Generic Protocols & Their Shortcomings

For the past couple of weeks, @micheletitolo and I have played with ways to re-architect an app. In particular, we settled on a blend of VIPER and Protocol Oriented MVVM. Knowing that we had the opportunity to re-architect an app in Swift, we went crazy discussing ways to liberally apply generics, protocols, and value types throughout! Once we had our ingredients for a well-architected app, we proceeded to mix them together in code. However, much like oil and water, generics and protocols don't mix very well. But never fear! With added ingredients, we can totally work with these two and cook something beautiful together. πŸ₯πŸ°πŸŽ‚


Making a Protocol Generic

There are two ways to create a generic protocol - either by defining an abstract associatedtype or the use of Self (with a capital S). The use of Self or associatedtype is what we like to call "associated types". This is because they are only associated with the protocol they are defined in.

Here's how both of these look like:


The use of Self is actually pretty cool. When you use Self in a protocol declaration, not only do you make that protocol generic but you are also basically putting in a placeholder for your conforming type without having to know that type in advance. (Pay special attention to the parameter types of the holdAMeetingWithTheClan function)

protocol MythicalType {
    func holdAMeetingWithTheClan(clan: [Self])

class Kraken: MythicalType {
    func holdAMeetingWithTheClan(clan: [Kraken]) {
        //Time to discuss whether or not it's time to release the kraken.

class Elf: MythicalType {
    func holdAMeetingWithTheClan(clan: [Elf]) {
        //Elves are humanity's only hope against the Kraken.

In particular, they're very useful when using protocol extensions:

extension MythicalType where Self: Kraken {
    func holdAMeetingWithTheClan(clan: [Kraken]) {
        //There's absolutely nothing to discuss. WREAK DESTRUCTION ON THE VILLAGE!!!

This extension, as you can see, will only work if the object conforming to MythicalType is of type Kraken! As for our Elf type, the compiler will tell you that you still need to conform to it if you haven't already.

EXCEPTION - If you happen to only use Self as the return type of the functions in your protocol declaration, then your protocol will NOT be generic. If you are only using Self and not an associatedtype, then the only way to make your protocol generic is by using it in your protocol declaration after following any of these two rules:

  • As the parameter of a function
  • Or as the type of a get/set variable


As for using an associatedtype, there isn't anything too special about it. Using our MythicalType protocol, let's add to it using an associatedtype.

protocol MythicalType {
    associatedtype FoodType

    func prepareFood() -> [FoodType]
    func devour(edible: FoodType)

class Kraken: MythicalType {
    func prepareFood() -> [Human] {
        //attack the village. Gather all the humans for DINNER TIME!
        return village.inhabitants

    func devour(edible: Human) {
        //It's DINNER TIME YO. Nom nom nom.

class Elf: MythicalType {
    func prepareFood() -> [Vegetable] {
        //Elves are vegetarian. Obvi.
        return gatherCrops(nearbyFarm)

    func devour(edible: Vegetable) {
        //Yum. Greens. How tasty.

In this example, we create a generic protocol that can work for all MythicalTypes that can eat a generic FoodType. All mythical creatures have to eat, right? Since our associatedtype FoodType is not a concrete type, any conformance to this protocol needs to be replaced with a real, concrete type at compile time. Our associatedtype here makes our FoodType homogenous; meaning that whenever we conform to this protocol, we can only replace FoodType with one type throughout the conforming class/struct/enum. This is demonstrated by replacing all instances of FoodType with Human in our Kraken class and Vegetable in our Elf class. The important thing to remember is that every type you replace FoodType with must match exactly.

Why Generic Protocols Can Sometimes Suck

So far, Swift isn't quite ready in some aspects, and this couldn't be more true than with generics. According to the docs, protocols are fully-fledged types:

Because it is a type, you can use a protocol in many places where other types are allowed.

It goes on to list where they can be used:

  • As a parameter type or return type in a function, method, or initializer
  • As the type of a constant, variable, or property
  • As the type of items in an array, dictionary, or other container

However, this is not completely true. For generic protocols, you can't use them in two of the above scenarios. Instead, they can only be used as generic constraints in a class or function declaration. This means they can only be used in the <> bracket syntax you see in generics like so:

class Storybook<T: MythicalType> {}

//Or in a function declaration
func writeBookAbout<T: MythicalType>(myth: T) {}

Unfortunately, using generic protocols outside of generic constraints fail with this error:

But that begs the question; Why can't we use generic protocols outside of generic constraints?

The short answer is: Swift wants to be type-safe. Couple that with the fact that it's an ahead-of-time compiled language, and you have a language that NEEDS to be able to infer a concrete type at anytime during compilation. I can't stress that enough. At compile time, every one of your types that aren't function/class constraints need to be concrete. Associated types within a protocol are abstract. Which means they aren't concrete. They're fake. And no one likes a fake.

"But Hector...I need examples."

Ok, fine! What follows are two clarifying examples where I use our generic MythicalType protocol like I would use a regular protocol and why they fail.

Scenario #1 - As a property

var myth: MythicalType = random() % 2 == 0 ? kraken : elf
//can't figure out what type this is...and rightfully so.
let allTheFood = myth.prepareFood()

In our first scenario, we find ourselves with a MythicalType variable that is (randomly) either an Elf or a Kraken. When we move forward after our assignment and make calls on our myth to get our myth's food, what kind of food is it? At compile time, we can't figure out it's type so Swift can't either. This is yet one reason why we can't use generic protocols as a first-class type like concrete protocols.

Scenario #2 - As a typed array

let edibles: [Food] = [human, incorrectQuestionGuesser, stupidWizard, spinach]
let mythicalCreatures: [MythicalType] = [elf, kraken, sphinx, hippogriff]

for (myth, index) in mythicalCreatures.enumerate() {

Maybe you have an array of Food objects that you want to feed to your zoo of mythical creatures. Using our MythicalType protocol, our code could look very similar to scenario above! However, during our enumeration, it would be very hard to infer a concrete type from mythicalCreatures array. Since the parameter of our MythicalType protocol's devour() function doesn't accept a concrete type, Swift can't infer that you are doing a legal function call when enumerating over your mythicalCreatures array. What would our MythicalType's FoodType be in each step of our enumeration? No one knows! Can the compiler infer that we are matching types when passing our food in to our devour() function throughout the enumeration? No! If you pass the wrong food to the wrong mythical creature at runtime, you could potentially have a pretty nasty crash.

#Well, How do we fix it? With Type Erasure, of Course! Duh.

Because everyone knows what type erasure is.

Aaaaand in case you don't, then prepare yourselves...because it's LESSON TIME!

Even with Swift's shortcomings, that doesn't stop us from being able to do certain workarounds. Above, I stated that we can't use abstract protocols as concrete types. Thankfully, that isn't completely true. In programming there is a concept known as a thunk that can help us out with this particular shortcoming! A thunk is a helper struct/class that forwards calls from one object to another object. This is useful for scenarios where those two objects can't normally talk to one another. Using this, we can effectively erase our abstract generic protocol types in favor of another concrete, more fully-fledged type. This is often referred to as type erasure.

By creating a class that conforms to our original protocol and uses generics, we can more explicitly define our protocol's associated type. Here is an example of our MythicalType protocol, fully type erased as a new, AnyMythicalType class (fully commented so you know what's happening with each part of the class):

//By making this class a generic class, we can define a type T that we forward to our dependency injected MythicalType.
//Since this class conforms to our MythicalType protocol, we can call MythicalType's functions regularly.

class AnyMythicalType<T>: MythicalType {
    //These variables are private, preventing others from assigning to them or calling them directly. 
    //Since each type is the exact same type as the functions in our MythicalType, we can assign a MythicalType instance's function signatures to these variables.
    //By assigning a MythicalType instance's function signatures to these variables, we can effectively forward any calls made to AnyMythicalType's functions to the original Spaceship instance.
    private let _prepareFood: (Void -> [T])
    private let _devour: (T -> Void)

    //By creating only one required init, we ensure that we can only initialize this class one way.
    required init<U: MythicalType where U.FoodType == T>(_ mythicalCreature: U) {
        _prepareFood = mythicalCreature.prepareFood
        _devour = mythicalCreature.devour

    //Because this forwarding class does conform to the MythicalType protocol, we can call the MythicalType functions directly on this class. This class, as you can see, will forward that message to the function signatures that we assigned at the time of initialization.
    func prepareFood() -> [T] {
        return _prepareFood()

    //Here is the second function in the MythicalType protocol and the forwarded message.
    func devour(edible: T) {

Now, using our thunk, we can more concretely express our MythicalType protocol's associated FoodType.

let kraken = Kraken()

//Here is the magic at work! We can now define our generic `MythicalType`'s FoodType explicitly.
let mythicalCreature: AnyMythicalType<Human>

mythicalCreature = AnyMythicalType(kraken)

In this example, we've limited our variable so we can only use an instance of AnyMythicalType to wrap any MythicalType whose FoodType is a Human. No more compiler complaints! πŸ’–

And by the way, while this may look like a hack, Apple actually uses type erasure for the AnySequence type in the Swift Standard Library!

But hold the phone

As of this writing, there is still a couple of issues with using type-erased thunks in Swift. First off, it's not quite obvious how to type erase your protocol properties. Secondly, since the type-erased thunk is just a generic class, it does not yet support covariance.

Type Erasing Protocol Property Variables

With what we learned so far, it's fairly easy to forward your protocol's function calls to our thunk. However, properties in your protocol are a lot more difficult to type erase. Say we added a couple of properties to our MythicalType protocol:

protocol MythicalType {
    associatedtype FoodType

    var lastEatenFood: FoodType { get set }

Right off the bat, when thinking of what our thunk actually does, we can see a couple of problems. Our thunk would have to look like this to continue conforming to the MythicalType protocol:

class AnyMythicalType<T>: MythicalType {
    let lastEatenFood: T

    required init<U: MythicalType where U.FoodType == T>(_ mythicalCreature: U) {
        lastEatenFood = mythicalCreature.lastEatenFood


What works so well with our thunk is that we're capturing the original function pointers from the object we initialized with and we forward any call to our thunk's protocol functions to the original object's protocol functions. Since Swift is such a big fan of value types, we can't capture a reference to a value type in the case of our properties. On assignment within our initializer, our properties would be copied. Therefore any thing we do to our thunk's properties won't be reflected in the original object. Normally, in Objective-C, we could capture the getter and setter function pointers and forward calls to those like we did with our protocol functions earlier in this post. However, Swift doesn't expose the getter and setter function for pure Swift types. Instead we need to create our own getters/setters by using protocol extensions! Here is what that looks like:

// MARK: Type Erased Property Getters/Setters
private extension MythicalType {
    func setLastEatenFood(food: FoodType) {
        lastEatenFood = food

    func getLastEatenFood() -> FoodType {
        return lastEatenFood

class AnyMythicalType<T>: MythicalType {

Here we are essentially doing something clever with what we've already learned so far. By using a private extension, we aren't exposing our getters and setters since no one needs to know about them. In doing so, we are also creating a couple of function pointers that we can now assign to private variables within our type erased thunk! From here you guys probably already know what I'm going to do:

class AnyMythicalType<T>: MythicalType {
    var lastEatenFood: T {
        get { return _getLastEatenFood() }
        set { _setLastEatenFood(newValue) }

    private let _getLastEatenFood: (Void -> T)
    private let _setLastEatenFood: (T -> Void)

    required init<U: MythicalType where U.FoodType == T>(_ mythicalCreature: U) {
        _getLastEatenFood = mythicalCreature.getLastEatenFood
        _setLastEatenFood = mythicalCreature.setLastEatenFood


And with that, we've safely erased our protocol properties! There is one last error though: you can't assign mutating functions to a variable! If your protocol isn't a class protocol like so:

protocol MythicalType: class {}

Then you may have noticed this error when typing this code above:

This is because protocols in Swift can be conformed to by structs and enums which are value types. Because of this, we would need to make our generated setter a mutating func. Swift doesn't support this because of the copy semantics of value types. To fix this, we can make sure our protocol is a class protocol which allows us to assign our setter without making it a mutating func!

Covariance in Generic Classes 😭

Covariance is the next problem that can arise from using type erased thunks. Unfortunately, this problem can't be solved by being clever like we did with type erasing our protocol property variables. From a member of the Swift team at Apple:

What this essentially means is that you can't have code that behaves like this quite yet:

let anyMythicalCreature: AnyMythicalType

//Logically, these should work, BUT THEY DON'T
anyMythicalCreature = AnyMythicalType(kraken)
anyMythicalCreature = AnyMythicalType(elf)
anyMythicalCreature = AnyMythicalType(sphinx)
anyMythicalCreature = AnyMythicalType(hippogriff)

In our example, our anyMythicalCreature variable is of type AnyMythicalType<AnyObject>. Even though normally we can assign anything to a variable of type
because of covariance, our generic types don't support this behavior quite yet. Because of this, you may find that using type erasure may not work for your generic protocols for anything more complex than a one to one assignment in your logic. But never fear! Apple has finally released Swift as open source so this may mean that one of you can fix this problem! (Or me πŸ€“).

That's it y'all

This post was really fun for me to write. And even at a high level, I hope that some of you got to understand complex ideas such as type erasure better than I did when I read about it for the first time. However, if you want to learn more about it, I suggest either @segiddins' wonderful post here, or this other awesome post by @cocoaphony. The actual creation of a generic protocol is not hard at all. Where you find your real trouble is when trying to use one as you would a regular protocol. Hopefully, all of this can help you with your troubles along the way whilst giving you some extra wisdom as to how to structure your respective architectures when considering using generic protocols. POP is awesome (protocol oriented programming) but sometimes we all need a helping hand. And of course, as always:

Happy coding fellow nerds!