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Allow distinguishing between public access and public overridability


Since the first release of Swift, marking a class public has provided two capabilities: it allows other modules to instantiate and use the class, and it also allows other modules to define subclasses of it. Similarly, marking a class member (a method, property, or subscript) public has provided two capabilities: it allows other modules to use the member, and it also allows those modules to override it.

This proposal suggests distinguishing these concepts. It creates a new access level open beyond public; for now, open can only be used on classes and overridable class members. A public class will only be usable by other modules, but not subclassable. An open class will be both usable and subclassable. Similarly, a public member will only be usable by other modules, but not overridable. An open member will be both usable and overridable.

This spirit of this proposal is to allow one to distinguish these cases while keeping them at the same level of support: it does not adversely affect code that is open, nor does it dissuade one from using open in their APIs. In fact, with this proposal, open APIs are syntactically lighter-weight than public ones.

Swift-evolution thread:


Swift is very concerned with the problem of designing and maintaining libraries. Library authors must take care to avoid making promises to their clients that will turn out to prevent later improvements to the library's implementation. A programming language can never fully lift this burden, of course, but it can help to limit accidental over-promises by reducing the number of implicit guarantees made by code. This has been a guiding idea throughout the Swift language design.

For example, declarations in Swift default to internal access control. This prevents other modules from relying on code that was never meant to be exposed, which would be a common error if the default were public. It also encourages library authors to think more carefully about the interface they're providing to their clients. During initial development, while (say) a method's signature is still in flux, it can be left internal without limiting the programmer's ability to use and test it. When it comes time to prepare a public interface, the explicit act of adding public to the method serves as a gentle nudge to think twice about the method's name and type. In contrast, if the method had to be made public much earlier in development just to be able to use or test it, it would be much more likely to slip through the cracks with an unsatisfactory signature.

Method overriding is a very flexible programming technique, but it poses a number of problems for library design. A subclass that overrides methods of its superclass is intricately intertwined with it. The two systems are not composed, and their behavior cannot be understood independently. For example, a programmer who changes how methods on a class delegate to each other is very likely to break subclasses that override those methods, as such subclasses can often only be written by observing the existing pattern of behavior. Within a single module, this can be tolerable, but across library boundaries it's very problematic unless the superclass has established firm rules from the beginning. It has frequently been observed that designing a class well for subclassing takes far more effort than just designing it for ordinary use, precisely because these rules of delegation do need to be carefully laid out if independently-designed subclasses are going to have any chance of working.

Moreover, while subclassing is a temptingly simple manner of allowing customization, it is also inherently limiting. Subclasses cannot be independently tested using a mocked implementation of the superclass or composed to apply the customizations of two different subclasses to a single instance. Again, within a single module, where the superclass and subclasses are co-designed, these problems are more manageable: testing both systems in conjunction is more reasonable, and the divergent customizations can be merged into a single subclass. But across library boundaries, they become major hindrances.

Swift is committed to supporting subclassing and overriding. But it makes sense to be conservative about the promises that a class interface makes merely by being public, and it makes sense to give library authors strong tools for managing the overridability of their classes, and it makes sense to encourage programmers to think more carefully about overridability when they lift it into the external interface of a library, where these problems become most apparent.

Furthermore, the things that make overriding such a powerful and flexible tool for programmers also have a noticeable, negative impact on performance. Swift is a statically (not JIT) compiled language. It is also a high-level language with a number of intrinsic features that simplify and generalize the programming model and/or improve the safety and security of programming in Swift. These features have costs, but the language has typically been carefully designed to make those costs amenable to optimization. The Swift core team believes that it is important for the success of Swift as a language that programmers not be regularly required to abandon safety or (worse) drop down to a completely different language just to meet their performance goals. That is most at risk when there are flat-line inefficiencies in simply executing code, and so we believe that it is crucial to remain vigilant against pervasive abstraction penalties. Therefore, while dynamic features will always have a place in Swift, the language must always retain some ability to statically optimize them in the default case and without explicit user intervention.

And the costs of unrestricted overriding are quite real. The vast majority of class methods are never actually overridden, which means they can be trivially devirtualized. Devirtualization is a very valuable optimization in its own right, but it is even more important as an enabling optimization that allows the compiler to reason about the behavior of the caller and callee together, permitting it to further specialize and optimize both. Making room for subclassing and overrides also requires a great deal more supporting code and metadata, which hurts binary sizes, launch times, memory usage, and just general speed of execution.

Finally, it is a goal of Swift's language and performance design that costs be "progressively disclosed". Simple code that needs fewer special guarantees should perform better and require less boilerplate. If a programmer merely wants to make a class available for public use, that should not force excess annotations and performance penalties just from the sudden possibility of public subclassing.

Proposed design

Introduce a new access modifier, open (other spellings are discussed in the Alternatives section below). As usual, this access modifier is exclusive with the other access modifiers; it is not permitted to write something like public open.

open is a context-sensitive keyword; there are no restrictions on using or creating declarations with the name open.

open is not permitted on arbitrary declarations. Only the specific declarations mentioned here may be open.

For the purposes of interpreting existing language rules, open is a higher (more permissive) access level above public.

For example, the true access level of a type member is computed as the minimum of the true access level of the type and the declared access level of the member. If the class is public but the member is open, the true access level is public. As an exception to this rule, the true access level of an open class that is a member of an public type is open.

Similarly, rules which grant access to public declarations should generally be interpreted as granting access to both public and open declarations.

open classes

A class may be declared open.

A class is invalid if its superclass is declared outside of the current module and that superclass's access level is not open.

An open class may not also be declared final.

The superclass of an open class must be open. This is consistent with the existing access rule for superclasses. It may be desirable to lift this restriction in a future proposal.

open class members

An overridable class member may be declared open. Overridable class members include properties, subscripts, and methods.

A class member that overrides a member of its superclass is invalid if the member is declared outside of the current module and that superclass member's access level is not open. (Note that dynamic members should generally be declared open rather than public, but this is not a requirement, and the compiler will enforce what is actually declared.)

A class member that is explicitly declared open may not also be explicitly declared final. This restriction applies even if the method's true access level is lower than open because of the restricted access level of its class.

The existing rules specify that a class member that overrides a member of its superclass must have an access level that is at least the minimum of its class's access level and the overridden member's access level. Therefore, if the class is open, and the superclass method is open, the override must also be declared open. As a special case, an override that would otherwise be required to be declared open may instead be declared public if it is final or a member of a final class.

An open class member that is inherited from a superclass is still considered open in the subclass unless the class is final.

Note that a class member may be explicitly declared open even if its class is not open or even public. This is consistent with the resolution of SE-0025, in which it was decided that public members should be allowed within types with lower access (but with no additional effect).

The member overridden by an open member does not itself need to be open. This is consistent with the existing access rule for members, which does not even require the overridden member to be public.

Initializers do not participate in open checking; they cannot be declared open, and there are no restrictions on providing an initializer that has the same signature as an initializer in the superclass. This is true even of required initializers. A class's initializers provide an interface for constructing instances of that class that is logically distinct from the interface of its superclass, even when signatures happen to match and there are well-understood patterns of delegation. Constructing an object of a subclass necessarily involves running code associated with that subclass, and there is no value in arbitrarily restricting what initializers the subclass may declare.

Other considerations

Objective-C classes and methods are always imported as open. This means that the synthesized header for an Objective-C class would pervasively replace public with open in its interface.

The @testable design states that tests have the extra access permissions of the modules that they import for testing. Accordingly, this proposal does not change the fact that tests are allowed to subclass non-final internal and public classes and override non-final internal and public methods from the modules that
they @testable import.

Code examples

/// ModuleA:

// This class is not subclassable outside of ModuleA.
public class NonSubclassableParentClass {
	// This method is not overridable outside of ModuleA.
	public func foo() {}

	// This method is not overridable outside of ModuleA because
	// its class restricts its access level.
	// It is not invalid to declare it as `open`.
	open func bar() {}

	// The behavior of `final` methods remains unchanged.
	public final func baz() {}

// This class is subclassable both inside and outside of ModuleA.
open class SubclassableParentClass {
	// This property is not overridable outside of ModuleA.
	public var size : Int

	// This method is not overridable outside of ModuleA.
	public func foo() {}

	// This method is overridable both inside and outside of ModuleA.
	open func bar() {}

	/// The behavior of a `final` method remains unchanged.
	public final func baz() {}

/// The behavior of `final` classes remains unchanged.
public final class FinalClass { }
/// ModuleB:

import ModuleA

// This is invalid because the superclass is defined outside
// of the current module but is not `open`.
class SubclassA : NonSubclassableParentClass { }

// This is allowed since the superclass is `open`.
class SubclassB : SubclassableParentClass {
	// This is invalid because it overrides a method that is
	// defined outside of the current module but is not `open'.
	override func foo() { }

	// This is allowed since the superclass's method is overridable.
	// It does not need to be marked `open` because it is defined on
	// an `internal` class.
	override func bar() { }

open class SubclassC : SubclassableParentClass {
	// This is invalid because it overrides an `open` method within
	// an `open` class but is not declared `open`.
	override func bar() { }	

open class SubclassD : SubclassableParentClass {
	// This is valid.
	open override func bar() { }	

open class SubclassE : SubclassableParentClass {
	// This is also valid.
	public final override func bar() { }	


An earlier version of this proposal did not make open default to public. That is, you would have to write public open to get the same effect. This would have the benefit of not confusingly conflating open with access control, but it has the very large drawback of making public open significantly less syntactically privileged than public. This raises questions about "defaults" and so on that aren't really our intent to raise. Instead, we want to promote the idea that open and public are alternatives. Therefore, while the current proposal is still "opinionated" in the sense that it gently encourages the use of public by making it more consistent with other language features, it no longer makes open feel second-class by forcing more boilerplate. This is consistent with how we've expressed our opinions on, say, let vs. var: it's an extremely casual difference with only occasional enforced use of the former.

open could be legal only on class members. Classes would remain subclassable outside of the current module unless explicitly made final. This would prevent the creation of "sealed" class hierarchies because allowing subclassing would always allow public subclassing. It is also inconsistent with the general principle that restrictions on future evolution be opt-in because it would not be legal to make a class final. (Note that it is not legal to make a final class non-final in a future release.) It also has grave conceptual problems with inherited open members of the superclass.

open on classes could be interpreted as granting the right to override members. A public class would be subclassable, but none of its members would be overridable, including inherited members. That is, a public class could be used as a compositional superclass, useful for adding new storage to an existing identity but not for messing with its invariants. This would prevent the creation of sealed hierarchies and is inconsistent with the general principle that restrictions on future evolution should be opt-in. Authors would have no ability to reserve the right to decide later whether to allow subclasses; declaring something final is irrevocable. This could be added in a future extension, but it is not the right rule for public.

open could be split into different modifiers for classes and methods. An earlier version of this proposal used subclassable and overridable. These keywords are self-explanatory but visually heavyweight. They also imply too much: it seems odd that a non-subclassable class can be subclassed from inside a module, but we are not proposing to make classes and methods final by default.

Classes and methods could be inferred as final by default. This would avoid using different default rules inside and outside of the defining module. However, it is analogous to Swift defaulting to private instead of internal. It penalizes code that's only being used inside an application or library by forcing the developer to micromanage access. The cost of getting something wrong within a module is very low, since it is easy to fix all of the clients.

Inherited methods could be made non-open by default. This would arguably be more consistent with the principle of carefully considering the overridable interface of a class, but it would create an enormous annotation and maintenance burden by forcing the entire overridable interface to be restated at every level in the class hierarchy.

Overrides could be made non-open by default. However, it would be very difficult to justify this given that inherited methods stay open. Because open now implies public, the burden of asking the user to explicit about final vs. open now seems completely reasonable.

Other proposals that have been considered:

  • public(open), which seems visually cluttered

  • public extensible, which is somewhat heavyweight and invites confusion within extension

We may want to reconsider the need for final in the light of this change.

Impact on existing code

This would be a backwards-breaking change for all classes and methods that are public and non-final, which code outside of their module has overridden. Those classes/methods would fail to compile. Their superclass would need to be changed to open.

It is likely that we will want the migrator to convert existing code to use open for classes and methods.

Related work

The fragile modifier in the Swift 4 resilience design is very similar to this, and will follow the precedent set by these keywords.

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