Enabling Static Behavior

This chapter explains how static typing works and discusses some other features of Objective-C, including ways to temporarily overcome its inherent dynamism.

Default Dynamic Behavior

By design, Objective-C objects are dynamic entities. As many decisions about them as possible are pushed from compile time to runtime:

These features give object-oriented programs a great deal of flexibility and power, but there’s a price to pay. In particular, the compiler can’t check the exact types (classes) of id variables. To permit better compile-time type checking, and to make code more self-documenting, Objective-C allows objects to be statically typed with a class name rather than generically typed as id. Objective-C also lets you turn off some of its object-oriented features in order to shift operations from runtime back to compile time.

Static Typing

If a pointer to a class name is used in place of id in an object declaration such as

Rectangle *thisObject;

the compiler restricts the value of the declared variable to be either an instance of the class named in the declaration or an instance of a class that inherits from the named class. In the example above, thisObject can be only a Rectangle object of some kind.

Statically typed objects have the same internal data structures as objects declared to be of type id. The type doesn’t affect the object; it affects only the amount of information given to the compiler about the object and the amount of information available to those reading the source code.

Static typing also doesn’t affect how the object is treated at runtime. Statically typed objects are dynamically allocated by the same class methods that create instances of type id. If Square is a subclass of Rectangle, the following code would still produce an object with all the instance variables of a Square object, not just those of a Rectangle object:

Rectangle *thisObject = [[Square alloc] init];

Messages sent to statically typed objects are dynamically bound, just as messages to objects typed id are. The exact type of a statically typed receiver is still determined at runtime as part of the messaging process. A display message sent to the thisObject object:

[thisObject display];

performs the version of the method defined in the Square class, not the one in its Rectangle superclass.

By giving the compiler more information about an object, static typing opens up possibilities that are absent for objects typed id:

The first two possibilities are discussed in the sections that follow. The third is covered in Defining a Class.

Type Checking

With the additional information provided by static typing, the compiler can deliver better type-checking services in two situations:

An assignment can be made without warning, provided the class of the object being assigned is identical to, or inherits from, the class of the variable receiving the assignment. The following example illustrates this:

Shape     *aShape;
Rectangle *aRect;
aRect = [[Rectangle alloc] init];
aShape = aRect;

Here aRect can be assigned to aShape because a rectangle is a kind of shape—the Rectangle class inherits from Shape. However, if the roles of the two variables are reversed and aShape is assigned to aRect, the compiler generates a warning; not every shape is a rectangle. (For reference, see Figure 1-2, which shows the class hierarchy including Shape and Rectangle.)

There’s no check when the expression on either side of the assignment operator is of type id. A statically typed object can be freely assigned to an id object, or an id object to a statically typed object. Because methods like alloc and init return objects of type id, the compiler doesn’t ensure that a compatible object is returned to a statically typed variable. The following code is error-prone, but is allowed nonetheless:

Rectangle *aRect;
aRect = [[Shape alloc] init];

Return and Parameter Types

In general, methods in different classes that have the same selector (the same name) must also share the same return and parameter types. This constraint is imposed by the compiler to allow dynamic binding. Because the class of a message receiver (and therefore class-specific details about the method it’s asked to perform), can’t be known at compile time, the compiler must treat all methods with the same name alike. When it prepares information on method return and parameter types for the runtime system, it creates just one method description for each method selector.

However, when a message is sent to a statically typed object, the class of the receiver is known by the compiler. The compiler has access to class-specific information about the methods. Therefore, the message is freed from the restrictions on its return and parameter types.

Static Typing to an Inherited Class

An instance can be statically typed to its own class or to any class that it inherits from. All instances, for example, can be statically typed as NSObject.

However, the compiler understands the class of a statically typed object only from the class name in the type designation, and it does its type checking accordingly. Typing an instance to an inherited class can therefore result in discrepancies between what the compiler thinks would happen at runtime and what actually happens.

For example, if you statically type a Rectangle instance as Shape as shown here:

Shape *myRectangle = [[Rectangle alloc] init];

the compiler treats it as a Shape instance. If you send the object a message to perform a Rectangle method,

BOOL solid = [myRectangle isFilled];

the compiler complains. The isFilled method is defined in the Rectangle class, not in Shape.

However, if you send it a message to perform a method that the Shape class knows about such as

[myRectangle display];

the compiler doesn’t complain, even though Rectangle overrides the method. At runtime, the Rectangle version of the method is performed.

Similarly, suppose that the Upper class declares a worry method that returns a double as shown here:

- (double)worry;

and the Middle subclass of Upper overrides the method and declares a new return type:

- (int)worry;

If an instance is statically typed to the Upper class, the compiler thinks that its worry method returns a double, and if an instance is typed to the Middle class, the compiler thinks that worry returns an int. Errors result if a Middle instance is typed to the Upper class: The compiler informs the runtime system that a worry message sent to the object returns a double, but at runtime it actually returns an int and generates an error.

Static typing can free identically named methods from the restriction that they must have identical return and parameter types, but it can do so reliably only if the methods are declared in different branches of the class hierarchy.