e3f387d Dec 28, 2017
@DougGregor @slavapestov @ss18 @kostiakoval @getaaron
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Class and Subtype existentials


This proposal brings more expressive power to the type system by allowing Swift to represent existentials of classes and subtypes which conform to protocols.

Mailing list discussion


Currently, the only existentials which can be represented in Swift are conformances to a set of protocols, using the & protocol composition syntax:

Protocol1 & Protocol2

On the other hand, Objective-C is capable of expressing existentials of classes and subclasses conforming to protocols with the following syntax:

id<Protocol1, Protocol2>

We propose to provide similar expressive power to Swift, which will also improve the bridging of those types from Objective-C.

Proposed solution

The proposal keeps the existing & syntax but allows one of the elements to be either AnyObject or of class type. The equivalent to the above Objective-C types would look like this:

AnyObject & Protocol1 & Protocol2
Base & Protocol

As in Objective-C, the first line is an existential of classes which conform to Protocol1 and Protocol2, and the second line is an existential of subtypes of Base which conform to Protocol.

Here are the new proposed rules for what is valid in a existential conjunction syntax:

1. An element in the protocol composition syntax can be the AnyObject keyword to enforce a class constraint:

protocol P {}
struct S : P {}
class C : P {}
class D { }
let t: AnyObject & P = S() // Compiler error: S is not of class type
let u: AnyObject & P = C() // Compiles successfully
let v: P & AnyObject = C() // Compiles successfully
let w: P & AnyObject = D() // Compiler error: class D does not conform to protocol P

2. An element in the protocol composition syntax can be a class type to enforce the existential to be a subtype of the class:

protocol P {}
struct S {}
class C {}
class D : P {}
class E : C, P {}
let u: S & P // Compiler error: S is not of class type
let v: C & P = D() // Compiler error: D is not a subtype of C
let w: C & P = E() // Compiles successfully

3. If a protocol composition contains both a class type and AnyObject, the class type supersedes the AnyObject constraint:

protocol P {}
class C {}
class D : C, P { }
let u: AnyObject & C & P = D() // Okay: D is a subclass of C and conforms to P 
let v: C & P = u               // Okay: C & P is equivalent to AnyObject & C & P
let w: AnyObject & C & P = v   // Okay: AnyObject & C & P is equivalent to C & P

4. If a protocol composition contains two class types, either the class types must be the same or one must be a subclass of the other. In the latter case, the subclass type supersedes the superclass type:

protocol P {}
class C {}
class D : C { }
class E : C { }
class F : D, P { }
let t: C & D & P = F() // Okay: F is a subclass of D and conforms to P
let u: D & P = t       // Okay: D & P is equivalent to C & D & P
let v: C & D & P = u   // Okay: C & D & P is equivalent to D & P
let w: D & E & P       // Compiler error: D is not a subclass of E or vice-versa

5. When a protocol composition type contains one or more typealiases, the validity of the type is determined by expanding the typealiases into their component protocols, class types, and AnyObject constraints, then following the rules described above:

class C {}
class D : C {}
class E {}
protocol P1 {}
protocol P2 {}
typealias TA1 = AnyObject & P1
typealias TA2 = AnyObject & P2
typealias TA3 = C & P2
typealias TA4 = D & P2
typealias TA5 = E & P2

typealias TA5 = TA1 & TA2
// Expansion: typealias TA5 = AnyObject & P1 & AnyObject & P2
// Normalization: typealias TA5 = AnyObject & P1 & P2 
// TA5 is valid

typealias TA6 = TA1 & TA3
// Expansion: typealias TA6 = AnyObject & P1 & C & P2 
// Normalization (AnyObject < C): typealias TA6 = C & P1 & P2 
// TA6 is valid

typealias TA7 = TA3 & TA4
// Expansion: typealias TA7 = C & P2 & D & P2
// Normalization (C < D): typealias TA7 = D & P2
// TA7 is valid

typealias TA8 = TA4 & TA5
// Expansion: typealias TA8 = D & P2 & E & P2
// Normalization: typealias TA8 = D & E & P2
// TA8 is invalid because the D and E constraints are incompatible

class and AnyObject

This proposal merges the concepts of class and AnyObject, which now have the same meaning: they represent an existential for classes. To get rid of the duplication, we suggest only keeping AnyObject around. To reduce source-breakage to a minimum, class could be redefined as typealias class = AnyObject and give a deprecation warning on class for the first version of Swift this proposal is implemented in. Later, class could be removed in a subsequent version of Swift.

Inheritance clauses and typealias

To improve readability and reduce confusion, a class conforming to a typealias which contains a class type constraint does not implicitly inherit the class type: inheritance should stay explicit. Here are a few examples to remind what the current rules are and to make the previous sentence clearer:

The proposal does not change the rule which forbids using the protocol composition syntax in the inheritance clause:

protocol P1 {}
protocol P2 {}
class C {}

class D : P1 & P2 {} // Compiler error
class E : C & P1 {} // Compiler error

Class D in the previous example does not inherit a base class so it can be expressed using the inheritance/conformance syntax or through a typealias:

class D : P1, P2 {} // Valid
typealias P12 = P1 & P2
class D : P12 {} // Valid

Class E above inherits a base class. The inheritance must be explicitly declared in the inheritance clause and can't be implicitly derived from a typealias:

class E : C, P1 {} // Valid
typealias CP1 = C & P1
class E : CP1 {} // Compiler error: class 'E' does not inherit from class 'C'
class E : C, CP1 {} // Valid: the inheritance is explicitly declared

Source compatibility

This change will not break Swift 3 compatibility mode because Objective-C types will continue to be imported as before. But in Swift 4 mode, all types bridged from Objective-C which use the equivalent Objective-C existential syntax could break code which does not meet the new protocol requirements. For example, the following Objective-C code:

@interface MyViewController
- (void)setup:(nonnull UIViewController<UITableViewDataSource,UITableViewDelegate>*)tableViewController;

is imported into Swift-3 mode as:

class MyViewController {
    func setup(tableViewController: UIViewController) {}

which allows calling the function with an invalid parameter:

let myViewController = MyViewController()

The previous code continues to compile but still crashs if the Objective-C code calls a method of UITableViewDataSource or UITableViewDelegate. But if this proposal is accepted and implemented as-is, the Objective-C code will be imported in Swift 4 mode as:

class MyViewController {
    func setup(tableViewController: UIViewController & UITableViewDataSource & UITableViewDelegate) {}

That would then cause the Swift code run in version 4 mode to fail to compile with an error which states that UIViewController does not conform to the UITableViewDataSource and UITableViewDelegate protocols.

Alternatives considered

An alternative solution to the class/AnyObject duplication was to keep both, redefine AnyObject as typealias AnyObject = class and favor the latter when used as a type name.

The reviewed version of the proposal included rules that required the class type (or AnyObject) to be first within the protocol composition, e.g., AnyObject & Protocol1 was well-formed but Protocol1 & AnyObject would produce a compiler error. When accepting this proposal, the core team removed these rules; see the decision notes at the top for more information.


Thanks to Austin Zheng and Matthew Johnson who brought a lot of attention to existentials in this mailing-list and from whom most of the ideas in the proposal come from.