Amy Worrall pointed me at a nice post on the technical feasibility of using exceptions for more than programming errors [2013-03-16] in Cocoa by Hari Karam Singh. Even though he is misled by some Mac documentation into thinking iOS didn’t have zero-cost exceptions and then disproves that documentation by disassembly, he draws lots of valid conclusions.

However, the problem is not one of technology. The problem is one of the sheer size of Apple’s Cocoa codebase, which would have to be updated to survive having an exception thrown through it. Apple would have to add @trys in every location where they call a SEL, after all, since they don’t know which of them may be user-provided and throw.

Since they’re not doing that, a user who decides to use exceptions anyway would have to add @trys to every method that might ever be called by the framework. That means you can’t catch exceptions thrown by that method when you call it, though, because it swallows them itself. So if you want to handle errors from that method, you either split it up into okButtonClickedThrows: and okButtonClicked:, duplicating every method and working in parallel with two error handling schemes, or you give up, like Apple, and just use one non-exception error handling scheme.

I love exceptions, but I don’t think my Cocoa code will be cleaner and error handling nicer if I put a try block at the top of every action and delegate method. NSError is less dangerous, because if an object returns nil and gives an error (and you don’t look at the returned error), the method call will simply collapse (call to NIL is a no-op) so nothing much will happen. Since I can’t put up an error dialog from drawing code or table delegate callbacks like numberOfSections, there’s not much difference there. The code is actually cleaner, because with NSError and nil returns I can just ignore errors, while with exceptions in an exception-unsafe Cocoa, I must catch here or I’ll risk throwing through Cocoa.

C++ also has an advantage when working with exceptions over Objective-C because it uses “Resource Acquisition Is Initialization” (or RAII for short). Locks, allocations, even changes of a global boolean can be implemented as stack objects using RAII to set themselves up when created and clean up behind themselves in their destructor. You don’t even have a ‘finally’ block in the language. OTOH, every method you write in an exception-handling ObjC would need an @finally block, even if it doesn’t care about the errors, just to clean up behind itself.

ARC, @autoreleasepool and @synchronized can help a little with clean-up of memory and locks these days, as they’ll get triggered on an exception anyway. But as Cocoa and Apple’s frameworks currently stand, using exceptions effectively doubles your work.

The same applies to existing code. Nobody wants to have to completely rewrite their apps for 10.9 just to adopt a new error handling scheme when their code already has working error handling with NSError. Apple understands that their developers want a certain degree of backward compatibility. That’s the reason why only iOS got the new runtime on 32-bit: There was no code that relied on the old runtime there, it was a new platform. But all existing Mac applications would have been broken if the system had suddenly no longer guaranteed instance variable layouts and method lookup-tables. However, since 64-bit required changes to pointer sizes and data structures anyway, nobody complained when Apple introduced the new runtime for 64 bit on the Mac. They had to re-test and update their applications anyway.

All that said, I would love a new Objective-C framework that uses exceptions and is exception-safe for new projects to be built against. It just doesn’t seem like something Apple can retrofit at a whim.

At best, they can slowly make each framework exception-safe, and then in every spot where there can be an error, instead of returning it, look at an “app supports exception handling”-flag and throw their errors if that is set. That way, existing applications will keep working, while new applications can be written exception-safe. And once the majority of applications have moved to exceptions, Apple can switch to using exceptions themselves (see above — you don’t want 2 versions, exception-safe and unsafe, of every method), and tell the stragglers to please make their code exception-safe.