Type classes


Type classes, also known as extension interfaces, are usually represented in Swift as protocols with associated types and/or Self requirements. They are groups of functions that operate on generic type parameters and are governed by algebraic laws.

Type classes can be used to enable ad hoc polymorphism; they act as constraints added to type parameters in parametrically polymorphic types or functions.

Consider, for instance, the Equatable protocol. It is a type class that adds some functionality to existing types; more precisely, it enables to check for equality of values of a type. It is governed by the following laws:

  • Identity: a value is equal to itself (a == a).
  • Symmetry: if a == b, then b == a.
  • Transitivity: if a == b and b == c, then a == c.

The Equatable type class can be used to constrain implementations of parametrically polymorphic functions; e.g:

func allEqual<A: Equatable>(_ array: [A]) -> Bool {
    guard let first = array.first else { return false }
    return array.reduce(true) { partial, next in partial && next == first }

The function above is parametrically polymorphic; it operates of values of type A. Valid types to fill this type parameter need to conform to Equatable and enable the possibility to use the == operator.

Type classes of higher kind

Equatable, like many other protocols provided by Foundation or any other Swift framework, operates at the type level. However, there are many other interesting abstractions as type classes that need to operate at higher kind level. This is not possible by default in Swift, but Bow simulates HKTs and enables type classes to work at this level.

Let us consider the following example. We can try to define a type class that enables transforming values in containers; i.e., given an F<A>, we would like to obtain an F<B>, provided that we know how to transform from A to B:

  • F<A> is not possible to be written natively in Swift. Bow supports this feature by writing it as Kind<F, A>.
  • Transforming from A to B corresponds to a function (A) -> B.
  • Since this type class is intended to work on kinds * -> *, it should be implemented by F, so in the context of the definition of the type class, we can refer to F as a Self requirement.

Therefore, the definition of the type class may be:

protocol Transformer {
    static func transform<A, B>(_ fa: Kind<Self, A>, _ f: (A) -> B) -> Kind<Self, B>

Type class laws

As we mentioned above, type classes are governed by algebraic laws. This means that all implementations of the type class must behave on a certain and satisfy some properties. Each type class has its own laws, as the ones we presented for Equatable above.

For the Transformer type class that we are defining, we can consider some laws as well:

  • Identity: if we transform using the identity function (id), we must obtain the original value; i.e., F.transform(fa, id) == fa.
  • Composition: if we apply two transformations to a value, we must obtain the same result as if we apply a single transformation with the composition of the two transforming functions; i.e., F.transform(F.transform(fa, f), g) == F.transform(fa, g <<< f).

Swift does not provide a way of encoding these laws and enforcing them in every implementation. To do this, Bow type classes encode their laws as property-based tests using SwiftCheck. Then, each implementation can be tested against these laws to guarantee that the implementation satisfies them. Type class laws help us have a better reasoning about our code and some times help us rewrite pieces for optimization (like in the case of Transformer where we can compose functions and apply a single transformation instead of two).

Notice that sometimes you can provide an implementation for a given type class that does not satisfy the laws. Those are called lawless instances, in contrast to the ones that satisfy them, which are called lawful instances.

Type class instances

A type class instance is a concrete implementation of a type class for a given type. Instances are usually created through the extension mechanisms that Swift provides. For instance, let us provide an instance of Transformer for the Option data type in Bow:

extension ForOption: Transformer {
    static func transform<A, B>(_ fa: Kind<ForOption, A>, _ f: (A) -> B) -> Kind<ForOption, B> {
        return fa^.fold(Option<B>.none,                // It is empty, no transformation
                        { a in Option<B>.some(f(a)) }) // Transformed with f and wrapped in an Option<B>

Notice that, since the type class works at the kind level, it is not an extension of Option, but an extension of ForOption. Revisiting the definition of Transformer, the Self requirement is used in Kind<Self, A>. If we dissect the definition of Option<A>, it extends Kind<ForOption, A>. By doing some sort of pattern matching between Kind<Self, A> and Kind<ForOption, A>, we can see that it must be ForOption the candidate to do the extension.

In the case of types with a higher kind, like Either, we can resort to the same strategy: Either<L, R> is equivalent to Kind<EitherPartial, R>`, so the extension should be made on `EitherPartial`. Take a look at the following table for examples on some of the types in the core module for Bow.

Type What to extend for a type class like Transformer?
ArrayK extension ForArrayK: Transformer { … }
Const extension ConstPartial: Transformer { … }
Either extension EitherPartial: Transformer { … }
Id extension ForId: Transformer { … }
Ior extension IorPartial: Transformer { … }
NonEmptyArray extension ForNonEmptyArray : Transformer { … }
Option extension ForOption: Transformer { … }
Try extension ForTry: Transformer { … }
Validated extension ValidatedPartial: Transformer { … }

Projecting syntax on Kind

Type classes that operate on kinds can project some methods on this type so that they are easier to use. This is achieved through extension too; we can extend Kind with a constraint on its F type, and enable the syntax for transformer as an instance method:

extension Kind where F: Transformer {
    func transform<B>(_ f: (A) -> B) -> Kind<F, B> {
        return F.transform(self, f)

This way, every type that its witness has an instance of Transformer, will be able to use transform as an instance method. We have two ways of using this type class; consider a function to multiply by two the values contained in some structure:

func multiplyByTwo_firstVersion<F: Transformer>(_ value: Kind<F, Int>) -> Kind<F, Int> {
    return F.transform(value, { x in 2 * x })

func multiplyByTwo_secondVersion<F: Transformer>(_ value: Kind<F, Int>) -> Kind<F, Int> {
    return value.transform { x in 2 * x }

Both versions are equivalent. Type classes defined in Bow project their methods as instance or static methods in Kind to make them easier to find and use. Notice that the compiler is able to resolve which instance it needs to provide based on the type that we use to call the function:

let some = multiplyByTwo_firstVersion(Option.some(1))
let none = multiplyByTwo_secondVersion(Option.none())

Existing type classes in Bow

The reader may have guessed that the Transformer type class that we have created above is, in fact, the Functor type class, and transform corresponds to map. Bow modules include multiple type classes, like Functor, with their corresponding instances. The following tables summarize some of them; for further information, refer to the API reference for each one of them.

Type class Purpose
Semigroup Combine two objects of the same type
Monoid Combinable objects have an empty value
SemigroupK Combine two kinds of the same type
MonoidK Combinable kinds have an empty value
Functor Transform the contents of an effect, preserving its structure
Applicative Perform independent computations
Monad Perform sequential computations
ApplicativeError Recover from errors in independent computations
MonadError Recover from errors in sequential computations
Comonad Extract values from a structure
Bimonad Monad and Comonad behavior
Foldable Summarize values of a structure into a single value
Traverse Apply effects on the values of a structure
FunctorFilter Transform values based on a predicate
MonadFilter Execute values that pass a predicate, sequentially
TraverseFilter Traverse values that pass a predicate
MonadReader A Monad with capabilities to read from a shared environment
MonadWriter A Monad with the ability to produce a stream of data in addition to the computed values
MonadState A Monad with the ability to maintain (read and write) a state