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Specifications for interchanging objects

One of the interesting aspects of Smalltalk and similar languages including Objective-C and Ruby is that while the object model exposes a hierarchy of classes, consumers of objects in these environments are free to ignore the position of the object in that hierarchy. The hierarchy can be thought of as a convenience: on the one hand, for people building objects (“this object does all the same stuff as instances of its parent class, and then some”). It’s also a convenience for people consuming objects (“you can treat this object like it’s one of these types further up the hierarchy”).

So you might think that -isKindOfClass: represents a test for “I can use this object like I would use one of these objects”. There are two problems with this, which are both expressed across two dimensions. As with any boolean test, the problems are false positives and false negatives.

A false positive is when an object passes the test, but actually can’t be treated as an instance of the parent type. In a lot of recent object-oriented code this is a rare problem. The idea of the Liskov Substitution Principle, if not its precise intent as originally stated, has become entrenched in the Object-Oriented groupthink.

I’ve worked with code from the 1980s though where these false positives exist: an obvious example is “closing off” particular selectors. A parent class defines some interface, then subclasses inherit from that class, overriding selectors to call [self doesNotRecognize:] on features of the parent that aren’t relevant in the subclass. This is still possible today, though done infrequently.

False negatives occur when an object fails the -isKindOfClass: test but actually could be used in the way your software intends. In Objective-C (though neither in Smalltalk[*] nor Ruby), nil _does_ satisfy client code’s needs in a lot of cases but never passes the hierarchy test. Similarly, you could easily arrange for an object to respond to all the same selectors as another object, and to have the same dynamic behaviour, but to be in an unrelated position in the hierarchy. You _can_ use an OFArray like you can use an NSArray, but it isn’t a kind of NSArray.

[*] There is an implementation of an Objective-C style Null object for Squeak.

Obviously if the test is broken, we should change the test. False negatives can be addressed by testing for protocols (again, in the languages I’ve listed, this only applies to Objective-C and MacRuby). Protocols are unfortunately named in this instance: they basically say “this object responds to any selector in this list”. We could then say that rather than testing for an object being a kind of UIView, we need an object that conforms to the UIDrawing protocol. This protocol doesn’t exist, but we could say that.

Problems exist here. An object that responds to all of the selectors doesn’t necessarily conform to the protocol, so we still have false negatives. The developer of the class might have forgotten to declare the protocol (though not in MacRuby, where protocol tests are evaluated dynamically), or the object could forward unknown selectors to another object which does conform to the protocol.

There’s still a false positive issue too: ironically protocol conformance only tells us what selectors exist, not the protocol in which they should be used. Learning an interface from a protocol is like learning a language from a dictionary, in that you’ve been told what words exist but not what order they should be used in or which ones it’s polite to use in what circumstances.

Consider the table view data source. Its job is to tell the table view how many sections there are, how many rows there are in each section, and what cell to display for each row. An object that conforms to the data source protocol does not necessarily do that. An object that tells the table there are three sections but crashes if you ask how many rows are in any section beyond the first conforms to the protocol, but doesn’t have the correct dynamic behaviour.

We have tools for verifying the dynamic behaviour of objects. In his 1996 book Superdistribution: Objects as Property on the Electronic Frontier, Brad Cox describes a black box test of an object’s dynamic behaviour, in which test code messages the object then asserts that the object responds in expected ways. This form of test was first implemented in a standard fashion, to my knowledge, in 1998 by Kent Beck as a unit test.

Unit tests are now also a standard part of the developer groupthink, including tests as specification under the name Test-Driven Development But we still use them in a craft way, as a bespoke specification for our one-of-a-kind classes. What we should really do is to make more use of these tests: substituting our static, error-prone type tests for dynamic specification tests.

A table view does not need something that responds to the data source selectors, it needs something that behaves like a data source. So let’s create some tests that any data source should satisfy, and bundle them up as a specification that can be tested at runtime. Notice that these aren’t quite unit tests in that we’re not testing our data source, we’re testing any data source. We could define some new API to test for satisfactory behaviour:

- (void)setDataSource: (id <UITableViewDataSource>)dataSource {
  NSAssert([Demonstrate that: dataSource satisfies: [Specification for: @protocol(UITableViewDataSource)]]);
  _dataSource = dataSource;
  [self reloadData];

But perhaps with new language and framework support, it could look like this:

- (void)setDataSource: (id @<UITableViewDataSource>)dataSource {
  NSAssert([dataSource satisfiesSpecification: @specification(UITableViewDataSource)]);
  _dataSource = dataSource;
  [self reloadData];

You could imagine that in languages that support design-by-contract, such as Eiffel, the specification of a collaborator could be part of the contract of a class.

In each case, the expression inside the assertion handler would find and run the test specification appropriate for the collaborating object. Yes this is slower than doing the error-prone type hierarchy or conformance tests. No, that’s not a problem: we want to make it right before making it fast.

Treating test fixtures as specifications for collaboration between objects, rather than (or in addition to) one-off tests for one-off classes, opens up new routes for collaboration between the developers of the objects. Framework vendors can supply specifications as enhanced documentation. Framework consumers can supply specifications of how they’re using the frameworks as bug reports or support questions: vendors can add those specifications to a regression testing arsenal. Application authors can create specifications to send to contractors or vendors as acceptance tests. Vendors could demonstrate that their code is “a drop-in replacement” for some other code by demonstrating that both pass the same specification.

But finally it frees object-oriented software from the tyranny of the hierarchy. The promise of duck typing has always been tempered by the dangers, because we haven’t been able to show that our duck typed objects actually can quack like ducks until it’s too late.