What are primary associated types in Swift 5.7?

Published on: June 8, 2022

Swift 5.7 introduces many new features that involve generics and protocols. In this post, we're going to explore an extremely powerful new features that's called "primary associated types". By the end of this post you will know and understand what primary associated types are, and why I think they are extremely important and powerful to help you write better code.

If your familiar with Swift 5.6 or earlier, you might know that protocols with associated types have always been somewhat of an interesting beast. They were hard to use sometimes, and before Swift 5.1 we would always have to resort to using generics whenever we wanted to make use of a protocol with an associated type. Consider the following example:

class MusicPlayer {
  func play(_ playlist: Collection) { /* ... */ } 

This example doesn't compile in Swift 5.1, and it still wouldn’t today in Swift 5.7. The reason is that Collection has various associated types that the compiler must be able to fill in if we want to use Collection. For example, we need to what kind of Element our collection holds.

A common workaround to use protocols with associated types in our code is to use a generic that's constrained to a protocol:

class MusicPlayer<Playlist: Collection> {
  func play(_ playlist: Playlist) { /* ... */ } 

If you're not quite sure what this example does, take a look at this post I wrote to learn more about using generics and associated types.

Instead of using Collection as an existential (a box that holds an object that conforms to Collection) we use Collection as a constraint on a generic type that we called Playlist. This means that the compiler will always know which object is used to fill in Playlist.

In Swift 5.1, the some keyword was introduced which, combined with Swift 5.7's capability to use the some keyword on function arguments, allows us to write the following:

class MusicPlayer {
  func play(_ playlist: some Collection) { /* ... */ } 

To learn more about the some keyword, I recommend you take a look at this post that explains everything you need to know about some.

This is nice, but both the generic solution and the some solution have an important issue. We don’t know what’s inside of the Collection. Could be String, could be Track, could be Album, there’s no way to know. This makes func play(_ playlist: some Collection) practically useless for our MusicPlayer.

In Swift 5.7, protocols can specify primary associated types. These associated types are a lot like generics. They allow developers to specify the type for a given associated type as a generic constraint.

For Collection, the Swift library added a primary associated type for the Element associated type.

This means that you can specify the element that must be in a Collection when you pass it to a function like our func play(_ playlist: some Collection). Before I show you how, let’s take a look at how a protocol defines a primary associated type:

public protocol Collection<Element> : Sequence {

  associatedtype Element
  associatedtype Iterator = IndexingIterator<Self>
  associatedtype SubSequence : Collection = Slice<Self> where Self.Element == Self.SubSequence.Element, Self.SubSequence == Self.SubSequence.SubSequence

  // a lot of other stuff

Notice how the protocol has multiple associated types but only Element is written between <> on the Collection protocol. That’s because Element is a primary associated type. When working with a collection, we often don’t care what kind of Iterator it makes. We just want to know what’s inside of the Collection!

So to specialize our playlist, we can write the following code:

class MusicPlayer {
  func play(_ playlist: some Collection<Track>) { /* ... */ }

Note that the above is functionally equivalent to the following if Playlist is only used in one place:

class MusicPlayer {
  func play<Playlist: Collection<Track>>(_ playlist: Playlist) { /* ... */ }

While the two snippets above are equivalent in functionallity the former option that uses some is preferred. The reason for this is that code with some is easier to read and reason about than having a generic that doesn't need to be a generic.

Note that this also works with the any keyword. For example, if we want to store our playlist on our MusicPlayer, we could write the following code:

class MusicPlayer {
    var playlist: any Collection<Track> = []

    func play(_ playlist: some Collection<Track>) {
        self.playlist = playlist

With primary associated types we can write much more expressive and powerful code, and I’m very happy to see this addition to the Swift language.


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