IDispatch wrapper
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IDispatch wrapper

Note: The following was written in the year 2000.

ATL, MFC, and the Visual C++ runtime library already have wrappers for IDispatch (CComDispatchDriver, COleDispatchDriver, and the _com_dispatch_... methods, respectively). However, all three of these suffer from syntax that is much more awkward than what you can write in languages such as Visual Basic and Javascript. This wrapper, CDispatchPtr lets you write code like this:

    CDispatchPtr htmldoc = ...;

    _bstr_t html = htmldoc.Get("body").Get("innerHTML");
    htmldoc.Set("title", "New Title");
        "insertAdjacentText", "afterBegin", "hello world");


All of the methods of CDispatchPtr take a first argument that specifies which member (i.e. property or method) of the IDispatch is being accessed. You can pass any one of the following three data types for this parameter:

  • A regular ANSI string, e.g. "name"
  • A UNICODE string, e.g. L"name"

Using a DISPID is most efficient, but least convenient (because you have to figure out what the DISPID is by muddling through documentation and header files). Using a UNICODE string is second-best. Using an ANSI string is least efficient. However, the efficiency difference between using a UNICODE string and an ANSI string is very small, so don't be afraid to use ANSI strings if you want to.

CDispatchPtr has the following methods:


Returns the value of the property as a _variant_t. _variant_t supports implicit casting to a number of common types, so all of the following are legal:

    long length = myDispatch.Get("length");  
    _bstr_t title = myDispatch.Get("title");  
    CDispatchPtr body = myDispatch.Get("body");  
    CDispatchPtr htmlElement = myDispatch.Get("body").Get("firstChild");

Set(property, _variant_t value)
SetRef(property, _variant_t value)

Sets the value of a property. _variant_t supports implicit casting from a number of common types, so all of the following are legal:

    myDispatch.Set("length", 3L);  
    myDispatch.Set("title", "New Title");  
    myDispatch.SetRef("body", (IDispatch*) mybody);

Invoke(method, ...)

Invokes a method and returns its value. Due to the implementation, this is not a true "varargs" function, but the implementation allows for up to 9 arguments. Examples:

    myDispatch.Invoke("insertAdjacentText", "afterBegin", "hello world");  
    long difference = myDispatch.Invoke("difference", 3L, 4L);

Set() vs. SetRef()

The difference between Set() and SetRef() is subtle and annoying. If you know Visual Basic, then the easiest way to explain it is that SetRef() is used for VB's "Set" keyword, e.g. "Set x = y", and Set() is used for regular value assignment, e.g. "x = y".

SetRef() sets the value of a property to be a reference to the passed-in value. This only makes sense if the passed-in value is of type (IDispatch*) or (IUnknown*).

In most cases, you'll just use Set().

CDispatchPtr, IDispatchPtr, and Exceptions

CDispatchPtr is a subclass of IDispatchPtr, with the Get/Set/SetRef/Invoke methods added. IDispatchPtr is _com_ptr_t templated on IDispatch.

Because of this, any place in your code where you would have used an IDispatchPtr, you can use a CDispatchPtr in its place.

You need to be aware that, since _com_ptr_t throws exceptions when errors occur, CDispatchPtr does as well. I chose to subclass IDispatchPtr instead of ATL's CComPtr because the Get() and Invoke() functions, by necessity of what they're for, can't return an error code as their return value, so they must throw exceptions to indicate errors. CComPtr does not throw exceptions, but _com_ptr_t does.

In addition to those exceptions that result from _com_ptr_t's methods being called, CDispatchPtr will also raise an exception if an IDispatch-based method or property that you try to invoke returns an error code -- e.g. because you passed invalid arguments or because the implementing object fails -- an exception (of type _com_error) will be thrown.

Because of this, you will need to use try/catch blocks in your code, just as you would if you used IDispatchPtr or any other _com_ptr_t-derived type.

_com_error has a member function called ErrorMessage() which returns the text error message for the HRESULT that caused the error, so for quickie debugging code, this is a good starting point:

        // ... your code here ...
    catch( _com_error& err )
        printf( "Error: %sn", err.ErrorMessage() );


Methods invoked via IDispatch are always somewhat slower than those invoked via direct interfaces. However, the performance difference is small enough not to be a major concern in most cases.

And in the case of accessing properties and methods of MSHTML, going through IDispatch is dramatically easier than going through direct interfaces, and thus is almost always worth the small loss in performance. For example, the Javascript expression


is a real pain to write in C++ using direct interfaces:

    IHTMLDocument2Ptr document;

Not only is that hard to read, but the hardest part is that the Microsoft documentation is usually not too good about specifying which interface each MSHTML property and method actually belongs to, so figuring out that firstChild is a member of IHTMLDOMNodePtr is laborious (usually I find it by searching through the #import-generated mshtml.tlh).

With CDispatchPtr, though, it's much easier to write, and also to read:

    CDispatchPtr document;

I ran some crude timing tests to compare C++ native calls, C++ with CDispatchPtr (and thus IDispatch), and Javascript (which also uses IDispatch). In each case, the code repeated a loop 1000 times, and inside the loop, the code did a number of Get/Set/Invoke operations on an HTML document.

Here are the results:

  • C++ with native calls: 1.45 seconds
  • C++ with CDispatchPtr: 2.33 seconds
  • Javascript: 3.74 seconds

As you can see, CDispatchPtr is about 60% slower than using native calls. That's quite a significant slowdown. However, as I mentioned, this was repeating a loop 1000 times (on my PIII 500MHz). The inner loop performed 13 Get/Set/Invoke operations, for a total of 13,000 operations. Considering that CDispatchPtr completed that in 2.33 seconds, it's clear that in most cases, the extra overhead of IDispatch is not a problem.