Misnomers in the Docs on Swift Parameters

[I filed this as Radar #31462992. I might be overthinking things — this is a little like quibbling over whether something's a metaphor or a simile — but word choices matter to me. You should see how I overthink my variable names.]

In "The Swift Programming Language (Swift 3.1)" the terms "argument label" and "parameter name" are misnomers. I have suggestions for solutions.

Misnomers

Programmers often use the terms "parameter" and "argument" interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings.

  • A parameter is a specification of a value that a function expects to be passed to it. It is an inherent part of the function signature. A programmer who calls the function needs to understand this specification so they can call the function correctly.

  • An argument is an actual value that is passed to a function when the function is called. The programmer who implements the function needs the argument to have a name so their code can reference that value.

The way the Swift documentation uses these terms is the reverse of the above meanings. Consider this function:

func wave(toward person: Person) { print("Hello, \(person).") }

According to the docs, "toward" is the argument label and "person" is the parameter name. This is backwards, because the "toward" is the part that the caller of the function must get right, whereas "person" is a local name that's used in the implementation of the function, and that doesn't matter to the caller at all. The word "toward" is part of the function signature, whereas the word "person" isn't.

To drive this point home, imagine that wave(toward:) is a method of a class. Overrides of the method can replace "person" with whatever name they like, or leave out the separate name altogether:

// class GenericWaver
func wave(toward person: Person) { print("Hello, \(person).") }
 
// class FriendlyWaver
override func wave(toward guest: Person) { print("Welcome, \(guest)!") }
 
// class HostileWaver
override func wave(toward enemy: Person) { print("Get lost, \(enemy)!") }
 
// class LazyWaver
override func wave(toward: Person) { print("Whatever, \(toward).") }

If we use the conventional meaning of "parameter" and "argument", then in all four methods, "toward" is part of the parameter description, whereas "person", "guest", "enemy", and "toward" are different names for the same argument — contrary to the terminology used in the docs.

Possible solutions

Fixing this misnaming is not quite as simple as switching the terms "parameter name" and "argument label", because those terms actually make two distinctions:

  • parameter vs. argument
  • label vs. name

Consider again the first "wave" function above. Linguistically speaking, what's happening is that the prepositional phrase "toward person" is broken up so that the noun "person" can be referenced in the function implementation. The preposition "toward" is used as a cue to the programmer calling the function, as a signpost, a kind of fill-in-the-blank. The term "label" makes sense. It's analogous to a label in a form-based user interface:

Mail fields for To, From, etc.

By this reasoning, the most accurate correction would be to use the terms "parameter label" and "argument name".

If I only cared about formal precision, I'd leave it at that, but these names feel heavy to me, and still potentially confusing.

Another solution would be to use the wording Daniel Steinberg uses in A Swift Kickstart: every parameter has an "external name" and an "internal name". This approach gets rid of the label-vs.-name distinction, and this simplification buys increased clarity — the distinction between "external" and "internal" is immediately clear. As a bonus, the rest of the documentation would be a little more free to use "parameter" and "argument" interchangeably without risking confusion. That might or might not be a good thing, depending on your taste.

Yet another solution would be instead to get rid of the parameter-vs.-argument distinction, and call the things "argument label" and "argument name".

One more thing. If you choose to have different external and internal names, the docs describe the external name as something that you add to the left of the internal name. To my mind, it's the other way around: I'd suggest describing the internal name as something you insert after the external name. The difference is subtle, but to me it's meaningful, because the external name is primary and essential, whereas the separate internal name can be thought of as an optional implementation detail. (This is a bit of an oversimplification of the thought process behind having an internal name, but I think the general point still stands.)

ChessFidget

I'm halfway through a 12-week stint at the Recurse Center. One of the first things I did was to write a silly chess app called "ChessFidget" to help myself learn Swift. Here's more about it, including the source code. There's a link in the README to a double-clickable binary you can run without having to compile the code.

Here's a 5-minute presentation I gave about it:

The Incredible Shrinking Docs

Wouldn't you know, I was wondering about documentation in Xcode 8, and indeed it has fundamentally changed. The DevPubs team has hugely reduced the size of the docs and apparently integrated them with Xcode so that there is no longer a need for a separate download step.

Running the Xcode 8 beta, I find I'm able to browse the docs with WiFi turned off. I know I'm looking at the Sierra docs, because NSGridView is there. Furthermore, docsets are no longer listed in the Downloads pane of the prefs panel. It's like magic — kudos to the DevPubs team!

I'm guessing this news about the docs was announced during the Platform State of the Union. I missed that session when it was live-streamed, so I'll have to watch it later. I'll see if it confirms my understanding, and I'll think about implications for AppKiDo.

The Developer Tools people at Apple have a lot of momentum lately. I can't remember when it felt so much like they were working hard to connect with us, to show that they hear us (the culture around Swift seems incredibly positive), to create cool tools, and to take away pain points.

I wonder if squashing the documentation size was important not only for Xcode but for the Swift Playgrounds iPad app and/or future possibilities for using iPads for development.

Quick Explanation of the Term "Application Bundle"

Follow-up to my previous post about receipt files. Again, this is Mac-centric.

WHAT IS AN APPLICATION BUNDLE?

"Application bundle" is Cocoa developer terminology for an application as it exists in the file system of your computer. The application consists of a number of files organized in a directory. The directory has special attributes and has a specific subdirectory structure.

WHERE IS THIS DIRECTORY? ALL I SEE IS THE APPLICATION FILE.

You only think you see a regular file. When you see an application icon in the Finder, such as the Safari icon, it looks like any other file icon. However, the Finder is telling at least two and possibly three lies about the application.

LIE #1: HIDING THE .app EXTENSION

On the file system, the name of the application is not actually "Safari" (for example) but "Safari.app", with a ".app" extension.

You can see all the .app extensions in Terminal:

ls /Applications

You can also see an application's filename in the Finder by selecting the application icon and doing a Get Info. You'll see the ".app" extension. Alternatively, if you go to Preferences > Advanced and turn on "Show all filename extensions", you'll see the .app extensions for all apps.

LIE #2: MAKING A DIRECTORY LOOK LIKE A FILE

An application is not a regular file, as it appears to be in the Finder, but a directory with special attributes and specific subdirectory structure. Such a directory is called a "bundle".

You can see the subdirectory structure in Terminal:

ls -l /Applications/Safari.app
ls -l /Applications/Safari.app/Contents

You can also see the directory structure in the Finder by right-clicking the application icon and selecting "Show Package Contents". You will see there is a subdirectory called "Contents", and within that there is a bunch of other stuff.

LIE #3: POSSIBLY A DIFFERENT NAME ALTOGETHER

Usually the Finder displays the name of the application as the directory name minus the ".app" extension. Thus, "Safari" instead of "Safari.app", "Contacts" instead of "Contacts.app", etc.

However, it is possible for applications to specify a different name to display in the Finder. The main reason for this is to localize the displayed application name. It is very rare to encounter this "lie" if English is your Mac's primary language.

Search for the term "CFBundleDisplayName" for the nuts and bolts of how developers get their apps to do this.

Quick Explanation of the Receipt File

I was explaining the MAS receipt file to a friend and decided to write a blog post instead of an email, on the principle Scott Hanselman has brilliantly advocated that we should conserve and amplify the limited number of keystrokes we have left in us.

I'm purely a Mac developer at the moment, but as far as I know this high-level explanation applies to iOS as well. No idea about watchOS.

WHAT IS THE RECEIPT?

The receipt is a file on your computer used for DRM of purchases from the App Store. There is a separate receipt for each app.

The receipt file contains:

  • Identifying information about the computer on which the app is installed — specifically, the MAC address of the device's primary network interface. Note that "MAC address", with the "MAC" in all caps, is a networking term. Nothing to do with "Mac" as in "Macintosh".

  • Identifying information about the app that the receipt is for — specifically, the app's bundle ID and version number.

  • Purchase history. Information about the app purchase and any subsequent in-app purchases.

WHERE DOES THE RECEIPT LIVE?

The receipt file is located inside the application bundle. On the Mac, it is at Contents/_MASReceipt/receipt. (If you don't know what the application bundle is, I've written another quickie blog post explaining it.)

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR DRM?

The system is responsible for creating the receipt. By "system" I mean the OS in conjunction with the App Store. The system code-signs the receipt to prevent tampering. It's the job of Apple's developers to have gotten this right.

The application is responsible for validating the receipt. It's the job of the app developers to get this right.

WHEN DOES THE RECEIPT GET WRITTEN?

The receipt gets created on your computer when you download the app from the App Store. The receipt is then updated in the following situations:

  • If a newer version of the app becomes available on the App Store, the receipt is updated when you upgrade to the newer version.

  • If the app supports in-app purchases, the receipt is updated whenever you do an in-app purchase.

  • When you "Restore Purchases", the receipt is updated.

Here's what I mean by "Restore Purchases". Certain types of in-app purchases apply to all computers on which you have installed the app, not just the computer on which you made the purchase. A typical example would be an IAP that unlocks premium features. If you made such a purchase on a different computer, you may need to explicitly "restore" that purchase on the computer you are using. Apple's App Store rules require the app to provide a way for you to do this. Usually the app provides a button or menu item with a name like "Restore Purchases".

HOW DOES THE APPLICATION USE THE RECEIPT?

The application does two things with the receipt:

  • It validates the file contents to confirm the receipt hasn't been tampered with.

  • It checks in-app purchases to see what enhanced functionality the user has purchased. In-app purchases may include permanent "unlocking" of features, or they may be subscription-based, in which case the app should check the expiration dates of the subscriptions.

Both of these steps are performed by parsing the receipt file, which is a science in itself. There's an excellent article on objc.io that explains what is required:

You may wonder why Apple hasn’t provided a simple API to validate the receipt. For the sake of demonstration, imagine that such a method exists (for example, [[NSBundle mainBundle] validateReceipt]). An attacker would simply look for this selector inside the binary and patch the code to skip the call. Since every developer would use the same validation method, hacking would be too easy.

Instead, Apple made the choice to use standard cryptography and encoding techniques, and to provide some help — in the form of documentation and WWDC sessions — for implementing your own receipt validation code. However, this is not an easy process, and it requires a good understanding of cryptography and of a variety of secure coding techniques.

Of course, there are several off-the-shelf implementations available (for example, on GitHub), but they are often just reference implementations and suffer from the same problem outlined above if everybody uses them: it becomes very easy for attackers to crack the validation code. So it’s important to develop a solution that is unique and secure enough to resist common attacks.

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