Swifty Responder Chain

From Jordan Rose’s tweets in response to my previous post (his responses are inlined in the post), it’s clear there’s no guarantee that Swift will get an Objective-C-ish runtime (there’s no guarantee it won’t either). So I’m trying to approach the problem from the other side: What do we need in Swift to create UIKit-like “magic interfaces” without swinging all the way to the dynamic side, à la Objective-C. For a start, let’s see if we can create a responder chain for a hypothetical pure-Swift equivalent for UIKit.

Brent Simmons’ first go at a pure-Swift responder chain requires us to handle all commands in one respondsToCommand: method with a switch statement to select between commands, which is no good. Joe Groff suggested we use protocol conformance, but that still requires a performSelector:, which the Swift runtime might not give us. So what can we do with what we have, and with what we’re more likely to get?

A better interface

Building on that suggestion by Joe Groff, if we can’t invoke selectors directly, we can introduce a new Command type to abstract that out. The Command type gives us a uniform interface to perform a command on a corresponding Responder object. (This interface is conceptually similar to what Matthew Johnson came up with, but is simpler and therefore hopefully easier to wrap our heads around.)

With this interface, whenever we introduce a new command, we have to define two new types:

  1. A responder: A sub-protocol of Responder declaring the methods used to respond to that command
  2. A command: A concrete subtype of Command that provides a uniform interface using the methods declared in the responder. This is what will get associated with a menu item or an equivalent thing that would “launch” the command.
protocol CopyResponder: Responder {
    func canCopy() -> Bool
    func copy()

struct CopyCommand: Command {
    func canPerformOnResponder(responder: CopyResponder) -> Bool {
        return responder.canCopy()
    func performOnResponder(responder: CopyResponder) {

To enable an object to respond to the CopyCommand, all we have to do is to extend CopyResponder and implement its methods.

extension MyView: CopyResponder {
    func canCopy() -> Bool {
        return true
    func copy() {
        print("Copying from MyView")

Query functions like canCopy() make it possible for menus to be enabled / disabled based on the state of the app at runtime (like what Gus Mueller does with Acorn), by having responder objects change their answer at runtime.

With this interface, the app developer doesn’t have to write any switch statements to route commands. There’s no performSelector:-like runtime magic either.

Behind the scenes

There’s a bunch of framework code we need for making it possible for the app developer to define commands and responders like above.

To start simple, a responder is something that has an optional next responder, so that we can have a chain of responders.

protocol Responder {
    var nextResponder: Responder? { get }

A command needs to be able to define methods that take in the instances of the corresponding responder sub-type as an argument, so we need to set the corresponding responder type as an associated type.

protocol Command {
    associatedtype AssociatedResponder
    func canPerformOnResponder(responder: AssociatedResponder) -> Bool
    func performOnResponder(responder: AssociatedResponder)

To enable views to be included in the responder chain, you can extend Responder and return whatever is appropriate as the next responder.

class View {
    var superview: View? = nil

extension View: Responder {
    var nextResponder: Responder? { return self.superview }

The application knows what the first responder is, and it can traverse the responder chain querying each responder in the process.

class Application {
    var firstResponder: Responder? = nil
    func performCommand<C: Command>(command: C) {
        var r: Responder? = self.firstResponder
        while r != nil {
            if let r = r {
                if command.canPerformOnResponder(r) {
            r = r?.nextResponder

We cannot take an instance of Command as an argument directly, because Command has an associated type, so we use generics to define performCommand()C is a placeholder type that conforms to the Command protocol.

The calls to canPerformOnResponder() and performOnResponder() above pass a Responder argument, but the Command protocol only declares methods that take in AssociatedResponder instances. So to make the above code work, we need to generalize those methods to take in any Responder.

extension Command {
    func canPerformOnResponder(responder: Responder) -> Bool {
        if let associatedResponder = responder as? AssociatedResponder {
            return self.canPerformOnResponder(associatedResponder)
        return false
    func performOnResponder(responder: Responder) {
        if let associatedResponder = responder as? AssociatedResponder {

And that’s it. Now we have all the pieces in place to enable us to define commands, declare corresponding responders and make arbitrary types behave as those responders.

This pattern can be extended for framework events as well:

protocol HandleTouchResponder: Responder {
    func canHandleTouch(touches: [Touch]) -> Bool
    func handleTouch(touches: [Touch])

struct HandleTouchCommand: Command {
    let touches: [Touch] = []
    func canPerformOnResponder(responder: HandleTouchResponder) -> Bool {
        return responder.canHandleTouch(self.touches)
    func performOnResponder(responder: HandleTouchResponder) {

Where’s the switch?

So how does the command dispatch happen in the above architecture?

Since we always start command propagation with a command whose concrete command type is known, we can always get to its associated type. From the associated type, we know how to perform the command on a responder object that conforms to the associated type. That’s how we’re able to get away without a switch – we’re using the commands as a sort-of distributed dispatch table.


I’m suprised we can get this far towards a usable responder chain with the current state of Swift, but with improvements to the language, we can do better.

Constraining the associated responder

We should be able to tell Swift that the associated type has to conform to Responder, like this:

protocol Command {
    associatedtype AssociatedResponder: Responder
    func canPerformOnResponder(responder: AssociatedResponder) -> Bool
    func performOnResponder(responder: AssociatedResponder)

but it looks like we can’t do that at present.

Protocols with associated types

Protocols with associated types have a lot of restrictions on how they can be used. One of those is that you can’t instantiate or cast to those types.

If the Swift protocol system gets cleverer, I can imagine simplifying the interface by moving the associatedtype to the Responder.

protocol Command {

protocol Responder {
    associatedtype AssociatedCommand: Command
    func canPerformCommand(command: AssociatedCommand)
    func performCommand(command: AssociatedCommand)

If Command and Responder could be declared like this, it would reduce the boilerplate required for declaring new commands. But as of Swift 2.2, with the above declaration of Responder, we can’t have variables of Responder or any of its sub-protocols like CopyResponder, nor can we downcast to those types, so we can’t get far with this.

Update 6/Jul/2015:

As Matthew Johnson explained to me over Twitter, this solution is requires that a type be able to conform to a root protocol in multiple ways (i.e. MyView needs to conform to Responder through CopyResponder as well as through GoFishingResponder), which the Swift team frowns upon. Therefore this solution for a responder chain might not become feasible even in the future.

Moreoever, this way of modelling a responder chain can be done using generic protocols:

protocol Responder<C: Command> {
    func canPerformCommand(command: C)
    func performCommand(command: C)

protocol Responder<CopyCommand> {
    func canPerformCommand(command: CopyCommand)
    func performCommand(command: CopyCommand)

extend MyView: Responder<CopyCommand> {

And Doug Gregor’s Generics Manifesto mail says generic protocols is unlikely to become part of Swift because:

[These use cases] seem too few to justify the potential for confusion between associated types and generic parameters of protocols; we’re better off not having the latter.

I think the responder chain is a good use case for generic protocols – there’s no confusion in a type conforming to Responder in multiple ways. However, I think there is going to be still a problem casting an object to Responder, so it might not be a sufficiently good use case.

So far so good

It’s amazing that Swift protocols can get us this far towards a responder chain implementation (the full working code is here). And we can already see how it can get better as Swift gets its wrinkles ironed out with some changes to how Swift does things.

That said, the responder chain was probably an easy start. KVO and Core Data will get progressively harder to create without dynamic language features.

This post was discussed in iOS Dev Weekly and Swift Weekly.

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