The Zen of Swift Optionals

Ever forgotten your wallet? Had dinner plans not work out? Phone numbers are lost, pockets can have holes. In the real world, there are no guarantees. Sometimes things just don’t work out as planned.

The world is largely optional

Now let’s think about computer programs. Even through we, as programmers, control the whole of reality, a boundary of uncertainty still exists. Within a program, conditions we thought were constant can also “not work out.” It’s the digital equivalent of dinner plans falling through.

How do programs work in a world of uncertainty?

Dealing with failures in the real world are things we handle all the time. If dinner plans fall through, new plans are made (or pizza is ordered.) One doesn’t end up starving because a present condition failed to be true. In the digital world, things are much different. Programs crash or delete your entire company if conditions deviate from the razor-thin assumptions held during execution. To deal with these uncertainties, programming languages enable the programmer to specify steps to take in the event of a failure. However in practice, these mechanisms are often under utilized, cumbersome, and typically reserved for the most likely failure conditions.

Swift Optionals are special

Swift embraces uncertainty through the concept of ‘optional’ types. Optionals are a first class type that represents uncertainty. There may or may not be a value inside. The guard construct allows optionals to be handled gracefully and easily without obtuse try/catch/fail constructs littering the codebase. By being easier to use than exception handling, I believe this makes writing bulletproof programs easier and more accessible in Swift than Objective-C.

Optionals keep ‘nil’ out of bad places that burn the house down.

Optionals Expose Assumptions

Look through your old ObjC codebase. Is every call to [NSURL initWithString:] checked to ensure nil is not passed by mistake ? Or how about every call to [UIImage imageNamed:] ? Sometimes image names and URls just don’t work out. (and don’t even think about putting nil into an NSDictionary..)

Parsing JSON can ‘not work out’ in all kinds of ways. Fields may be missing, or could be the wrong type. A certain API which will remain nameless had the bad habit of randomly returning “string-ly typed” numbers. In ObjC, this was tedious to debug, but not something that is uncommon. Fortunately in Swift, casting a type with the as? operator has our back and returns an optional.

Optionals have your back

In ObjC many methods return nil. Back in the old days, this was a common way of indicating failure. We didn’t have fancy optionals like today’s kids ;) It is the responsibility of the developer to be aware of these cases and take precautions should things not go as planned. Experience has shown that ‘taking precautions’ can go backseat to inexperience or deadlines.

Easier. Safer.

The power of optionals means the developer doesn’t have to aggressively consult documentation for possible nil return values in order to write “safe” code. Should a potentially unsafe case arise, the case must be handled by convention of the language. Freshly written Swift code has a feeling of confidence and safety that I have never experienced with ObjC. I welcome and look forward to a Swift-y future, with all it’s guarded uncertainties.