This chapter describes how the message expressions are converted into objc_msgSend function calls, and how you can refer to methods by name. It then explains how you can take advantage of objc_msgSend, and how—if you need to—you can circumvent dynamic binding.

The objc_msgSend Function

In Objective-C, messages aren’t bound to method implementations until runtime. The compiler converts a message expression,

[receiver message]

into a call on a messaging function, objc_msgSend. This function takes the receiver and the name of the method mentioned in the message—that is, the method selector—as its two principal parameters:

objc_msgSend(receiver, selector)

Any arguments passed in the message are also handed to objc_msgSend:

objc_msgSend(receiver, selector, arg1, arg2, ...)

The messaging function does everything necessary for dynamic binding:

The key to messaging lies in the structures that the compiler builds for each class and object. Every class structure includes these two essential elements:

When a new object is created, memory for it is allocated, and its instance variables are initialized. First among the object’s variables is a pointer to its class structure. This pointer, called isa, gives the object access to its class and, through the class, to all the classes it inherits from.

These elements of class and object structure are illustrated in Figure 3-1.

Figure 3-1  Messaging Framework

When a message is sent to an object, the messaging function follows the object’s isa pointer to the class structure where it looks up the method selector in the dispatch table. If it can’t find the selector there, objc_msgSend follows the pointer to the superclass and tries to find the selector in its dispatch table. Successive failures cause objc_msgSend to climb the class hierarchy until it reaches the NSObject class. Once it locates the selector, the function calls the method entered in the table and passes it the receiving object’s data structure.

This is the way that method implementations are chosen at runtime—or, in the jargon of object-oriented programming, that methods are dynamically bound to messages.

To speed the messaging process, the runtime system caches the selectors and addresses of methods as they are used. There’s a separate cache for each class, and it can contain selectors for inherited methods as well as for methods defined in the class. Before searching the dispatch tables, the messaging routine first checks the cache of the receiving object’s class (on the theory that a method that was used once may likely be used again). If the method selector is in the cache, messaging is only slightly slower than a function call. Once a program has been running long enough to “warm up” its caches, almost all the messages it sends find a cached method. Caches grow dynamically to accommodate new messages as the program runs.

Using Hidden Arguments

When objc_msgSend finds the procedure that implements a method, it calls the procedure and passes it all the arguments in the message. It also passes the procedure two hidden arguments:

These arguments give every method implementation explicit information about the two halves of the message expression that invoked it. They’re said to be “hidden” because they aren’t declared in the source code that defines the method. They’re inserted into the implementation when the code is compiled.

Although these arguments aren’t explicitly declared, source code can still refer to them (just as it can refer to the receiving object’s instance variables). A method refers to the receiving object as self, and to its own selector as _cmd. In the example below, _cmd refers to the selector for the strange method and self to the object that receives a strange message.

- strange
    id  target = getTheReceiver();
    SEL method = getTheMethod();
    if ( target == self || method == _cmd )
        return nil;
    return [target performSelector:method];

self is the more useful of the two arguments. It is, in fact, the way the receiving object’s instance variables are made available to the method definition.

Getting a Method Address

The only way to circumvent dynamic binding is to get the address of a method and call it directly as if it were a function. This might be appropriate on the rare occasions when a particular method will be performed many times in succession and you want to avoid the overhead of messaging each time the method is performed.

With a method defined in the NSObject class, methodForSelector:, you can ask for a pointer to the procedure that implements a method, then use the pointer to call the procedure. The pointer that methodForSelector: returns must be carefully cast to the proper function type. Both return and argument types should be included in the cast.

The example below shows how the procedure that implements the setFilled: method might be called:

void (*setter)(id, SEL, BOOL);
int i;
setter = (void (*)(id, SEL, BOOL))[target
for ( i = 0 ; i < 1000 ; i++ )
    setter(targetList[i], @selector(setFilled:), YES);

The first two arguments passed to the procedure are the receiving object (self) and the method selector (_cmd). These arguments are hidden in method syntax but must be made explicit when the method is called as a function.

Using methodForSelector: to circumvent dynamic binding saves most of the time required by messaging. However, the savings will be significant only where a particular message is repeated many times, as in the for loop shown above.

Note that methodForSelector: is provided by the Cocoa runtime system; it’s not a feature of the Objective-C language itself.