Computed Properties are Awesome…

…and should be used as little as possible

One of the things I’ve seen happen multiple times in my career is a language which didn’t have computed properties get them, and then watch as mediocre coders continue to cargo-cult old behaviors that are now counter-productive and obsolete.

The Problem

Things change. In particular, data-structures change. So one day you might decide that a Person looks like:

{
  name,
  address,
  email
}

and another day you decide it really should be:

{
  firstName,
  lastName,
  streetAddress,
  city,
  state,
  postcode,
  country,
  contacts[]
}

In fact, you’re likely to move from the first model to the second model in increments. Meanwhile you’re writing other code that assumes the current model, whatever it happens to be. There’ll always be “perfectly good” stuff that works with a given representation at a given time, and breaking stuff that’s “perfectly good” because other stuff is changing is bad.

The Solution

The solution is to use “getters” and “setters”. So you tell people never to expose underlying representations of data and instead write methods that can remain graven in stone that don’t change. So your initial representation is:

{
  getName,
  setName,
  …,
  _name,
  _address,
  …,
} 

and now you can split _name into _firstName and _lastName, rewrite getName, figure out how to implement setName and/or find all occurrences of setName and fix them, and so on.

Problem solved!

Problems with the Solution

Before, when you started out with only three fields, your Person object had exactly three members and no code. The solution immediately changed that to nine members (3 times as many) and six of those are functions. Now, every time you access any property, it’s a function call. If you’re using a framework that transparently wraps function calls for various reasons you’re maybe calling 3 functions to do a simple property lookup.

But aside from that, it works, and the fact that it prevents unnecessary breakage is a win, even if it makes for more code, less readable code, experimentation, and costs performance and memory.

A better solution

A better solution is immediately obvious to anyone who has used a language with computed properties. In this case you go back to your original object to start with, and when things change, you replace the changed properties with getters and setters so that for legacy code (and everything is legacy code eventually) nothing changes.

E.g. when name becomes firstName and lastName, you implement name as a computed property (implemented in the obvious way) and code that expects a name property to exist just keeps on working (with a slight performance cost that is the same performance cost you would have starting out with the previous solution.

The Antipattern

This exact thing happened when Objective-C added computed properties. All the folks who told you to write getters and setters for your Objective-C properties told you to ignore computed properties and keep doing things the old way or, perhaps worse, use computed properties to write getters and setters, so now you start with:

{
  get name() { return this._name },
  set name(x) { this._name = x },
  _name,
  /* and so on */
}

Is there are good reason for this?

There can be arguments at the margins in some cases that computed properties will be less performant than getters and setters (although in Obj-C that’s a huge stretch, since method dispatch is, by default, not lightning fast in Obj-C — indeed it’s a known performance issue that has a standard workaround (method calls in Obj-C involve looking up methods by name, the optimization is that you essentially grab a function pointer and hang on to it).

There’s absolutely no way that writing computed property wrappers around concrete properties just for the sake of it has any benefit whatsoever.

The short answer is “no”.

Aside: there’s one more marginal argument for getters and setters, that if you’re deprecrating a property (e.g. name) and you’d rather people didn’t call a hacky name setter that tries to compute firstName and lastName from a name string, it’s easier to codemod or grep calls to setName than calls to, say, .name =. I’ll reference this argument here even though I find it about as solid as arguments about how to write Javascript based on how well it plays with obfuscation.

I’m pretty sure cargo cult coders are still writing getters and setters in Swift, which has had computed properties since first release. (By the way, lazy computed properties are even more awesome.)