inessential by Brent Simmons

Secret Projects Diary #2: Swift 2.0 Protocols

Let’s say I’m writing an RSS reader. (This is the example I tend to use on my blog, for historical reasons, and shouldn’t be taken as indicative of anything.)

Let’s say the RSS reader can have a mix of stand-alone feeds and feeds that are synced with FeedBin, Feedly, NewsBlur, etc. I might very well do this:

  • Create a Feed protocol.
  • Create classes for each different type of feed: LocalFeed, FeedBinFeed, FeedlyFeed, etc. Each one of these conforms to the Feed protocol.

(Why? Because each syncing system is different, and rather than have a giant Feed class that can handle all the different types, it’s smarter to have a Feed protocol and then specific implementations for each different type of feed.)

RSS readers tend to have folders too. But folders may have different rules, depending on the system: folders inside folders may or may not be allowed, for instance. So, similarly, I might do this:

  • Create a Folder protocol.
  • Create classes for each different type of folder: LocalFolder, FeedBinFolder, FeedlyFolder, etc. Each one of these conforms to the Folder protocol.

The Folder protocol includes the following:

var feeds: [Feed] {get}
func addFeeds(feedsToAdd: [Feed])

Now, in a concrete implementation of addFeeds, I want to check that each feed isn’t already contained in the folder.

func addFeeds(feedsToAdd: [Feed]) {
  for oneFeed in feedsToAdd
    if !feeds.contains(oneFeed) {
      feeds += [oneFeed]

But I can’t: I get Cannot invoke 'contains' with an argument list of type '(Feed)'.

Okay, I think — let’s just use a Set anyway. Probably should have been a Set all along.

So I change the Folder protocol to make feeds a set:

var feeds: Set<Feed> {get}

And on that line I get an error: Type 'Feed' does not conform to protocol 'Hashable'.

So I try to make the Feed protocol Equatable, and I can’t. (And it has to be Equatable to be Hashable.)

* * *

I believe in protocol-based programming. Big, big fan. But it’s here where I get frustrated.

It occurs to me that I’m still new to Swift, and I’m trying to use Objective-C patterns. That’s fair and true.

The Objective-C version of all of this is pretty natural, though. Given Feed and Folder protocols, I can do this:

- (void)addFeeds:(NSArray \*feedsToAdd) {
  NSMutableArray \*feedsArray = [self.feeds mutableCopy];
  for (id<Feed> oneFeed in feedsToAdd) {
    if (![feedsArray containsObject:oneFeed]) {
      [feedsArray addObject:oneFeed];
  self.feeds = [feedsArray copy];

(A version where self.feeds is an NSSet is even simpler.)

It occurs to me that there probably is an answer in Swift. But it probably means more code. Objective-C syntax may be more verbose, but the fact that I can treat id<Feed> as an object without having to stand on my head is important because, again, I’m a huge fan of protocol-based programming. (And I’m a huge fan of less code.)

Let’s just say that I’m doing it wrong. What’s the right way to do this?

* * *


“Brent — if you love Objective-C so much, why don’t you marry it?”

Here’s the deal: I’m 47 years old, and if I start ignoring new things, I’ll fall behind and won’t be able to catch up. When you’re 30 or even 40 you can safely ignore things for a while and catch up later. Later on it’s harder and time is shorter. So I’m learning Swift.

And, by the way, I’m enjoying it. There’s so much to love. But sometimes I hit roadblocks and Swift’s type system feels like a straightjacket — and then I miss the elegance of my beloved Smalltalk-derived Objective-C.

* * *

Update 11:25 am: I created a playground showing my conundrum: (May require Xcode 7 beta.)