Subscribing Member Functions to C Callbacks

Today I’m going to talk about another complaint I have with C/C++, regarding the incompatibility between member functions and standard functions.

The synopsis goes like this. For compatibility with C, I have some C++ callback functions that look like this:

That is, they have a state argument which represents any persistent state that the subscriber wishes to have passed back to it later when the event is fired. For illustration, the subscription function might look something like this:

And we can subscribe to the event like this:

I won’t even get into the problem of state “ownership” in this post – that’s a whole different problem that drives me up the wall in C and C++. When it comes to function pointers, there is an incompatibility between the above function and this member function:

In other words we can’t subscribe the member function to the same event:

If you’re a C++ programmer, which you probably are (at least a little I’m sure), you’re probably thinking I’m crazy right now – “Of course you can’t – why would you even try?”

The reason it could work is simply because of the underlying mechanism of member functions. Everyone knows that there is a “hidden” argument passed to a (non-static) member function invocation – the value for the this parameter. Exactly how this invisible argument gets passed is not part of the standard, so it doesn’t have to use the same mechanism as a normal parameter, but for the sake of allowing this kind of compatibility I would have suggested that it be standardized to be passed the same way as a normal parameter.

Another way of approaching the problem is to look at C# for inspiration – a “function pointer” (a delegate in C#) can have any state attached to it. So a member function is the same as a static function and the same as a closure or multi-cast delegate etc, provided that the parameter types fit. To me this is the opposite way of looking at it: instead of saying that a member function has an additional invisible this parameter, we now say that actually every function has a this parameter which provides the attached state, but in the case of a non-member function it is just ignored by the callee.

This is probably not strictly what happens in C#, but it is a reasonable way of looking at it. If we were to apply this to C++, then the compiler could compile a hidden this pointer to all functions (including non-member functions). The optimizer would remove it again for all functions where it isn’t needed for whatever reason (such as for those functions whose addresses aren’t taken in the program). This would make it possible to have the expression myState.foo actually be a valid expression – it would evaluate to function pointer (along with its implicit state myState).

Of course this second option adds overhead to every function pointer, because it now has to point to both the function itself, and to the attached state. I think that if I were to redesign C++ from scratch, that I would probably accept this overhead and do it anyway. Perhaps I would include a back-door option to create a “no-state” function and it’s corresponding pointer, which would be compatible with C functions. And I would specify that the calling convention used to pass the this parameter is the same as that used for the first parameter of a “no-state” function. This would make C and C++ function pointers seamlessly interoperable.

Why does it bug me?

It bugs me because stateful events, callbacks, or continuations are part of any good design, and C++ makes them incredibly difficult to implement. C++ claims to be object orientated, but yet its member function pointers don’t refer to the object they’re a member of. So C++ function pointers are really C function pointers – except that they’re type-incompatible with C function pointers. So really they aren’t useful on their own in either context! It seems to me this is a massive oversight of the original language.