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README.md

Note: Do not use, or even plan to use, this. I'm just explaining some ideas I have and giving code to back it up. I don't plan on marketing or fleshing out this repo at all.

Demo page

This is an experiment to improve two things in React:

  1. The component interface - avoid classes and embrace a more functional way of defining components with state, lifecycles, and refs
  2. State exposure - provide deeper tools to exploring state at runtime

This is born out of a lot of experience with React, and while working on a new product I desired to avoid many minor frustrations that I've experienced before. I have been using this in an existing product and while it's still early, I've been loving it.

The biggest thing I want to avoid is classes. They are verbose, error-prone, and hard to compose. Let me talk through that a little bit:

  • It's annoying to have to choose between functions and classes. I'll often start with a functional component to design it and then "upgrade" to a class to have state. Rewriting it into a class is annoying, but not a huge deal. It's still mental burden and a single interface would be nice.

  • Classes have the classic problem of having to bind functions to this. In React this happens most of the time with event callbacks. Do you do this.onChange.bind(this), or use the static method pattern of onChange = e => { ... }? The former creates a new function each render (could be bad if wanting pure props), but the latter is creating a new function instance for every single component instance (could be bad for memory). For the latter pattern, I now have another choice to make: when writing functions which style do I use?

  • I think the worst thing though is they aren't very composable. For example, let's say I have a utility function on my class:

  getVideo(id, fromUser) {
    const video = this.state.videos[id];
    return {
      video,
      fromUser,
      type: 'mp4'
    }
  }

This is fine, but then in componentWillReceiveProps I need to use this utility function because I need to process something. I can't! It's bound to the current state, but I need it to work with nextState. I could refactor it to take state in, but in a large scale I run into this all the time and end up wanting to pull out most of the code in my classes into functions (but then I have another thing to thing about: does this function belong on the class or not?)

This is what kickstarted this project; it's a new component interface that is all functions. I started with my own thing, and then drew inspiration from reason-react. What I had at first wasn't too different; the main thing I stole was the updater idea.

Component API

The entire implementation is in lively.js and you can see examples in the examples folder.

Let's start with a functional component:

function Input({ type }) {
  return <input type={type} />
}

Now let's add some state. That's where lively comes in. To "upgrade" this all we need to do wrap it with lively and tweak the function signature:

function onChange(bag, e) {
  return { value: e.target.value };
}

function getInitialState({ props }) {
  return { value: props.value || "" };
}
  
function Input({ props: { type }, state: { value }, updater }) {
  return <input type={type} value={value} onChange={updater(onChange)} />
}

export default lively(Input, { getInitialState });

To add lifecycle methods, you pass them in as the second arg to lively. Here we added a getInitialState method. In the component, we pull off the props and state separately, and add an onChange handler.

updater is a function that will take a function and turn it into a callback for that component (it is memoized so given the same args, it'll always return the same function instance which is great for prop diffing). The new function will take a "component bag" (see the onChange function) as the first arg, and any passed arguments after it. The bag consist of these props:

  • inst - The component instance (so you can have instance vars if needed)
  • props - The props
  • state - The state
  • refs - Any refs

All lifecycle methods and callbacks are given this bag. In fact, the render function itself is given this bag (so you could pull off refs or inst too). updater is only available in the render function though.

All updater methods and the componentWillReceiveProps hook update the state by simply returning new state. You never manually call setState. This is nice for several reasons: the confusing about what is the current state goes away, and we can restrict when it can be updated (can't ever call setState in componentDidUpdate).

See Input.js and Form.js in the examples folder for more examples, and see them running on the demo page.

State

My main goal is the component API, but since I'm making that I figured I would explore some ideas for exposing component state to the user.

I really like component local state for transient state. But the problem is it tends to be hidden away from the developer, and difficult to build tooling around. I believe that's why initially there was a push to everything in redux because it is nice to see what's going on.

After thinking about my use cases a lot, I implemented the following:

  • The ability to override the initial state from the outside. You would never want to do this in production, but it's super nice for documentation and other tooling. I currently have a large design system with an example page that renders all of my components in all of their states at once. Many of these components manage their own state (am I open? selected? etc) but I can override it to make a really powerful design system that I can hot reload and see changes across all states.

  • The ability to record state as it changes. Originally I want to actually host the state outside of React. But after looking into it, it would be fighting against React hard, especially Fiber, and I don't see how it could play well.

For the second feature, it turned out OK that I don't host my own state because I can't think of any real-world use case where I need it. The ability to record it is good enough.

Note that all of this should be able to work in production mode, these are not just debugging tools. Even if some of this functionality isn't on by default in prod, I'd like to tell the user that they could turn on a "verbose" mode and send me a recording if possible.

Check out the demos. Here is the override state demo. I'm able to force the autocomplete dropdown to be open.

The rest of them involve recording. The next one (Log state) simply logs the state in the devtools as it changes over time. This is achieved by simply wrapping the subtree that I'm interested in with the Recorder component:

Recorder.js

<Recorder>
  <Input value={5} />
</Recorder>

See Recorder.js for the implementation. It uses context to provide a recordState function which lively component call when state changes. The definition of that function is recordState(inst, prevState) (you get the current state with inst.state).

Note that we are working with subtrees. You could argue that the React devtools could do all of this. Usually I'm only really interested in a small subtree though, and it's really nice to be able to scope it.

The next demo (Undo state) shows how you can implement undo functionality with this. Without the form knowing, you can enhance it with undo functionality this this:

Undo.js

function undo({ refs }) {
  refs.undo.undo();
}

// ... snip ...

<Undo ref={el => (refs.undo = el)}>
  <Form />
</Undo>
<button onClick={updater(undo)}>Undo</button>

See Undo.js for the details. I am well aware that this is probably not practical in the real-world though, too many complications. (Since we're not tracking the reconciled tree, this wouldn't actually work if the tree changes).

The last demo (View state) shows how you could display an inline object inspector to show the state and props of a subtree. See the StateViewer.js component for the implementation, and just like before, it's as easy as wrapping a subtree:

StateViewer.js

<StateViewer>
  <Form style={{ marginTop: 20 }} />
  Outside of the form: <Input name="outside" />
</StateViewer>

Last note: if you look at the components that implement state recording, that have an instance and the state. What would be really cool is if we could retroactively construct the tree that React has reconciled, and be able to generated IDs for each node that encode where they are in the tree. Then, we need a way to have this same reconciled information when setting the initial state.

The result would be that we could actually snapshot React's state, serialize it for later, and load it up. Give the same props & state, we should be able to reconstruct the exact same UI.

I have no idea if that's possible, or even if there's a strong enough use case for it. The main use case for all of the state stuff is allowing a user to send me a detailed dump of what happened when they hit an error. Anything to help with that is huge, and a simple after-the-fact recording may be good enough.