[swift-evolution] [Pitch] Changing NSObject dispatch behavior

Brian King brianaking at gmail.com
Wed Dec 14 17:15:26 CST 2016

I wanted to follow up to a blog post I wrote about Message Dispatch in
Swift — https://www.raizlabs.com/dev/2016/12/swift-method-dispatch. I
mentioned some changes to NSObject that didn’t result in any
objections, so I thought it was time to see what the SE mailing list

I’ve read a few conversations on SE mailing list that have morphed
into abstract conversations about dynamic vs static dispatch. I want
to focus specifically on how Swift NSObject subclasses behave.

I think that there are 2 changes that will result in fewer bugs and
will not have a substantial impact on performance:

## Remove Table Dispatch from NSObject

NSObject subclasses use table dispatch for the initial class
declaration block. I think that using message dispatch for NSObject
subclasses everywhere will result in a much more consistent developer

## Block NSObject Visibility Optimizations

Swift upgrades method dispatch to final when the compiler can prove
that the method is not subclassed. I would like to see Swift be more
careful about the impact of these optimizations on message dispatch,
and consider message dispatch non-upgradable.

I thought it would help to frame this choice as a trade-off between
Swift’s goals of safe, fast, and expressive.

## Safe

Always using message dispatch for NSObject subclasses will fix a class
of runtime errors in framework features that are designed around
message passing (e.g. KVO). Arguments against using dynamic features
like this are valid, but Cocoa frameworks still use dynamic features
and the above behaviors result in actual bugs. As a bonus, this will
resolve SR-584, where a table-dispatched method that is overridden by
a message dispatch method doesn’t behave correctly.

## Fast

The above changes will result in slower dispatch in NSObject
subclasses. However, I don't think that these dispatch changes
actually have a tangible impact on performance. Most NSObject
subclasses sit on top of a lot of `objc_msgSend`, and if there is a
specific hot spot, it would still be optimizable via the final

## Expressive

Using table dispatch for NSObject without any source indication or
library documentation is not very expressive. I think it’s important
to weigh table dispatch behavior against all of the framework
documentation and developer experience that assume message dispatch.
This will also eliminate the need for a lot of `@objc` and `dynamic`
annotations that are often inconsistently applied depending on if they
are needed in the scope they are defined in (e.g. class vs extension).

If this idea shows promise, I’d be glad to formalize a Swift Evolution
Proposal and explore syntactic details. I think being able to flag a
class with `dynamic` and applying this flag to `NSObject` may be the
only syntactic change needed. However, it would be good to debate the
merit of the behavior change before the syntax.


Brian King

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