Protocols all the way down

As a programmer, one of the things I like to argue against is the concept of “magic code”, code that works because of some unseen bit of code elsewhere. In iOS, the principal is exemplified by “magic” methods you can include in various subclasses that do rather important things. Want to handle touches in your UIView? Just implement the method touchesBegan:withEvent:, touchesMoved:withEvent:, touchesEnded:withEvent:, and touchesCanceled:withEvent:, and you’re good to go. Want to set up your UIViewController‘s visual layout? Make sure you do so in the layoutSubviews method.

But how do you know about all these magic methods? This is definitely one of the questions that I found the most difficult when I first began iOS development. Learning about all this magic is basically the same thing as learning iOS development. Knowing Apple’s APIs is how you develop iOS apps. Knowing their quirks is how you get to be an expert.

But if you’re just starting out, it’s important to know that most of these magic methods are (generally, not always, but generally) defined in a protocol. When an object conforms to a protocol, it basically says that it (or one of its subclasses) will implement some set of methods. Want to know what protocols UIViewController conforms to? In Objective-C, you would simply open up its header and check it out. (Of course, a protocol might be defined even further up the chain, in one of the headers for a class the view controller inherits from.)

But how do you figure out what protocols a class conforms to in Swift? As near as I can tell, the only way is to open up Apple’s documentation. This seems like it would not be enough, since you might be working with a non-apple framework, or worse… it is possible (gasp) for Apple’s documentation to be spotty or outright incorrect. (I’ve done a few google searches, and read about 20 tutorials and blog posts, and I still don’t know how to figure this out from code alone, so I’m really asking this question. I’ve also started a stack overflow question on the topic.)

I don’t want this to be a “I think Objective-C is superior to Swift” post, but I do think there are legitimate reasons for header files, and this is one of them. Once you get beyond a certain level of iOS proficiency, poking around in those header files is akin to using the “view source” as an intermediate web developer. It’s one of the ways you learn how other people approach a problem.

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