Objective-C Runtime Release Notes for OS X v10.5

This document describes some of the changes in the Objective-C runtime in OS X v10.5.


Garbage Collection

The Objective-C runtime examines on startup the execution image to determine whether to run with garbage collection or not. Each object file has an info section and they must all agree for execution to proceed. Standard compilation results in an info section that indicates that no GC capability is present. Compiling with -fobjc-gc indicates that both GC and retain/release logic is present. Compiling with -fobjc-gc-only indicates that only GC logic is present. A non-GC executable that attempts to load a gc-only framework will fail, as will a GC capable executable that attemps to load a GC incapable framework (or bundle).

The compiler uses three "helper" functions for assignments of strong pointers to garbage collected memory into global memory (objc_assign_global), garbage collected heap memory (objc_assign_ivar), or into unknown memory (objc_assign_strongCast). For assignments of weak pointers it uses objc_assign_weak and for reads it uses objc_read_weak.

When copying memory in bulk into a garbage collected block you must use the API objc_memmove_collectable(void *dst, const void *src, size_t size).


The collector initially runs only on the main thread when requested via objc_collect_if_needed(1), which is called automatically from the NSAutoreleasePool drain method. The AppKit arranges to call objc_start_collector_thread() after launch and subsequently collections run on a dedicated thread and are responsive to pure allocation demand. The objc_set_collection_threshold and objc_set_collection_ratio calls are used to establish the "need" for a collection. Once every ratio times a full (complete) collection will occur; otherwise a generational collection will be done if allocations have exceeded the threshold.

The garbage collector minimally pauses those threads which have been registered to it while collecting. Registration occurs during establishment of an NSThread object, not simply a pthread.

Garbage Collection Errors

The collector itself is found in /usr/lib/libauto.dylib. Its error messages are printed using malloc_printf. The ObjC runtime is found in /usr/lib/libobjc.dylib. Its errors are printed using _objc_inform. Currently, resurrection and reference count underflow errors are noted by calling the following routines:



The syntax for Objective-C properties has been overhauled since WWDC 2006. See the property documentation (Properties) for details.

In summary, @property(attributes) type name introduces an implicit declaration of a "getter" and a "setter" method (unless a read-only property is requested) for the "variable" named. The setter= and getter= attributes allow one to specify the names of the methods, otherwise a "name" method and a "setName:" method are implicitly declared. They may also be explicitly named.

By default, properties are assigned when set. For objects under non-GC this is often incorrect and a warning is issued unless the assignment semantic is explicitly named. There are three choices: assign, for non-retained object references; copy, for objects that are copied and implicitly retained; and retain, for objects that require being retained when set.

Access to properties is atomic by default. This is trivial under GC for almost everything and also trivial under non-GC for everything but objects and structures. In particular atomic access to retained objects under non-GC conditions can be expensive. As such, a nonatomic property attribute is available.

Pointers may be held strongly under GC by declaring them __strong, and they can be zeroing weak by declaring them __weak.

The implementations for properties can be provided by the compiler and runtime through the use of the @synthesize statement in the @implementation section of the class (or class extension). The compiler expects an instance variable of the same name as the property. If you want to use a different name, you supply it to the @synthesize statement.

In particular the compiler and runtime will implement accessors to retained objects by using atomic compare and swap instructions. It is extremely dangerous to directly access an atomic object property through its instance variable since another thread might change its value unpredictably. As such the compiler will warn you about such unprotected accesses. The runtime, in fact, will temporarily use the least significant bit of the instance variable as a temporary lock while retaining the new value and releasing the old. Direct use of an atomic instance variable under non-GC is strongly discouraged.

Loading and Unloading Bundles

Since OS X v10.4 it has been possible to unload bundles containing Objective-C. No attempt is made to prevent this if objects are still present for classes that are unloaded. Subclasses of classes loaded in bundles are particularly vulnerable.

Method and Class Attributes

Objective-C now supports some gcc attributes for Objective-C methods. Syntactically, attributes for a method follow the method's declaration, and attributes for a method parameter sit between the parameter type and the parameter name. Supported attributes include:

Objective-C also supports some gcc attributes for Objective-C classes. Syntactically, attributes for a class precede the class's @interface declaration. Supported attributes include:

@package Instance Variables

@package is a new instance variable protection class, like @public and @protected. @package instance variables behave as follows:

In 64-bit, the instance variable symbol for an @package ivar is not exported, so any attempt to use the ivar from outside the framework that defined the class will fail with a link error. See "64-bit Class and Instance Variable Access Control" for more about instance variable symbols.

Runtime API changes

The C interface to the Objective-C runtime (in <objc/*.h>) has changed significantly. Highlights include:

64-bit ABI

The 64-bit Objective-C ABI is generally unlike the 32-bit ABI. The new ABI provides new features, better performance, and improved future adaptability. All aspects of the 64-bit ABI are private and subject to future change. Forthcoming documentation will describe the ABI for the use of compilers and developer tools only.

64-bit Class and Instance Variable Access Control

In 64-bit Objective-C, access control for classes and each class and instance variable has a symbol associated with it. All uses of a class or instance variable reference this symbol. These symbols are subject to access control by the linker.

The upshot is that access to private classes and ivars is more strictly enforced. Illegal use of a private ivar may fail with a link error. Frameworks that provide classes and ivars must correctly export their symbols. In particular, frameworks built with -fvisibility=hidden or a linker export list may need to be changed.

Class symbols have names of the form _OBJC_CLASS_$_ClassName and _OBJC_METACLASS_$_ClassName . The class symbol is used by clients who send messages to the class (i.e. [ClassName someMessage]). The metaclass symbol is used by clients who subclass the class.

By default, class symbols are exported. They are affected by gcc's symbol visibility flags, so -fvisibility=hidden will make the class symbols non-exported. The linker recognizes the old symbol name .objc_class_name_ClassName in linker export lists and translates it to these symbols.

Visibility of a single class can be changed using an attribute.

@interface ClassName : SomeSuperclass

For classes with "default" visibility, the class symbols are exported, and the ivar symbols are handled as described below. For classes with "hidden" visibility, the class symbols and ivar symbols are all not exported.

Ivar symbols have the form _OBJC_IVAR_$_ClassName.IvarName . The ivar symbol is used by clients who read or write the ivar.

By default, ivar symbols for @private and @package ivars are not exported, and ivar symbols for @public and @protected ivars are exported. This can be changed by export lists, -fvisibility, or a visibility attribute on the class. Visibility attributes on individual ivars are currently not supported.

64-bit Non-Fragile Instance Variables

All instance variables in 64-bit Objective-C are non-fragile. That is, existing compiled code that uses a class's ivars will not break when the class or a superclass changes its own ivar layout. In particular, framework classes may add new ivars without breaking subclasses compiled against a previous version of the framework.

Ivars may be added or reordered freely; existing users of a reordered ivar will adapt transparently. Other ivar changes are safe except that they will break any existing users of the ivar: deleting an ivar, renaming an ivar, moving an ivar to a different class, and changing the type of an ivar.

Do not use @defs. The ivar layout it presents cannot adapt to superclass changes.

Do not use sizeof(SomeClass). Use class_getInstanceSize([SomeClass class]) instead.

Do not use offsetof(SomeClass, SomeIvar). Use ivar_getOffset(class_getInstanceVariable([SomeClass class], "SomeIvar")) instead.

64-bit Zero-Cost C++-Compatible Exceptions

In 64-bit, the implementation of Objective-C exceptions has been rewritten. The new system provides "zero-cost" try blocks and interoperability with C++.

"Zero-cost" try blocks incur no time penalty when entering an @try block, unlike 32-bit which must call setjmp() and other additional bookkeeping. On the other hand, actually throwing an exception is much more expensive. For best performance in 64-bit, exceptions should be thrown only in exceptional cases.

The Cocoa frameworks require that all exceptions be instances of NSException or its subclasses. Do not throw objects of other types.

The Cocoa frameworks are generally not exception-safe. Their general pattern is that exceptions are reserved for programmer error only, and the program should quit soon after catching such an exception. Be careful when throwing exceptions across the Cocoa frameworks.

In 64-bit, C++ exceptions and Objective-C exceptions are interoperable. In particular, C++ destructors and Objective-C @finally blocks are honored when unwinding any exception, and default catch clauses—catch (...) and @catch (...)—are able to catch and re-throw any exception.

Objective-C @catch (id e) catches any Objective-C exception, but no C++ exceptions. Use @catch (...) to catch everything, and @throw; to re-throw caught exceptions. @catch (...) is allowed in 32-bit, and has the same effect there as @catch (id e).