2015-02-15

Classes in ECMAScript 6 (final semantics)

This blog post is outdated. Please read chapter “Classes” in “Exploring ES6”.


Recently, TC39 decided on the final semantics of classes in ECMAScript 6 [2]. This blog post explains how their final incarnation works. The most significant recent changes were related to how subclassing is handled.

Overview

    class Point {
        constructor(x, y) {
            this.x = x;
            this.y = y;
        }
        toString() {
            return '(' + this.x + ', ' + this.y + ')';
        }
    }
    
    class ColorPoint extends Point {
        constructor(x, y, color) {
            super(x, y);
            this.color = color;
        }
        toString() {
            return super.toString() + ' in ' + this.color;
        }
    }
    
    let cp = new ColorPoint(25, 8, 'green');
    cp.toString(); // '(25, 8) in green'
    
    console.log(cp instanceof ColorPoint); // true
    console.log(cp instanceof Point); // true

The essentials

Base classes

A class is defined like this in ECMAScript 6 (ES6):

    class Point {
        constructor(x, y) {
            this.x = x;
            this.y = y;
        }
        toString() {
            return '(' + this.x + ', ' + this.y + ')';
        }
    }

You use this class just like an ES5 constructor function:

    > var p = new Point(25, 8);
    > p.toString()
    '(25, 8)'

In fact, the result of a class definition is a function:

    > typeof Point
    'function'

However, you can only invoke a class via new, not via a function call (Sect. 9.2.2 in the spec):

    > Point()
    TypeError: Classes can’t be function-called
Class declarations are not hoisted

Function declarations are hoisted: When entering a scope, the functions that are declared in it are immediately available – independently of where the declarations happen. That means that you can call a function that is declared later:

    foo(); // works, because `foo` is hoisted
    
    function foo() {}

In contrast, class declarations are not hoisted. Therefore, a class only exists after execution reached its definition and it was evaluated. Accessing it beforehand leads to a ReferenceError:

    new Foo(); // ReferenceError
    
    class Foo {}

The reason for this limitation is that classes can have an extends clause whose value is an arbitrary expression. That expression must be evaluated in the proper “location”, its evaluation can’t be hoisted.

Not having hoisting is less limiting than you may think. For example, a function that comes before a class declaration can still refer to that class, but you have to wait until the class declaration has been evaluated before you can call the function.

    function functionThatUsesBar() {
        new Bar();
    }
    
    functionThatUsesBar(); // ReferenceError
    class Bar {}
    functionThatUsesBar(); // OK
Class expressions

Similarly to functions, there are two kinds of class definitions, two ways to define a class: class declarations and class expressions.

Also similarly to functions, the identifier of a class expression is only visible within the expression:

    const MyClass = class Me {
        getClassName() {
            return Me.name;
        }
    };
    let inst = new MyClass();
    console.log(inst.getClassName()); // Me
    console.log(Me.name); // ReferenceError: Me is not defined

Inside the body of a class definition

A class body can only contain methods, but not data properties. Prototypes having data properties is generally considered an anti-pattern, so this just enforces a best practice.

constructor, static methods, prototype methods

Let’s examine three kinds of methods that you often find in class literals.

    class Foo {
        constructor(prop) {
            this.prop = prop;
        }
        static staticMethod() {
            return 'classy';
        }
        prototypeMethod() {
            return 'prototypical';
        }
    }
    let foo = new Foo(123);

The object diagram for this class declaration looks as follows. Tip for understanding it: [[Prototype]] is an inheritance relationship between objects, while prototype is a normal property whose value is an object. The property prototype is only special because the new operator uses its value as the prototype for instances it creates.

First, the pseudo-method constructor. This method is special, as it defines the function that represents the class:

    > Foo === Foo.prototype.constructor
    true
    > typeof Foo
    'function'

It is sometimes called a class constructor. It has features that normal constructor functions don’t have (mainly the ability to constructor-call its super-constructor via super(), which is explained later).

Second, static methods. Static properties (or class properties) are properties of Foo itself. If you prefix a method definition with static, you create a class method:

    > typeof Foo.staticMethod
    'function'
    > Foo.staticMethod()
    'classy'

Third, prototype methods. The prototype properties of Foo are the properties of Foo.prototype. They are usually methods and inherited by instances of Foo.

    > typeof Foo.prototype.prototypeMethod
    'function'
    > foo.prototypeMethod()
    'prototypical'
Getters and setters

The syntax for getters and setters is just like in ECMAScript 5 object literals:

    class MyClass {
        get prop() {
            return 'getter';
        }
        set prop(value) {
            console.log('setter: '+value);
        }
    }

You use MyClass as follows.

    > let inst = new MyClass();
    > inst.prop = 123;
    setter: 123
    > inst.prop
    'getter'
Computed method names

You can define the name of a method via an expression, if you put it in square brackets. For example, the following ways of defining Foo are all equivalent.

    class Foo() {
        myMethod() {}
    }
    
    class Foo() {
        ['my'+'Method']() {}
    }
    
    const m = 'myMethod';
    class Foo() {
        [m]() {}
    }

Several special methods in ECMAScript 6 have keys that are symbols [3]. Computed method names allow you to define such methods. For example, if an object has a method whose key is Symbol.iterator, it is iterable [4]. That means that its contents can be iterated over by the for-of loop and other language mechanisms.

    class IterableClass {
        [Symbol.iterator]() {
            ···
        }
    }
Generator methods

If you prefix a method definition with an asterisk (*), it becomes a generator method [4]. Among other things, a generator is useful for defining the method whose key is Symbol.iterator. The following code demonstrates how that works.

    class IterableArguments {
        constructor(...args) {
            this.args = args;
        }
        * [Symbol.iterator]() {
            for (let arg of this.args) {
                yield arg;
            }
        }
    }
    
    for (let x of new IterableArguments('hello', 'world')) {
        console.log(x);
    }
    
    // Output:
    // hello
    // world

Subclassing

The extends clause lets you create a subclass of an existing constructor (which may or may not have been defined via a class):

    class Point {
        constructor(x, y) {
            this.x = x;
            this.y = y;
        }
        toString() {
            return '(' + this.x + ', ' + this.y + ')';
        }
    }
    
    class ColorPoint extends Point {
        constructor(x, y, color) {
            super(x, y); // (A)
            this.color = color;
        }
        toString() {
            return super.toString() + ' in ' + this.color; // (B)
        }
    }

Again, this class is used like you’d expect:

    > let cp = new ColorPoint(25, 8, 'green');
    > cp.toString()
    '(25, 8) in green'
    
    > cp instanceof ColorPoint
    true
    > cp instanceof Point
    true

There are two kinds of classes:

  • Point is a base class, because it doesn’t have an extends clause.
  • ColorPoint is a derived class.

There are two ways of using super:

  • A class constructor (the pseudo-method constructor in a class literal) uses it like a function call (super(···)), in order to make a super-constructor call (line A).
  • Method definitions (in object literals or classes, with or without static) use it like property references (super.prop) or method calls (super.method(···)), in order to refer to super-properties (line B).
The prototype of a subclass is the superclass

The prototype of a subclass is the superclass in ECMAScript 6:

    > Object.getPrototypeOf(ColorPoint) === Point
    true

That means that static properties are inherited:

    class Foo {
        static classMethod() {
            return 'hello';
        }
    }
    
    class Bar extends Foo {
    }
    Bar.classMethod(); // 'hello'

You can even super-call static methods:

    class Foo {
        static classMethod() {
            return 'hello';
        }
    }
    
    class Bar extends Foo {
        static classMethod() {
            return super.classMethod() + ', too';
        }
    }
    Bar.classMethod(); // 'hello, too'
Super-constructor calls

In a derived class, you must call super() before you can use this:

    class Foo {}
    
    class Bar extends Foo {
        constructor(num) {
            let tmp = num * 2; // OK
            this.num = num; // ReferenceError
            super();
            this.num = num; // OK
        }
    }

Implicitly leaving a derived constructor without calling super() also causes an error:

    class Foo {}
    
    class Bar extends Foo {
        constructor() {
        }
    }
    
    let bar = new Bar(); // ReferenceError
Overriding the result of a constructor

Just like in ES5, you can override the result of a constructor by explicitly returning an object:

    class Foo {
        constructor() {
            return Object.create(null);
        }
    }
    console.log(new Foo() instanceof Foo); // false

If you do so, it doesn’t matter whether this has been initialized or not. In other words: you don’t have to call super() in a derived constructor if you override the result in this manner.

Default constructors for classes

If you don’t specify a constructor for a base class, the following definition is used:

    constructor() {}

For derived classes, the following default constructor is used:

    constructor(...args) {
        super(...args);
    }
Subclassing built-in constructors

In ECMAScript 6, you can finally subclass all built-in constructors (there are work-arounds for ES5, but these have significant limitations).

For example, you can now create your own exception classes (that will inherit the feature of having a stack trace in most engines):

    class MyError extends Error {    
    }
    throw new MyError('Something happened!');

You can also create subclasses of Array whose instances properly handle length:

    class MyArray extends Array {
        constructor(len) {
            super(len);
        }
    }
    
    // Instances of of `MyArray` work like real arrays:
    let myArr = new MyArray(0);
    console.log(myArr.length); // 0
    myArr[0] = 'foo';
    console.log(myArr.length); // 1

Note that subclassing built-in constructors is something that engines have to support natively, you won’t get this feature via transpilers.

The details of classes

What we have seen so far are the essentials of classes. You only need to read on if you are interested how things happen under the hood. Let’s start with the syntax of classes. The following is a slightly modified version of the syntax shown in Sect. A.4 of the ECMAScript 6 specification.

    ClassDeclaration:
        "class" BindingIdentifier ClassTail
    ClassExpression:
        "class" BindingIdentifier? ClassTail
    
    ClassTail:
        ClassHeritage? "{" ClassBody? "}"
    ClassHeritage:
        "extends" AssignmentExpression
    ClassBody:
        ClassElement+
    ClassElement:
        MethodDefinition
        "static" MethodDefinition
        ";"
    
    MethodDefinition:
        PropName "(" FormalParams ")" "{" FuncBody "}"
        "*" PropName "(" FormalParams ")" "{" GeneratorBody "}"
        "get" PropName "(" ")" "{" FuncBody "}"
        "set" PropName "(" PropSetParams ")" "{" FuncBody "}"
    
    PropertyName:
        LiteralPropertyName
        ComputedPropertyName
    LiteralPropertyName:
        IdentifierName  /* foo */
        StringLiteral   /* "foo" */
        NumericLiteral  /* 123.45, 0xFF */
    ComputedPropertyName:
        "[" Expression "]"

Two observations:

  • The value to be extended can be produced by an arbitrary expression. Which means that you’ll be able to write code such as the following:

        class Foo extends combine(MyMixin, MySuperClass) {}
    
  • Semicolons are allowed between methods.

Various checks

  • Error checks: the class name cannot be eval or arguments; duplicate class element names are not allowed; the name constructor can only be used for a normal method, not for a getter, a setter or a generator method.

  • Classes can’t be function-called. They throw a TypeException if they are.

  • Prototype methods cannot be used as constructors:

        class C {
            m() {}
        }
        new C.prototype.m(); // TypeError
    

Attributes of properties

Class declarations create (mutable) let bindings. For a given class Foo:

  • Static methods Foo.* are writable and configurable, but not enumerable. Making them writable allows for dynamic patching.
  • A constructor and the object in its property prototype have an immutable link:
    • Foo.prototype is non-writeable, non-enumerable, non-configurable.
    • Foo.prototype.constructor is non-writeable, non-enumerable, non-configurable.
  • Prototype methods Foo.prototype.* are writable and configurable, but not enumerable.

Note that method definitions in object literals produce enumerable properties.

The details of subclassing

In ECMAScript 6, subclassing looks as follows.

    class Point {
        constructor(x, y) {
            this.x = x;
            this.y = y;
        }
        ···
    }
    
    class ColorPoint extends Point {
        constructor(x, y, color) {
            super(x, y);
            this.color = color;
        }
        ···
    }
    
    let cp = new ColorPoint(25, 8, 'green');

This code produces the following objects.

The next subsection examines the prototype chains (in the two columns), the subsection after that examines how cp is allocated and initialized.

Prototype chains

In the diagram, you can see that there are two prototype chains (objects linked via the [[Prototype]] relationship, which is an inheritance relationship):

  • Left column: classes (functions). The prototype of a derived class is the class it extends. The prototype of a base class is Function.prototype, which is also the prototype of functions:

        > const getProto = Object.getPrototypeOf.bind(Object);
        
        > getProto(Point) === Function.prototype
        true
        > getProto(function () {}) === Function.prototype
        true
    
  • Right column: the prototype chain of the instance. The whole purpose of a class is to set up this prototype chain. The prototype chain ends with Object.prototype (whose prototype is null), which is also the prototype of objects created via object literals:

        > const getProto = Object.getPrototypeOf.bind(Object);
        
        > getProto(Point.prototype) === Object.prototype
        true
        > getProto({}) === Object.prototype
        true
    

The prototype chain in the left column leads to static properties being inherited.

Allocating and initializing the instance object

The data flow between class constructors is different from the canonical way of subclassing in ES5. Under the hood, it roughly looks as follows.

    // Instance is allocated here
    function Point(x, y) {
        // Performed before entering this constructor:
        this = Object.create(new.target.prototype);
    
        this.x = x;
        this.y = y;
    }
    ···
    
    function ColorPoint(x, y, color) {
        // Performed before entering this constructor:
        this = uninitialized;
    
        this = Reflect.construct(Point, [x, y], new.target); // (A)
            // super(x, y);
    
        this.color = color;
    }
    Object.setPrototypeOf(ColorPoint, Point);
    ···
    
    let cp = Reflect.construct( // (B)
                 ColorPoint, [25, 8, 'green'],
                 ColorPoint);
        // let cp = new ColorPoint(25, 8, 'green');

The instance object is created in different locations in ES6 and ES5:

  • In ES6, it is created in the base constructor, the last in a chain of constructor calls.
  • In ES5, it is created in the operand of new, the first in a chain of constructor calls.

The previous code uses two new ES6 features:

  • new.target is an implicit parameter that all functions have. It is to constructor calls what this is to method calls.

    • If a constructor has been directly invoked via new, its value is that constructor (line B).
    • If a constructor was called via super(), its value is the new.target of the constructor that made the call (line A).
    • During a normal function call, it is undefined. That means that you can use new.target to determine whether a function was function-called or constructor-called (via new).
    • Inside an arrow function, new.target refers to the new.target of the surrounding non-arrow function.
  • Reflect.construct() [5] lets you do a constructor call while specifying new.target via the last parameter.

The advantage of this way of subclassing is that it enables normal code to subclass built-in constructors (such as Error and Array). A later section explains why a different approach was necessary.

Safety checks
  • this originally being uninitialized in derived constructors means that an error is thrown if they access this in any way before they have called super().
  • Once this is initialized, calling super() produces a ReferenceError. This protects you against calling super() twice.
  • If a constructor returns implicitly (without a return statement), the result is this. If this is uninitialized, a ReferenceError is thrown. This protects you against forgetting to call super().
  • If a constructor explicitly returns a non-object (including undefined and null), the result is this (this behavior is required to remain compatible with ES5 and earlier). If this is uninitialized, a TypeError is thrown.
  • If a constructor explicitly returns an object, it is used as its result. Then it doesn’t matter whether this is initialized or not.
The extends clause

Let’s examine how the extends clause influences how a class is set up (Sect. 14.5.14 of the spec).

The value of an extends clause must be “constructible” (invocable via new). null is allowed, though.

    class C {
    }
  • Constructor kind: base
  • Prototype of C: Function.prototype (like a normal function)
  • Prototype of C.prototype: Object.prototype (which is also the prototype of objects created via object literals)
    class C extends B {
    }
  • Constructor kind: derived
  • Prototype of C: B
  • Prototype of C.prototype: B.prototype
    class C extends Object {
    }
  • Constructor kind: derived
  • Prototype of C: Object
  • Prototype of C.prototype: Object.prototype

Note the following subtle difference with the first case: If there is no extends clause, the class is a base class and allocates instances. If a class extends Object, it is a derived class and Object allocates the instances. The resulting instances (including their prototype chains) are the same, but you get there differently.

    class C extends null {
    }
  • Constructor kind: derived
  • Prototype of C: Function.prototype
  • Prototype of C.prototype: null

Such a class is not very useful: new-calling it leads to an error, because the default constructor makes a super-constructor call and Function.prototype (the super-constructor) can’t be constructor-called. The only way to make the error go away is by adding a constructor that returns an object.

Why can’t you subclass built-in constructors in ES5?

In ECMAScript 5, most built-in constructors can’t be subclassed (several work-arounds exist).

To understand why, let’s use the canonical ES5 pattern to subclass Array. As we shall soon find out, this doesn’t work.

    function MyArray(len) {
        Array.call(this, len); // (A)
    }
    MyArray.prototype = Object.create(Array.prototype);

Unfortunately, if we instantiate MyArray, we find out that it doesn’t work properly: The instance property length does not change in reaction to us adding array elements:

    > var myArr = new MyArray(0);
    > myArr.length
    0
    > myArr[0] = 'foo';
    > myArr.length
    0

There are two obstracles that prevent myArr from being a proper array.

First obstacle: initialization. The this you hand to the constructor Array (in line A) is completely ignored. That means you can’t use Array to set up the instance that was created for MyArray.

    > var a = [];
    > var b = Array.call(a, 3);
    > a !== b  // a is ignored, b is a new object
    true
    > b.length // set up correctly
    3
    > a.length // unchanged
    0

Second obstacle: allocation. The instance objects created by Array are exotic (a term used by the ECMAScript specification for objects that have features that normal objects don’t have): Their property length tracks and influences the management of array elements. In general, exotic objects can be created from scratch, but you can’t convert an existing normal object into an exotic one. Unfortunately, that is what Array would have to do, when called in line A: It would have to turn the normal object created for MyArray into an exotic array object.

The solution: ES6 subclassing

In ECMAScript 6, subclassing Array looks as follows:

    class MyArray extends Array {
        constructor(len) {
            super(len);
        }
    }

This works (but it’s not something that ES6 transpilers can support, it depends on whether a JavaScript engine supports it natively):

    > let myArr = new MyArray(0);
    > myArr.length
    0
    > myArr[0] = 'foo';
    > myArr.length
    1

We can now see how the ES6 approach to subclassing circumvents the obstacles:

  • Allocation happens in the base constructor, which means that Array can allocate an exotic object. While most of the new approach is due to how derived constructors behave, this step requires that a base constructor is aware of new.target and makes new.target.prototype the protoype of the allocated instance.
  • Initialization also happens in the base constructor, a derived constructor receives an initialized object and works with that one instead of passing its own instance to the super-constructor and requiring it to set it up.

Referring to super-properties in methods

The following ES6 code makes a super-method call in line B.

    class Point {
        constructor(x, y) {
            this.x = x;
            this.y = y;
        }
        toString() { // (A)
            return '(' + this.x + ', ' + this.y + ')';
        }
    }
    
    class ColorPoint extends Point {
        constructor(x, y, color) {
            super(x, y);
            this.color = color;
        }
        toString() {
            return super.toString() // (B)
                   + ' in ' + this.color;
        }
    }
    
    let cp = new ColorPoint(25, 8, 'green');
    console.log(cp.toString()); // (25, 8) in green

To understand how super-calls work, let’s look at the object diagram of cp:

ColorPoint.prototype.toString makes a super-call (line B) to the method (starting in line A) that it has overridden. Let’s call the object, in which a method is stored, the home object of that method. For example, ColorPoint.prototype is the home object of ColorPoint.prototype.toString().

The super-call in line B involves three steps:

  1. Start your search in the prototype of the home object of the current method.

  2. Look for a method whose name is toString. That method may be found in the object where the search started or later in the prototype chain.

  3. Call that method with the current this. The reason for doing so is: the super-called method must be able to access the same instance properties (in our example, the properties of cp).

Note that even if you are only getting or setting a property (not calling a method), you still have to consider this in step #3, because the property may be implemented via a getter or a setter.

Let’s express these steps in three different, but equivalent, ways:

    // Variation 1: super-method calls in ES5
    var result = Point.prototype.toString.call(this) // steps 1,2,3
    
    // Variation 2: ES5, refactored
    var superObject = Point.prototype; // step 1
    var superMethod = superObject.toString; // step 2
    var result = superMethod.call(this) // step 3
    
    // Variation 3: ES6
    var homeObject = ColorPoint.prototype;
    var superObject = Object.getPrototypeOf(homeObject); // step 1
    var superMethod = superObject.toString; // step 2
    var result = superMethod.call(this) // step 3

Variation 3 is how ECMAScript 6 handles super-calls. This approach is supported by two internal bindings that the environments of functions have (environments provide storage space, so-called bindings, for the variables in a scope):

  • [[thisValue]]: This internal binding also exists in ECMAScript 5 and stores the value of this.
  • [[HomeObject]]: Refers to the home object of the environment’s function. Filled in via an internal property [[HomeObject]] that all methods have that use super. Both the binding and the property are new in ECMAScript 6.

A method definition in a class literal that uses super is now special: Its value is still a function, but it has the internal property [[HomeObject]]. That property is set up by the method definition and can’t be changed in JavaScript. Therefore, you can’t meaningfully move such a method to a different object.

Using super to refer to a property is not allowed in function declarations, function expressions and generator functions.

Referring to super-properties is handy whenever prototype chains are involved, which is why you can use it in method definitions inside object literals and class literals (the class can be derived or not, the method can be static or not).

Constructor calls explained via JavaScript code

The JavaScript code in this section is a much simplified version of how the specification describes constructor calls and super-constructor calls. It may be interesting to you if you prefer code to explanations in human language. Before we can delve into the actual functionality, we need to understand a few other mechanisms.

Internal variables and properties

The specification writes internal variables and properties in double brackets ([[Foo]]). In the code, I use double underscores, instead (__Foo__).

Internal variables used in the code:

  • [[NewTarget]]: The operand of the new operator that triggered the current constructor call (passed on if [[Construct]] is called recursively via super()).
  • [[thisValue]]: Stores the value of this.
  • [[FunctionObject]]: Refers to the function that is currently executed.

Internal properties used in the code:

  • [[Construct]]: All constructor functions (including those created by classes) have this own (non-inherited) method. It implements constructor calls and is invoked by new.
  • [[ConstructorKind]]: A property of constructor functions whose value is either 'base' or 'derived'.

Environments

Environments provide storage space for variables, there is one environment per scope. Environments are managed as a stack. The environment on top of that stack is considered active. The following code is a sketch of how environments are handled.

    /**
     * Function environments are special, they have a few more
     * internal variables than other environments.
     * (`Environment` is not shown here)
     */
    class FunctionEnvironment extends Environment {
        constructor(Func) {
            // [[FunctionObject]] is a function-specific
            // internal variable
            this.__FunctionObject__ = Func;
        }    
    }
    
    /**
     * Push an environment onto the stack
     */
    function PushEnvironment(env) { ··· }
    
    /**
     * Pop the topmost environment from the stack
     */
    function PopEnvironment() { ··· }
    
    /**
     * Find topmost function environment on stack
     */
    function GetThisEnvironment() { ··· }

Constructor calls

Let’s start with the default way (ES6 spec Sect. 9.2.3) in which constructor calls are handled for functions:

    /**
     * All constructible functions have this own method,
     * it is called by the `new` operator
     */
    AnyFunction.__Construct__ = function (args, newTarget) {
        let Constr = this;
        let kind = Constr.__ConstructorKind__;
    
        let env = new FunctionEnvironment(Constr);
        env.__NewTarget__ = newTarget;
        if (kind === 'base') {
            env.__thisValue__ = Object.create(newTarget.prototype);
        } else {
            // While `this` is uninitialized, getting or setting it
            // throws a `ReferenceError`
            env.__thisValue__ = uninitialized;
        }
    
        PushEnvironment(env);
        let result = Constr(...args);
        PopEnvironment();
    
        // Let’s pretend there is a way to tell whether `result`
        // was explicitly returned or not
        if (WasExplicitlyReturned(result)) {
            if (isObject(result)) {
                return result;
            }
            // Explicit return of a primitive
            if (kind === 'base') {
                // Base constructors must be backwards compatible
                return env.__thisValue__; // always initialized!
            }
            throw new TypeError();
        }
        // Implicit return
        if (env.__thisValue__ === uninitialized) {
            throw new ReferenceError();
        }
        return env.__thisValue__;
    }

Super-constructor calls

Super-constructor calls are handled as follows (ES6 spec Sect. 12.3.5.1).

    /**
     * Handle super-constructor calls
     */
    function super(...args) {
        let env = GetThisEnvironment();
        let newTarget = env.__NewTarget__;
        let activeFunc = env.__FunctionObject__;
        let superConstructor = Object.getPrototypeOf(activeFunc);
    
        env.__thisValue__ = superConstructor
                            .__Construct__(args, newTarget);
    }

The species pattern

One more mechanism of built-in constructors has been made extensible in ECMAScript 6: If a method such as Array.prototype.map() returns a fresh instance, what constructor should it use to create that instance? The default is to use the same constructor that created this, but some subclasses may want it to remain a direct instance of Array. ES6 lets subclasses override the default, via the so-called species pattern:

  • When creating a new instance of Array, methods such as map() use the constructor stored in this.constructor[Symbol.species].
  • If a sub-constructor of Array does nothing, it inherits Array[Symbol.species]. That property is a getter that returns this.

You can override the default, via a static getter (line A):

    class MyArray1 extends Array {
    }
    let result1 = new MyArray1().map(x => x);
    console.log(result1 instanceof MyArray1); // true
    
    class MyArray2 extends Array {
        static get [Symbol.species]() { // (A)
            return Array;
        }
    }
    let result2 = new MyArray2().map(x => x);
    console.log(result2 instanceof MyArray2); // false

An alternative is to use Object.defineProperty() (you can’t use assignment, as that would trigger a setter, which doesn’t exist):

    Object.defineProperty(
        MyArray2, Symbol.species, {
            value: Array
        });

The following getters all return this, which means that methods such as Array.prototype.map() use the constructor that created the current instance for their results.

  • Array.get [Symbol.species]()
  • ArrayBuffer.get [Symbol.species]()
  • Map.get [Symbol.species]()
  • Promise.get [Symbol.species]()
  • RegExp.get [Symbol.species]()
  • Set.get [Symbol.species]()
  • %TypedArray%.get [Symbol.species]()

Conclusion

The specialization of functions

There is an interesting trend in ECMAScript 6: Previously, a single kind of function took on three roles: real function, method and constructor. In ES6, there is specialization:

  • Arrow functions are specialized for non-method callbacks, where them picking up the this of their surrounding method or constructor is an advantage. Without this, they don’t make much sense as methods and they throw an exception when invoked via new.

  • Method definitions enable the use of super, by setting up the property [[HomeObject]]. The functions they produce can’t be constructor-called.

  • Class definitions are the only way to create derived constructors (enabling ES6-style subclassing that works for built-in constructors). Class definitions produce functions that can only be constructor-called.

The future of classes

The design maxim for classes was “maximally minimal”. Several advanced features were discussed, but ultimately discarded in order to get a design that would be unanimously accepted by TC39.

Upcoming versions of ECMAScript can now extend this minimal design – classes will provide a foundation for features such as traits (or mixins), value objects (where different objects are equal if they have the same content) and const classes (that produce immutable instances).

Does JavaScript need classes?

Classes are controversial within the JavaScript community. On one hand, people coming from class-based languages are happy that they don’t have to deal with JavaScript’s unorthodox inheritance mechanisms, anymore. On the other hand, there are many JavaScript programmers who argue that what’s complicated about JavaScript is not prototypal inheritance, but constructors [6].

ES6 classes provide a few clear benefits:

  • They are backwards compatible with much of the current code.

  • Compared to constructors and constructor inheritance, classes make it easier for beginners to get started.

  • Subclassing is supported within the language.

  • Built-in constructors are subclassable.

  • No library for inheritance is needed, anymore; code will become more portable between frameworks.

  • They provide a foundation for advanced features in the future (mixins and more).

  • They help tools that statically analyze code (IDEs, type checkers, style checkers, etc.).

I have made my peace with classes and am glad that they are in ES6. I would have preferred them to be prototypal (based on constructor objects [6], not constructor functions), but I also understand that backwards compatibility is important.

Further reading

Acknowledgement: #1 was an important source of this blog post.

  1. Instantiation Reform: One last time”, slides by Allen Wirfs-Brock.
  2. Exploring ES6: Upgrade to the next version of JavaScript”, book by Axel
  3. Symbols in ECMAScript 6
  4. Iterators and generators in ECMAScript 6
  5. Meta programming with ECMAScript 6 proxies
  6. Prototypes as classes – an introduction to JavaScript inheritance

14 comments:

Axel Rauschmayer said...

You mention that you can't call constructor functions without new. Can you dynamically instantiate a class though, via apply? For example, in ES5, I can do this:

function instantiate(TheClass, args) {
var context = Object.create(TheClass.prototype);
return TheClass.apply(context, args);
}

Will this also work if TheClass is an ES6 class? If not, how should we re-write this type of code today so that it works with transpiled classes (via something like Babel) as well as real ES6 classes? Any thoughts?

Axel Rauschmayer said...

Would the following work for you?


function instantiate(TheClass, args) {
return new TheClass(...args);
}

Axel Rauschmayer said...

Another option is Reflect.construct:



function instantiate(TheClass, args) {
return Reflect.construct(TheClass, args);
}

Axel Rauschmayer said...

So, I have another constraint that I didn't mention. I need to execute code after the context is created but before the constructor is run. I don't think I can do that with either method you are showing. Does the apply technique still work?

Axel Rauschmayer said...

I don’t see how. Is there another way you can achieve your goal?

Axel Rauschmayer said...

I don't know. If there is..it's not obvious to me. I hadn't counted on not being able to call apply on a constructor function. This is a pretty big issue for me. Frankly I'm a little caught off guard that there's now a special class of function that you can't use call or apply on.

Axel Rauschmayer said...

Would passing the context to the constructor work?

function instantiate(TheClass, context, args) {
return new TheClass(context, ...args);
}



In this case the TheClass constructor should populate context and then return it.

Axel Rauschmayer said...

I’m intrigued: what are you trying to do that can’t be done after the instance has been created?

Axel Rauschmayer said...

Note: even if you could, you’d still have the issue of built-in constructors where apply/call don’t work, either.

Axel Rauschmayer said...

Not to nag, but boy would I like to have an answer to this. Is it clear enough?

Axel Rauschmayer said...

I like Axel's observation that Modules and Classes are important because they resolve the divisions within the community over multiple alternatives and representations for both of these.

Axel Rauschmayer said...

Any reason for not using template strings? Instead of return '(' + this.x + ', ' + this.y + ')'; we could return `( ${this.x}, ${this.y} )`;
right?

Axel Rauschmayer said...

Once again you out-do yourself Axel. I do have a few queries and observations. Currently I am using Traceur and I noticed a few things...

(1) From what I understand, AtScript actually demands that you declare properties in your classes but you do NOT give them values. This is so the JavaScript VM can optimise the creation of the classes. Reading the ES6 stuff then it makes it sound like you cannot use instance variables but you can as long as you don't declare them - in fact if you don't then your AtScript isn't valid.

Interested in your feedback Axel.

(2) I may be using an older version of Traceur (because the new one seems to break ES7 async) but I was able to create derived classes without using super() in the constructor - probably a limitation of using a Transpiler. I do actually find the HAVING to use super() or it throws an error to be quite annoying. I mean if you forget in Java does it throw an error? From my many moon ago as a Java expert I seem to remember not. This will definitely catch a lot of people out.

(3) The getter and setter stuff in the classes I find really annoying as well. Everybody accepted you needed to use closures to hide stuff and they go and add those getters and setters in ES 5.1 and now you can use them in ES 6 classes. Not sure I approve.

(4) The lack of class hoisting is really going to confuse people. I wonder if this was worth while just to have an extend clause that could be an expression. Personally I think NOT.

(5) The ability to extend built in classes is again going to confuse people between Exotic Extensions and Non-Exotic Extensions. I think a lot of people are going to miss the subtle points around Symbols and how the underlying implementation is being standardised and exposed.

Axel Rauschmayer said...

Where is the access scope (private/public/protected)?!
I hope to see ecma6 as expected:

class Point
{
public var x;
public var y;
constructor(x, y)
{
this.x = x;
this.y = y;
}

}