A Story of Implementing Aspect-Oriented Programming in Objective-C and Swift

Case Study: Intervening UIScrollView Instances's Pan Gesture Recognizer

As we known, UIScrollView translates pan gesture signals into scrollViewDidXXX: messages and sends to its delegate, most of the time you only have to understand the relationships between the pan gesture signals and the scrollViewDidXXX: messages and then listen to these signals in the delegate. But what if you want to intervene the pan gesture recognizer's work? I mean, to intervene the handling of pan gesture's recognition.

Here, if we don't modify the internal mechanism of UIScrollView, we have to make a subclass.

UIScrollView's pan gesture recognizer solidates its delegate to be the owning UIScrollView instance itself. If you set its delegate to another "man in-the-middle", you would get a runtime exception. Most people would come up with subclassing here, but what if you are expecting this modification may affect some instances of subclasses inherited to UIScrollView at some point?

In object-oriented programming paradigm, modifying the internal mechanism of an existed class is not encouraged. Since object-oriented programming builds upon continuously making is-a assertions -- what a class do make the reason why this class is the class itself, then one of the core concepts of object-oriented programming is to extend but not modify. Modifying the internal mechanism of an existed class just breaks the paradigm. If you modified it, the is-a assertion torn down and the foundation of software architecture swinged.

So, don't be cult of whatever-oriented programming forever. This time you need aspect-oriented programming. With it, you don't have to create a new class from UIView but also can achieve the goal of intervening the pan gesture recognizer's work and this intervention can affect the subclasses inherited to UIScrollView.

Aspect-Oriented Programming Introduction

Aspect-oriented programming probably is one of those terms which are explained the most over-complicated in the programming world.

The most similar thing compared to aspect-oriented programming I think is plant grafting.

Plant grafting means to fix a shoot or twig to a slit of the trunk or stem of a living plant, such that the shoot or twig can receive sap from the living plant and continue to grow up.

Plant Grafting
Plant Grafting

Aspect-oriented programming is quite like plant grafting.

Plant Grafting v.s. AOP
Plant Grafting v.s. AOP

As the above figure shown, aspect-oriented programming concerns about three things:

  • The added code
  • The aspect
  • The manipulated object

We can take the added code in aspect-oriented programming as twig in plant grafting, the aspect as the slit and the manipulated object as the living plant. Then aspect-oriented programming is to fix these three things together.

Existed Aspect-Oriented Programming in Objective-C and Swift

There is a misunderstanding about aspect-oriented programming in Objective-C: aspect-oriented programming is not officially supported by Apple.

No.

Key-Value Observation is just an ad-hoc aspect-oriented programming framework in Objective-C and is an official feature shipped by Apple. We can plug Key-Value Observation in previous plant grafting model:

  • The property changes event triggers of a key-value observed object's are the twig (new code).

  • An observable property is the slit (aspect).

  • A key-value observed object is the living plant (manipulated object).

Thus we can know that Key-Value Observation is of aspect-oriented programming, but its "aspect" is "ad-hoc" and what Apple don't officially support is a "general" aspect support to aspect-oriented programming.

Aspect-oriented programming in Swift is complicated. With the legacy of Objective-C, Swift supports Key-Value Observation by default. But since dispatches of function calls can be potentially resolved at compile time and are written to the compiled products, and Key-Value Observation generates code at run-time, the compiled products may always not know how to call those run-time generated code and you need to markup your observed properties with @objc attribute, which enforces the compiler to generate codes to resolve the dispatch of the function at run-time.

Like Objective-C, there is no "general" aspect support in aspect-oriented programming in Swift.

Well done. Apple made a good framework then we enjoy it and you still cannot be managed to intervene the pan gesture recognizer of UIScrollView -- is that the story's end?

Nope.

Implementing General Aspect Supported Aspect-Oriented Programming

A Naïve Approach

The simplest way to modify the behavior of a class instance in Objective-C without subclassing is method swizzling. There are a lot of materials talked about doing method swizzling in Objective-C or Swift, thus I don't want to repeat it here again. I want to talk about the disadvantages of this approach.

Firstly, method swizzling are done to classes. If we swizzled UIScrollView, then all the instances of UIScrollView and its descendants get the same behavior.

Then, even we are doing aspect-oriented programming, we don't mean to abandon making is-a assertions, which is the key step to draw the boundary of components' responsibilities and a corner stone of whatever-oriented programming. Method swizzling is an anonymous approach of modification which bypasses "making is-a assertions". This kind of modification is likely to swing the foundation of software architecture and hard to spot and trace.

Moreover, since Swift doesn't support overload class func load() method of Objective-C bridged classes, many posts suggest you to put the method swizzling code in class func initialize() instead. For there is only one class func initialize() overload would be called for a class in a module at app's launch time, then you have to put all the method swizzling code of a class in one file -- or you would not know which class func initialize() is called at launch time on earth, it might turn out to be very tedious to manage the method swizzling code.

A Sophisticated Approach

By giving a glimpse to the official supported aspect-oriented programming framework -- Key-Value Observation, we can spot that it totally don't have the disadvantages I talked above. How did Apple achieve this?

In fact, Apple implemented this aspect-oriented programming technique with a technique called is-a swizzling.

Is-a swizzling is quite simple, even reflect on the code -- set an object's is-a pointer to another class'.

Objective-C
Foo * foo = [[Foo alloc] init];
object_setClass(foo, [Bar class]);

And Key-Value Observation is just to create a subclass which inherited to the observed object's class, then set the observed object's is-a pointer to the is-a pointer of the newly created class. The whole progress can be illustrated in following code:

Objective-C
@interface Foo: NSObject
// ...
@end
@interface NSKVONotifying_Foo: Foo
// ...
@end
NSKVONotifying_Foo * foo = [[NSKVONotifying_Foo alloc] init];
object_setClass(foo, [NSKVONotifying_Foo class]);

Since Apple have handed out a sophisticated solution about an "ad-hoc" aspect-oriented programming, creating a subclass of the class of an object and then setting its is-a pointer to the object's might work. But when doing system design, the most important problem is: why may it work?

An Analysis to KVO's design

Open Swift Playground and typing following code:

swift 4.2
import Cocoa
class Foo: NSObject {
@objc var intValue: Int = 0
}
class Observer: NSObject { }
let foo = Foo()
let observer = Observer()
// We need to use `object_getClass` to check the real is-a pointer.
print(NSStringFromClass(object_getClass(foo)!))
print(NSStringFromClass(object_getClass(observer)!))
foo.addObserver(observer, forKeyPath: "intValue", options: .new, context: nil)
print(NSStringFromClass(object_getClass(foo)!))
print(NSStringFromClass(object_getClass(observer)!))

Then you can see the output:

text
__lldb_expr_2.Foo
__lldb_expr_2.Observer
NSKVONotifying___lldb_expr_2.Foo
__lldb_expr_2.Observer

__lldb_expr_2 is the module name generated by the Swift Playground and added by the Swift compiler when bridging Swift class to Objective-C. NSKVONotifying_ is the guarding prefix added by KVO. Foo and Observer is the class name we used in source code.

By such a glimpse to the internal of KVO, we can know that KVO creates a new class for the observed object. But is it enough? I mean, is it enough that one subclass for observed objects of one class?

Since KVO is a sophisticated framework, we can answer "yes" by intuition. But if we do so, then we lost an opportunity to learn the reason why this is enough.

In fact, since all the variants in observing an object's properties in KVO are only in the observer's event handler: [NSObject -observeValueForKeyPath:ofObject:change:context:], on the other hand, the observed object is just about to sending events -- which is quite mechanical, the observed object side is dumbly fixed. This means one subclass for observed objects of one class is totally enough -- because those observed objects of the same class actually work the same way.

Replace the code in your Swift Playground with following code:

swift 4.2
import Cocoa
class Foo: NSObject {
@objc var intValue: Int = 0
}
class Observer: NSObject { }
let foo = Foo()
let observer = Observer()
func dumpObjCClassMethods(class: AnyClass) {
let className = NSStringFromClass(`class`)
var methodCount: UInt32 = 0;
let methods = class_copyMethodList(`class`, &methodCount);
print("Found \(methodCount) methods on \(className)");
for i in 0..<methodCount {
let method = methods![numericCast(i)]
let methodName = NSStringFromSelector(method_getName(method))
let encoding = String(cString: method_getTypeEncoding(method)!)
print("\t\(className) has method named '\(methodName)' of encoding '\(encoding)'")
}
free(methods)
}
foo.addObserver(observer, forKeyPath: "intValue", options: .new, context: nil)
dumpObjCClassMethods(class: object_getClass(foo)!)

Then you get the output:

text
Found 4 methods on NSKVONotifying___lldb_expr_1.Foo
NSKVONotifying___lldb_expr_1.Foo has method named 'setIntValue:' of encoding '[email protected]:8q16'
NSKVONotifying___lldb_expr_1.Foo has method named 'class' of encoding '#[email protected]:8'
NSKVONotifying___lldb_expr_1.Foo has method named 'dealloc' of encoding '[email protected]:8'
NSKVONotifying___lldb_expr_1.Foo has method named '_isKVOA' of encoding '[email protected]:8'

By dumping the method of the class that created by KVO, we can notice that there were several methods overloaded by it. The purpose of overloading setIntValue: is quite straight -- we told the framework to observe the intValue property, thus it overloaded the method to add notification codes; class must be overloaded to return a fake is-a pointer which points to the original class the object was; The purpose of overloading dealloc probably is intended to release some garbage; The new method _isKVOA is like a method returns boolean value by Cocoa's naming convention. We can add following code in our Swift Playground:

swift 4.2
let isKVOA = foo.perform(NSSelectorFromString("_isKVOA"))!.toOpaque()
print("isKVOA: \(isKVOA)")

Then we get:

text
isKVOA: 0x0000000000000001

Since the boolean true in Objective-C are practically stored as 1 in memory, thus we can ensure that _isKVOA is just a method returns boolean value. Obviously, we can infer that _isKVOA indicates whether this class is a KVO generated class (Though we don't know what the trailing A extactly means to be).

Our System

Our system is not quit different from KVO.

First, our goal is to design a system offers "general" aspect support to aspect-oriented programming, which means you can inject custom implementation to any objects and any methods. This leads that creating one class to umbrella all the changes done to the injected objects of one class is no longer capable.

Second, we want a nominal approach instead of a non-nominal, or say anonymous approach to make such an injection. Giving something a name makes us to draw the boundary of responsibilities of the thing, and the boundaries of responsibilities are the foundation of clean software architecture.

Third, we want the system doesn't introduce any mechanisms that would result to "scare" developers.

By referring to the design of KVO, we can hand out the following design:

  • An object ( Foo * foo ) contains the methods to be injected into.

  • A protocol ( Aspect ) to represent the aspect which defines the methods to be injected into (enforces the developer to give a name to the aspect).

  • A class ( Bar ) nominally implements the aspect and offers implementations of the methods to be injected with.

  • When an object was injected with custom implementations, the system creates a subclass ( _ObjCGrafted_Foo_Aspect->Bar ) which identifies each other by taking all the existed injections and incoming injections into consideration and sets the object's is-a pointer to the newly creates subclass'.

Mechanism Explained
Mechanism Explained

You may have spotted that the name of the class created by our system contains characters "->" which is illegal in source code. But in Objective-C runtime environment, these characters are permitted to be a part of the class name. These characters build up a guaranteed fence between system generated classes and those user created classes in source code.

The implementation is quite simple until you got touched with resolving protocol hierarchy: which implementations should I take to inject with?

Considering following codes:

Objective-C
@protocol Foo<NSObject>
- (void)bar;
@end

Since Foo inherited to NSObject protocol, the declaration of method: -isKindOfClass: is contained in the hierarchy. When we us this protocol as an aspect, should we take the implementation of -isKindOfClass: and inject it to the injected object?

Obviously not.

Since the aspect is the "proposal" of the injection, and the class offers implementations to be injected with, I set a limitation here that the system would only inject implementations which is implemented by the leaf level of the class offers implementations. This means methods like -isKindOfClass: would not be injected when you don't offer a custom implementation in the class offers custom implementations, and you still can inject methods like it when you implement your custom version in the class offers custom implementations.

Finally, there is the repository and the API looks like below:

API Explained
API Explained

And there is the example code to intervene the pan gesture recognizer of UIScrollView.

MyUIScrollViewAspect.h
Objective-C
@protocol MyUIScrollViewAspect<NSObject>
- (BOOL)gestureRecognizerShouldBegin:(UIGestureRecognizer *)gestureRecognizer;
@end
MyUIScrollView.h
Objective-C
#import <UIKit/UIKit.h>
@interface MyUIScrollView: UIScrollView<MyUIScrollViewAspect>
@end
MyUIScrollView.m
Objective-C
#import "MyUIScrollView.h"
@implementation MyUIScrollView
- (BOOL)gestureRecognizerShouldBegin:(UIGestureRecognizer *)gestureRecognizer;
{
// Do what you wanna do.
return [super gestureRecognizerShouldBegin: gestureRecognizer];
}
@end
MyViewController.m
Objective-C
// ...
UIScrollView * scrollView = [UIScrollView alloc] init];
object_graftImplemenationOfProtocolFromClass(scrollView, @protocol(MyUIScrollViewAspect), [MyUIScrollView class]);
// ...

A Sequel to the Framework

I designed this framework in 2017. I didn't have much experience about designing a framework which also contributes to easing the pain of building software at that time. The thing I cared the most at that time was drawing boundaries of responsibilities such that we can make a clean software architecture. But the development of software is progressive. This design may give an opportunity to a clean software architecture, but enforcing developers to give an aspect a name at the very beginning time slows down the progress of development.

Name that can be named is not universal and eternal Name.

-- Lao Tsu

We give something a name for somewhat purpose. If the purpose changes, the name changes as follow. For example, the category of the parts of a pig with a butcher's perspective is different from those of a biologist's. In the progress of software development, the purpose comes from how we define the questions and how we explain them, which varies as the development of the whole software developing progress. Thus a good framework which really contributes to easing the pain of building software shall have a portion of API makes use anonymous functions, or say closures in Swift and blocks in Objective-C, which can prevent us from naming something before we have sophisticated perspective upon it. But since this framework was designed in 2017 and I don't realize the things I mentioned above, it doesn't support any anonymous functions.

I need more research to make this framework to support anonymous functions. At least, at glance, the size of the reference of function in Swift is 2 words which that of C is 1. Plus, compile-time resolving is troublesome. Obviously this needs enormous amount of work and currently I don't have so much time. But it would come true in the future.


Repository mentioned in this post.



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