[swift-evolution] Idea: delegates as protocols and property types with specialised behaviours.

Ross O'Brien narrativium+swift at gmail.com
Sun Jan 3 19:07:36 CST 2016

At the moment, the delegate pattern is just one use of protocols. We create
a protocol with a set of declared functions, implemented either in a
protocol extension or in the conforming type - the delegate - and another
type calls functions of its delegate, notifying them when certain events

I'm wondering if uses of the delegate pattern can or should be made more
explicitly readable. The form I have in mind creates a keyword 'delegate',
which is used in two contexts; one to replace 'protocol' in the declaration
of a protocol intended as a delegate, and one to declare a property of the
delegate type.

So, for example:
delegate UITableViewDataSource { }

class UITableView
    delegate dataSource : UITableViewDataSource
    delegate delegate : UITableViewDelegate

(I realise this example uses 'delegate' both as a keyword and a property
name, and would cause a lot of rewriting for types which generically refer
to their delegates with the property name 'delegate', so perhaps this isn't
the best choice of keyword, but bear with me, the idea may still have

As a term for declaring a property, 'delegate' could be synonymous with
'weak var', and the type would be implicitly a non-force-unwrapped
optional. I can't presently think of a type in Objective C or Swift which
requires a strong reference to its delegate. (It might be preferred that
the "?" remain explicit for readability).

Here are two suggestions from where delegates could benefit from being
distinct types.

First: if the delegate pattern is observational (i.e. the type with a
delegate property calls its delegate's functions as notifications), then
there can be a need for multiple observers (e.g. multiple services in an
app being notified that location services have been started).
(I've tried implementing something like this; an array of references to
observer-type delegates at the moment maintains strong references to all
delegates, so I've created a custom struct with a weak reference to the
specific protocol's type and called 'forEach' on a sequence of such
structs; if the reference is nil, the struct can be removed from the
sequence. Much as I'd like this struct to be generic, I don't think I can
create a generic struct with a protocol as the associated type.)
This might be declared with a keyword in the same way properties are
modified with lazy / weak:
multiple delegate : CLLocationManagerDelegate?

Second: the delegate pattern, if applied to a group of delegates, might not
be strictly observational, but might also respond in some way - a sequence
of delegates could be called in turn, with candidates being asked if they
can respond, returning false if they can't, true if they can.

Third: delegates could also form a stack. For example, in an NSXMLParser,
the parser's delegate can change during parsing, as types handle their
'layer' of parsing and then pass control to child or parent parser-delegate
types. This could be simplified to calling something akin to:
'parser.delegate.push(childType)' or 'parser.delegate.pop()'
This might be declared like this:
stack delegate : NSXMLParserDelegate?

I may be combining too many ideas into one proposal, or there may be more
ideas others can add. Is this worthy of discussion?

-- Ross O'Brien
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