Access Control and protected

The response to support for access control in Swift has been extremely positive. However, some developers have been asking, “Why doesn’t Swift have something like protected?” Many other programming languages have an access control option that restricts certain methods from being accessed from anywhere except subclasses.

When designing access control levels in Swift, we considered two main use cases:

  • keep private details of a class hidden from the rest of the app
  • keep internal details of a framework hidden from the client app

These correspond to private and internal levels of access, respectively.

In contrast, protected conflates access with inheritance, adding an entirely new control axis to reason about. It doesn’t actually offer any real protection, since a subclass can always expose “protected” API through a new public method or property. It doesn’t offer additional optimization opportunities either, since new overrides can come from anywhere. And it’s unnecessarily restrictive — it allows subclasses, but not any of the subclass’s helpers, to access something.

As some developers have pointed out, Apple frameworks do occasionally separate parts of API intended for use by subclasses. Wouldn’t protected be helpful here? Upon inspection, these methods generally fall into one of two groups. First, methods that aren’t really useful outside the subclass, so protection isn’t critical (and recall the helper case above). Second, methods that are designed to be overridden but not called. An example is drawRect(_:), which is certainly used within the UIKit codebase but is not to be called outside UIKit.

It’s also not clear how protected should interact with extensions. Does an extension to a class have access to that class’s protected members? Does an extension to a subclass have access to the superclass’s protected members? Does it make a difference if the extension is declared in the same module as the class?

There was one other influence that led us to the current design: existing practices of Objective-C developers both inside and outside of Apple. Objective-C methods and properties are generally declared in a public header (.h) file, but can also be added in class extensions within the implementation (.m) file. When parts of a public class are intended for use elsewhere within the framework but not outside, developers create a second header file with the class’s “internal” bits. These three levels of access correspond to public, private, and internal in Swift.

Swift provides access control along a single, easy-to-understand axis, unrelated to inheritance. We believe this model is simpler, and provides access control the way it is most often needed: to isolate implementation details to within a class or within a framework. It may be different from what you’ve used before, but we encourage you to try it out.

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