ARC is coming!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer.

No seriously, ARC is coming!

In case you haven’t already heard, iOS 5 is introducing a new memory management paradigm called ARC. This is all very interesting to read about if you don’t do iOS development. I mean, like every day. Apparently, it’s different if you do, because I woke up this afternoon, and realized that in 2 weeks (no, I don’t have inside information. Go read the rumors, it’s not that far off), Apple is not just going to release iOS 5, they’re going to completely change how I think about writing apps.[1]

Memory management is hard. 25% of the bugs I fix are me implementing something not quite how the customer wanted it. The other 75%? Seriously, it’s me doing memory wrong. So naturally, where I work, we’ve developed all sorts of internal policies to prevent these errors from ever occurring. All IBOutlets should be declared (nonatomic, retain), never use ivars for reference counted objects, don’t use NSNotificationCenter with blocks, when assigning to properties always use “self.”, … and on and on. So what happens when iOS 5 drops? All these things become deprecated? A bad idea? No. They become worthless. As in, you can’t call [var retain] or [var autorelease], they generate compiler errors. What? Basically, we’ve spent all this time getting really really good at defensive programming with Objective C memory, and in two short weeks, all that knowledge will – overnight – be obsolete. We’ll upgrade all our projects to use ARC (which supports iOS 4, no so forced upgrades or alienating clients), and we’ll never think about retain/release again.[2]

Wait, what’s the big deal?

Still don’t get it? Raise your hand if you’re using Python 3. Thought so. You’re not using python 3. And the same thing is happening with Perl 6. You change everything around, and the community says, “Hey, wait a minute! We invested all this time and effort into the old system. You can’t just up and obsolete it!”[3]. But this is, in fact, what Apple is doing. And in all fairness, ARC is going to be much better. It’s going to make whole classes of bugs impossible, and it will probably drop our bug rate by something like 50%. It will be wonderful! But I’ve been programming for over 9 years now, and I’ve never seen this. The biggest upgrade I’ve followed was when PHP upgraded to 5.3. What happened? Namespaces. Oh, and anonymous functions. Yes, the change log is extensive, and seriously, I don’t mean to in any way devalue the hard work of the PHP dev team. I love 5.3, and it really annoys me that my web host doesn’t support it! But it’s just not that earth shattering. And more importantly, I never upgraded any of my code. Not a single line needed to be changed.

But Apple provides an auto ARC tool!

I’m aware of this, but I’m not complaining about having to change things. This isn’t about “all the work it’s going to take to switch to ARC” (because it’s really not that hard). It’s a mental shift – except that it’s more than that. It’s a mental jump. You can’t do that in the space of 5 minutes. You’re lucky to do that in a day. It amazes me that Apple has the influence to tell such a large community, “forget that, now we do it this way. Starting tomorrow.”, and lo and behold, that’s the way it’s done. I know it’s a simple idea, but I don’t believe it. I just can’t believe that Apple can completely change the whole memory management architecture overnight. No looking back.

This changes everything, again.

[1] Technically, not businessly.
[2] That’s actually not strictly true, because blocks can still get you into trouble, but it’s a different kind of trouble. After iOS 5 is released, I will never, for the rest of my life, think about release/retain patterns. That entire mental model will die.
[3] Unless you’re working on an experimental language like Haskell, but those people knew what they were getting into.

About Bion

I'm a software developer at Modo Payments, a mobile payment provider. When I'm not hacking away the office, you I'm usually at home hacking on something else. Or practicing Aikido. Anyway, I just post things here that Google couldn't help me with, so maybe it'll help you in the future. Since you're reading this, I guess it worked :)
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