Introducing Protocol-Oriented Programming in Swift 2

Erik Kerber
Swift Bird brings speedy new features to Swift 2!

Swift Bird brings speedy new features to Swift 2!

Note: This tutorial requires Xcode 7 and Swift 2, which will be in beta until this fall. You can download the latest beta on Apple’s developer portal.

At WWDC 2015, Apple announced the second major revision of the Swift language with Swift 2, which includes several new language features to help improve the way you write code.

Among the more exciting new features are protocol extensions. In the first version of Swift, it was possible to extend the functionality of existing class, struct and enum types. Now with Swift 2, you can extend a protocol as well.

While it may only seem like a minor feature at first, protocol extensions are extremely powerful and can transform the way you write code. In this tutorial, you’ll explore the ways you can create and use protocol extensions, as well as the new techniques and protocol-oriented programming patterns they open up to your code.

You’ll also see how the Swift team was able to use protocol extensions to improve the Swift standard library itself, and how it impacts the code you write.

Getting Started

Begin by creating a new playground. In Xcode, select File\New\Playground… and name the playground SwiftProtocols. You can select any platform, since all the code in this tutorial is platform-agnostic. Click Next to choose where you would like to save it, and finally click Create.

Once your new playground is open, add the following code to it:

protocol Bird {
  var name: String { get }
  var canFly: Bool { get }
protocol Flyable {
  var airspeedVelocity: Double { get }

This defines a simple protocol Bird with properties name and canFly, as well as a Flyable protocol which defines airspeedVelocity.

In a pre-protocol world, you might have started with Flyable as a base class and then relied on inheritance to define Bird as well as other things that fly, such as airplanes. Note that here, everything is starting out as a protocol!

You’ll see how this makes the entire system more flexible when you start to define actual types next.

Defining Protocol-conforming Types

Add the following struct definition to the bottom of the playground:

struct FlappyBird: Bird, Flyable {
  let name: String
  let flappyAmplitude: Double
  let flappyFrequency: Double
  let canFly = true
  var airspeedVelocity: Double {
    return 3 * flappyFrequency * flappyAmplitude

This defines a new struct FlappyBird, which conforms to both the Bird and Flyable protocols. Its airspeedVelocity is calculated as a function of flappyFrequency and flappyAmplitude. Being flappy, it returns true for canFly. :]

Next, add the following two struct definitions to the bottom of the playground:

struct Penguin: Bird {
  let name: String
  let canFly = false
struct SwiftBird: Bird, Flyable {
  var name: String { return "Swift \(version)" }
  let version: Double
  let canFly = true
  // Swift is FAST!
  var airspeedVelocity: Double { return 2000.0 }

A Penguin is a Bird, but cannot fly. A-ha – It’s a good thing you didn’t take the inheritance approach, and make all birds flyable after all! A SwiftBird is of course very fast with a high airspeed velocity.

Already you can see some redundancies. Every type of Bird has to declare whether it canFly or not, even though there’s already a notion of Flyable in your system.

Extending Protocols With Default Implementations

With protocol extensions, you can define default behavior for a protocol. Add the following just below the Bird protocol definition:

extension Bird where Self: Flyable {
  // Flyable birds can fly!
  var canFly: Bool { return true }

This defines an extension on Bird that sets the default behavior for canFly to return true whenever the type is also Flyable. In other words, any Flyable bird no longer need to explicitly declare so!


Swift 1.2 introduced this where syntax to if-let binding, and Swift 2 brings that power to conditionally extend a protocol.

Delete the let canFly = true from both the FlappyBird and SwiftBird struct declarations. You’ll see that the playground successfully builds since the protocol extension now handles that requirement for you.

Why Not Base Classes?

Protocol extensions and default implementations may seem similar to using a base class or even abstract classes in other languages, but they offer a few key advantages in Swift:

  • Because types can conform to more than one protocol, they can be decorated with default behaviors from multiple protocols. Unlike multiple inheritance of classes which some programming languages support, protocol extensions do not introduce any additional state.
  • Protocols can be adopted by classes, structs and enums. Base classes and inheritance are restricted to class types.

In other words, protocol extensions provide the ability to define default behavior for value types and not just classes.

You’ve already seen this in action with a struct; next, add the following enum definition to the end of the playground:

enum UnladenSwallow: Bird, Flyable {
  case African
  case European
  case Unknown
  var name: String {
    switch self {
      case .African:
        return "African"
      case .European:
        return "European"
      case .Unknown:
        return "What do you mean? African or European?"
  var airspeedVelocity: Double {
    switch self {
      case .African:
        return 10.0
      case .European:
        return 9.9
      case .Unknown:
        fatalError("You are thrown from the bridge of death!")

As with any other value type, all you need to do is define the correct properties so UnladenSwallow conforms to the two protocols. Because it conforms to both Bird and Flyable, it also gets the default implementation for canFly!

Did you really think this tutorial involving airspeedVelocity wouldn’t include a Monty Python reference? :]

Extending Protocols

Perhaps the most common use of protocol extensions is extending external protocols, either those defined in the Swift standard library or a third party framework.

Add the following to the bottom of the playground:

extension CollectionType {
  func skip(skip: Int) -> [Generator.Element] {
    guard skip != 0 else { return [] }
    var index = self.startIndex
    var result: [Generator.Element] = []
    var i = 0
    repeat {
      if i % skip == 0 {
      index = index.successor()
    } while (index != self.endIndex)
    return result

This defines an extension on CollectionType that defines a new skip(_:) method that “skips” every skip elements in the collection and returns an array of just the unskipped elements.

CollectionType is a protocol conformed to by types such as arrays and dictionaries in Swift. That means this new behavior now exists on every CollectionType in your app! Add the following code to the bottom of the playground to see it in action:

let bunchaBirds: [Bird] =
   Penguin(name: "King Penguin"),
   SwiftBird(version: 2.0),
   FlappyBird(name: "Felipe", flappyAmplitude: 3.0, flappyFrequency: 20.0)]

Here, you’re defining an array of birds including many of the types you’ve already defined. Since arrays conform to CollectionType, that means skip(_:) is available to them too.

Extending Your Own Protocols

Perhaps as exciting as adding new behaviors on protocols from the Swift standard library, you can also define default behaviors.

Modify the Bird protocol declaration to conform to the BooleanType protocol:

protocol Bird: BooleanType {

Conforming to BooleanType means your type needs to have a boolValue property so it acts like a Boolean. Does that mean you now have to add this property to every current and future Bird type?

Of course, there’s an easier way with protocol extensions. Add the code underneath the Bird definition:

extension BooleanType where Self: Bird {
  var boolValue: Bool {
    return self.canFly

This extension will make the canFly property represent each Bird type’s Boolean value.

To try it out, add the following to the bottom of the playground:

if UnladenSwallow.African {
  print("I can fly!")
} else {
  print("Guess I’ll just sit here :[")

You should see ”I can fly!” appear in the assistant editor. But more notably, you just used an African Unladen Swallow in an if statement!

Effects on the Swift Standard Library

You’ve seen how protocol extensions are a great way to customize and extend the capabilities of your code as well protocols defined outside of your app. What may surprise you is how the Swift team was able to use protocol extensions to even improve the way the Swift standard library is written as well.

Swift helps promote functional programming paradigms by including methods such as map, reduce, and filter in the standard library. These methods exist on various CollectionType members such as Array:

// Counts the number of characters in the array
["frog", "pants"].map { $0.length }.reduce(0) { $0 + $1 } // returns 9

Calling map on the array returns another array, on which reduce is called to reduce the result down to the final value 9.

In this case, map and reduce are included on Array as part of the Swift standard library. If you Cmd-Click on map, you can see how it is defined.

In Swift 1.2, you’d see a definition that looks like this:

// Swift 1.2
extension Array : _ArrayType {
  /// Return an `Array` containing the results of calling
  /// `transform(x)` on each element `x` of `self`
  func map<U>(transform: (T) -> U) -> [U]

The map function here is defined as an extension on Array. Swift’s functional functions work for more than just Array however, and should be for any CollectionType, so how does Swift 1.2 make this work?

If you call map on a Range and Cmd-Click on map from there, you’ll see the following definition:

// Swift 1.2
extension Range {
  /// Return an array containing the results of calling
  /// `transform(x)` on each element `x` of `self`.
  func map<U>(transform: (T) -> U) -> [U]

It turns out that in Swift 1.2, map needed to be re-defined for each CollectionType in the Swift standard library! This is because although Array and Range are both CollectionType, structs cannot be subclassed and cannot have common implementations.

This isn’t just a nuance of how the Swift standard library is made, it also limits what you can do with Swift types.

The generic function below takes in a CollectionType of Flyable and returns the element with the highest airspeedVelocity:

func topSpeed<T: CollectionType where T.GeneratorType: Flyable>(collection: T) -> Double { { $0.airspeedVelocity }.reduce { max($0, $1)}

In Swift 1.2 without protocol extensions, this is actually a build error. The map and reduce functions only exist on a set of predefined types and will not work on any arbitrary CollectionType.

With Swift 2.0 and protocol extensions, the definition for map in both Array and Range looks like this:

// Swift 2.0
extension CollectionType {
  /// Return an `Array` containing the results of mapping `transform`
  /// over `self`.
  /// - Complexity: O(N).
  func map<T>(@noescape transform: (Self.Generator.Element) -> T) -> [T]

Although you can’t see the source code of map — at least until Swift 2 is open sourced! — CollectionType now has a default implementation of map that all CollectionType types get for free!

Add the generic function mentioned earlier to the bottom of the playground:

func topSpeed<T: CollectionType where T.Generator.Element == Flyable>(c: T) -> Double {
  return { $0.airspeedVelocity }.reduce(0) { max($0, $1) }

The map and reduce methods are available to your collection of Flyable instances. Now you can finally answer the question of who is the fastest of them all by adding the following code to the bottom of the playground:

let flyingBirds: [Flyable] = 
  SwiftBird(version: 2.0)]
topSpeed(flyingBirds) // 2000.0

As if it were ever in doubt! :]

Where To Go From Here?

You can download the complete playground with all the code in this tutorial here.

You’ve seen the power of protocol-oriented programming by creating your own simple protocols and extending them using protocol extensions. With default implementations, you can give existing protocols common and automatic behavior, much like a base class but better since it can apply to structs and enums too.

In addition, protocol extensions can not only be used to extend your own protocols, but can extend and provide default behavior to protocols in the Swift standard library, Cocoa, and Cocoa Touch.

To get an overview of the other exciting features in Swift 2, you can read our “what’s new in Swift 2.0” article, or the Swift 2 announcement on Apple’s Swift blog.

You can view an excellent WWDC session on Protocol Oriented Programming on Apple’s developer portal for a more in-depth look into the theory behind it all.

Have any questions? Let us know in the forum discussion below!


Each tutorial at is created by a team of dedicated developers so that it meets our high quality standards. The team members who worked on this tutorial are:

Erik Kerber

Erik is an iOS guy from Minneapolis. Currently a Lead iOS developer at Target, and an independent consultant at Distilled Bits.

Outside of coding, he enjoys cramming as much outdoor activity into summer as he can (running, cycling, rowing, fishing, cabin-ing). In the winter, he patiently waits for summer.

You can find Erik on Twitter or his homepage.

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