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Objective-C

Objective-C is a relatively unknown programming language. Only recently, with the iPhone apps programming boom, it has managed to become more popular. The name itself induces some curiosity, subtly suggesting that there's some Object Oriented Programming involved, with some C here and there. A clever pun, intended.

But ingenuity is to be found also beyond the name. The language itself is a mixture of Smalltalk's dynamism and the immense power and simplicity of C, two of the most influential programming languages in the history of computing, and that at first sight appear to be incompatible, but somehow Objective-C manages to take the best of both worlds, with great success.

After a brief hobby incursion into the world of iPhone apps programming, I can say that this language surpassed my expectations. In this article I pretend to give a few reasons about why I think this way.

Dynamism

Although it might not appear so after a first look at it, Objective-C is a highly dynamic language.

For starters, this language bases most of his OOP philosophy on the concept of message passing between objects. There's a subtle but important difference between this approach and the classic concept of method invocation. Granted, the difference may appear more philosophical than practical, but it ends up changing the mindset of programmers on either sides.

The important thing here is that this feature provides a level of dynamism not common in compiled (non-interpreted) languages, and allows the use of more liberal varieties of polymorphism, such as the well known Duck typing. In contrast, languages like C++, or even some more dynamic, like Java and C#, are more restrictive, only allowing this kind of dynamic method binding within the same inheritance chain.

Other features that contribute to the dynamism of Objective-C are:

  • Classes are objects too, instances of the meta-type Class. This is a feature borrowed directly from Smalltalk, and also shared with other modern languages like Ruby. It opens a whole series of possibilities within the realm of meta-programming, such as dynamically creating new methods and classes, at runtime.
  • Type introspection and Reflection, which stems from the previous point.
  • Code blocks, a feature similar to that of Ruby, allowing to use chunks of executable code as data, values that can be passed around, kept in variables, etc. This is a relatively new feature, which becomes evident in the language runtime libraries, that make little use of it, as they were not designed with this feature in mind.

Declared properties

Objective-C provides a simple mechanism for declaring the properties or attributes that define and describe on object's state, while at the same time provides automatic implementation of the getters and setters that control access to these attributes. In essence, all instance variables are private to the object, and their values can only be exposed via the object's properties and methods.

A property declaration includes a series of characteristics that influence the behavior and implementation of the generated getters and setters. These include, for instance, controlling if assignment to the property works by copy or by reference, if the property is read-only, or thread-safe, etc.

@interface XYPerson : NSObject {
  NSString *name;  // private instance variable
}

// A property exposing the instance variable
@property (copy) NSString *name;

// ...
NSString *name = somePerson.name;
somePerson.name = @"John Doe";

This language feature is aimed directly at embracing the encapsulation principle, one of the cornerstones of Object Oriented Programming, which states that every object must control the way in which other objects access its internal state.

Properties also play a big role in some of the core features of the runtime library, such as KVC, KVO, etc.

Protocols

A protocol defines a contract that classes can conform to. They consist of a set of methods that classes adhering to the protocol should implement. The protocol defines no implementation at all, only the signatures of the methods expected to be implemented by the classes conforming to the protocol.

@protocol XYEnumerator
- (bool)hasNext;
- (id)next;
@end

// A class conforming to the above protocol
@interface XYArrayEnumerator : NSObject <XYEnumerator>
// ...
@end

// Class implementation must include the methods of the protocol
@implementation XYArrayEnumerator
- (bool) hasNext { /* ... */ }
- (id) next { /* ... */ }
@end

If you're familiar with Java or C#, you should have realized by now that protocols are equivalent to the concept of interfaces in these two languages. In fact, Objective-C protocols inspired Java's interfaces, which in turn influenced the C# language several years later.

Categories

Categories allows you to re-open a class definition, and add new methods or re-define existing ones. This can even be done with classes from the runtime library, or classes with no source code available. A feature like this is only possible when a language's runtime is highly dynamic, so this reinforces the case made before, about the dynamic nature of Objective-C.

OOP purists tend to be against including this kind of features in a language (see SOLID and Open/Closed Principle), but as an enthusiast of dynamic languages, I tend to think that the advantages can be greater than the potential problems that could arise, if the feature is used wisely. Granted, it is a controversial feature, and it can be easily abused. Generally, when this happens, it is sign that the system of classes being worked on is not well designed.

However, if used wisely and not more than necessary, it can become the key of an elegant and concise design. A living proof is Ruby on Rails, a library that would not exist in its present form if it were not for the fact that the Ruby language has this feature too.

A more mundane but valid use for categories is to split the implementation of a class into separate source files, be it for organizational purposes, or because the class interface and implementation are too extensive, and splitting it up into logical chunks, makes it easier to understand and maintain.

Compatibility with C

Unlike C++, Objective-C is a proper superset of C, meaning that every valid C program or file is also valid Objective-C code. There's no guideline of what to do and what not do when using C code in Objective-C. The most evident advantage is that Objective-C programs can use any existing C library, without the need for any modifications or wrappers.

This is where the power of the Smalltalk/C combination shines. You get a language that is almost as dynamic as it gets, combined with another language commonly used to develop powerful low-level stuff, like operating system kernels, database engines, and many other building blocks of modern computing systems. You get the best of two worlds.

Conclusions

Objective-C, as any other language, is far from being perfect, and it certainly has some weirdness, like its syntax in some cases. Also, the object initialization process is a bit too complex and error-prone for my taste.

My perception of it has changed over time though. When I first started to use it, it appeared to be cumbersome and bizarre. But sooner rather than later you start to appreciate its qualities, accept its limitations, the unconventional syntax, and eventually you end up enjoying working with it, specially if you have a background working with modern dynamic languages.