Symbols, Protocols, Frames, and Versioning

Kevin Smith khs4473 at
Wed Oct 3 10:40:33 PDT 2012

One of the main use cases for symbols is for defining object "protocols"
that don't suffer from property name conflicts.  The recently discussed
`iterator` and `toStringTag` method names fall into this category.  The
idea is that we can implement the protocol by defining methods using
symbols, and thus avoid namespacing considerations.

Designing and maintaining a global namespace is, well, no fun.

But consider the multiple-global case in which we have scripts running in
more than one frame.  It seems like protocols should be transferrable
across frames.  For built-in protocols like `iterator`, this has to work:

    function f(iterable) {
      for (x of iterable) {
        // This must work regardless of which frame `iterable` comes from

But what about user-defined protocols?  Let's say we have a "Persistable"

    export var persistName = new Symbol; // unique, not "private"

And a function which makes use of this protocol:

    import persistName from "Persistable.js";

    function usePersistable(obj) {

      if (obj[persistName])

It seems like `usePersistable` should be able to work as expected even if
`obj` comes from a different frame (in which "Persistable.js" was
separately loaded).

Another expression of the same problem occurs with versioning.

Suppose that in a fairly complex module dependency graph,
"Persistable-0.1.js" and "Persistable-0.2.js" are simultaneously loaded.
("Persistable" is on github and therefore in perpetual version-zero
purgatory.)  It seems reasonable to expect that objects implementing the
protocol defined by "Persistable-0.2.js" should be able to work with
functions consuming the "Persistable-0.1.js" protocol.  But that is not
possible with unique symbols.

In summary, I don't think that we can really avoid global namespacing
issues using system-generated unique symbols as we currently conceive of
them.  Built-in protocols like `iterator` are a special "cheating" case,
but we need to have an equally consistent story for user-defined protocols.

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