Partially complete types

Vidar Hasfjord <>
Mon, 14 Apr 2008 12:51:07 CST
In C++ you are allowed to declare an incomplete type (a "forward").
Code can operate on references and pointers to such types. This is a
very nice feature with regard to encapsulation.

I often use this feature to omit detail in interfaces; detail that not
all clients need to know. For example:

   class Component {
     class Parameter;
     virtual Parameter* get_parameter ();

Client code can use Component and even pass pointers to Parameters
around while still being blissfully unaware of Parameter's definition.
Clients that need to know can include a separate header where
Parameter is defined.

This works nicely except when the Parameter class really is private
and clients only should see an abstract interface, i.e.:

   class Component {
     class IParameter {
       virtual string get_name () = 0;
       virtual string get_value () = 0;
     virtual IParameter* get_parameter ();

Unfortunately, now the implementation of Component and friends, helper
classes and free functions, no longer can use GetParameter without
doing a dynamic_cast should it be necessary to access Parameter
details. In other words, there is type erasure in the Component

It would be nice if it was possible to *partially* complete a type.
This would mean to specify the base (or bases) of a type without
providing the full definition. For example:

   class Component {
     class IParameter {
     class Parameter : public IParameter; // partial type completion
     virtual Parameter* get_parameter ();

Now the compiler can do a full type-check against what is known about
the Parameter type at any point in the code. The client code knows
only that Parameter inherits IParameter and is hence restricted to use
that interface, while the implementation code that has seen the full
Parameter definition can use all its methods and members; without need
for downcasting.

Any views on the feasability of such a feature?

Vidar Hasfjord

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