers have the concept of reversibility, which enables some interesting use cases.

Say you were wanted to map keys from a REST API representation into a model. You could create a reversible transformation that converted snake_case to llamaCase when initializing, and llamaCase to snake_case when serializing back to the server.

Configuring Functionality

Another advantage over blocks is that ValueTransformer subclasses can expose new properties that can be used to configure behavior in a particular way. Access to properties also provides a clean way to cache or memoize results and do any necessary book-keeping along the way.

Transforming Your Core Data Stack

Lest we forget, ValueTransformer can be used alongside Core Data to encode and decode compound data types from blob fields. It seems to have fallen out of fashion over the years, but serializing simple collections in this way can be a winning strategy for difficult-to-model data. (Just don’t use this approach to serialize images or other binary data; use external storage instead)


ValueTransformer, far from a vestige of AppKit, remains Foundation’s purest connection to functional programming: input goes in, output comes out.

While it’s true that Objective-C blocks and all of the advanced language features in Swift are superior examples of the functional programming paradigm. ValueTransformer has a special place in Cocoa’s history and Xcode’s tooling. For that reason, object orientation is transformed from an embarrassing liability to its greatest asset.

And though it hasn’t aged very well on its own, a little modernization restores ValueTransformer to that highest esteem of NSHipsterdom: a solution that we didn’t know we needed but was there all along.

NSMutableHipster

Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome — NSHipster is made better by readers like you.

This article uses Swift version 4.2 and was last reviewed on October 17, 2018. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

November 12th, 2012

First Publication

October 17th, 2018

Updated for Swift 4.2

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A skilled Objective-C developer is able to gracefully switch between Objective and Procedural paradigms, and use each to their own advantage.