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March 95 - A First Look at Dylan: Classes, Functions, and Modules

A First Look at Dylan: Classes, Functions, and Modules

Steve Strassmann

Dylan is a new object-oriented dynamic language (OODL) that's attracting a lot of attention. Like C++, it's designed for efficient compilation and delivery of mainstream commercial applications. However, Dylan differs from C++ in important ways that make it more powerful and flexible. Here we'll focus on one important difference from C++: the way classes and their methods are organized.

The organization of classes and functions is different in Dylan than in C++. In C++, classes are used in two ways: to encapsulate data and as a scoping mechanism. Methods in C++ "belong to" classes, and there are many complex mechanisms governing access to methods from "inside" and "outside" a class. In Dylan, classes are used only for data encapsulation -- there's no notion of methods being owned by classes. As a result, specifying and using methods is cleaner, simpler, and more expressive.

Access is simplified and abstracted through modules, which are a way of grouping related classes, methods, and variables. Rather than being tied to a single class, each method belongs to a family called a generic function. Each generic function can operate on one or more related classes, and can be extended across one or more modules. We'll talk more about generic functions, polymorphism, and modules later in this article.

Dylan has many other features that distinguish it from C++, including:

  • automatic memory management

  • clean, consistent syntax

  • fully and consistently object-oriented model

  • dynamic as well as static type checking

  • support for incremental compilation

  • first-class functions and classes
There's not enough space here to do justice to each of these topics, so we'll just touch on some of them as we discuss classes, functions, and modules. As you might expect, this article assumes you have some familiarity with basic object-oriented concepts, such as classes, instances, and inheritance.

On this issue's CD, you'll find a freeware Dylan interpreter, called Marlais, that you can use to execute code written in Dylan. Simply run the application and enter your code at the prompt. Also on the CD are the code samples you'll see in this article, plus the Dylan Interim Reference Manual and other Dylan goodies.

Apple's implementation of Dylan, called Apple Dylan, is planned to ship later this year. One great feature of Apple Dylan is that it allows you to call existing C and C-compatible code libraries, such as the Macintosh Toolbox. See "Creole: Using the Toolbox and Other C Code From Within Dylan Code" for details.


    With any new language, you're bound to wonder whether you'll be able to get at the "really good stuff." You know, interfaces always seem to be published just for C programmers, and nobody else. I don't mean merely the Macintosh Toolbox, but any other code already written by you or a third party, like database access routines or advanced graphics libraries. In many cases (such as with the Macintosh Toolbox), you may not have access to the source code, so recompiling or translating it into the new language is simply not an option.

    Apple has designed a cross-language extension to the Dylan language. This extension, called Creole in Apple Dylan, allows you to build programs with parts written in both Dylan and C or C-compatible languages. We at Apple hope the extension will be supported by other Dylan implementations, but since the extension isn't part of the standard Dylan language, it's not required. (The Marlais interpreter on this issue's CD doesn't support it.) In the future, Apple will also support the System Object Model (SOM) extension, which is used by OpenDoc. Here we'll take a look at some features of Apple Dylan's Creole implementation.

    Once you import C interfaces into Dylan, you can call C functions and refer to C structs as if they were Dylan functions and objects. There's no need to translate the C headers first; Creole reads them directly. In the following simple example, we import the interface file OSUtils.h, which contains the Toolbox function SysBeep; we can then, for instance, call SysBeep(1) from Dylan.

    define interface
       #include "OSUtils.h",
          import: {"SysBeep"};
    end interface;
    Creole provides these additional facilities:

  • An access path (linking) mechanism links compiled C-compatible modules, including C++, Pascal, assembler, and FORTRAN modules, into a Dylan application. Creole supports object (".o") files, shared libraries (Apple Shared Library Manager or Code Fragment Manager), inline traps, code resources, and PowerPC transition vectors.

  • Cross-language calls allow Dylan routines to call routines in another language, and vice versa.

  • Name mapping translates names of entities in another language into Dylan variable names in a specified module. Apple Dylan offers several convenient mappings for common naming conventions.

  • Type mapping translates C types into Dylan types and provides type checking for Dylan clients of the Macintosh Toolbox and other interfaces.

  • Low-level facilities provide Dylan programs with direct use of machine pointers and the raw bits pointed to by the machine pointers.

    A define interface statement imports one or mointerface files and creates Dylan classes, constants, and functions corresponding to the C types, constants, and functions in the interface files. Like any Dylan expression, a define interface statement exists in a particular module, as do the variables that it defines. You can export and rename these variables using module options just as you would for normal Dylan variables (as discussed later under "The Role of Modules").

    Many options are available to override Creole's default behavior. For example, you can do any of the following:

  • selectively import parts of an interface

  • explicitly control type mapping -- for example, to map StringPtr to <Pascal-string>

  • explicitly control name mapping to avoid name conflicts because of the difference in case-sensitivity and scoping rules in Dylan and C

  • work around undesirable features in the interface or in Creole

  • control tradeoffs between runtime memory consumption and dynamic functionality


Dylan is fully and consistently object-oriented, much like Smalltalk(TM). Everything is an object, including numbers, strings, and even functions and classes themselves. Each object descends from a single common ancestor class, named <object>.
    The <> characters are not some fancy operator but are merely a typographic convention for indicating the name of a class in Dylan, just as all-uppercase letters might indicate a macro in C++. You're allowed to name a class without the <> characters, but that would be considered bad style.*
To illustrate how classes are used in Dylan, let's look at one of our samples, SimMogul, to model Hollywood high finance. In Listing 1, we define a few classes, creating the inheritance hierarchy shown in Figure 1.

Listing 1. SimMogul -- basic version

define class <project> (<object>)
   slot script;                      // All you need is a hot script
   slot star;                        // and a big name.
end class <project>;                 // Last two words are optional.

define class <actor> (<object>)
   slot name;                        // Actor's name
   slot salary;                      // Cost to hire
   slot fans;                        // Audience size
end class;

define class <script> (<object>)
   slot name;                        // Script's name
   slot fx-budget;                   // Cost of special effects
end class;

define class <sci-fi> (<script>)
end class;

define class <romance> (<script>)
end class;

Figure 1. Inheritance hierarchy of SimMogul classes

The first thing you might notice about this code is that Dylan identifiers draw on a richer stock of characters than do most languages. Dylan identifiers are case-insensitive and can include characters like <, >, *, +, and -, which are traditionally reserved for operators. As a result, operators like these must be surrounded by spaces when used in formulas (as you'll see later in the definitions for profits in Listing 5).

As shown in Listing 1, each define class statement begins with the name of the class being defined, followed by its parent (or superclass) in parentheses. Dylan supports multiple inheritance; multiple superclasses would be listed in the parentheses, separated by commas. For this short example, however, we'll stick to single inheritance.

<project> is a simple class with two slots (comparable to data members in C++) named script and star. This is a pretty basic structure that doesn't include any options, but it illustrates the syntax for class definitions. There's no need to create constructor or destructor methods; that's taken care of automatically. The last two words, class <project>, are optional, but if you provide them, the name must match that of the class being defined. You can just say end or end class instead if you like, which is what we've done for the remaining classes.


Type declarations are optional in Dylan because values, not storage locations, are strongly typed. Each object's type is always known from the moment it's created, so there's less need to declare types on storage locations. It's OK to leave off type declarations, as we did for slots in Listing 1. This makes rapid prototyping much easier than in C++.

Listing 2 shows a version of SimMogul that does contain some type declarations. The definition of <actor>, for example, has a slot declared as name :: <string>, which specifies the type of the name slot. The compiler will generate code that guarantees that only strings can be stored in this slot; attempts to store anything else will cause an error.

Listing 2. SimMogul -- embellished version

define class <project> (<object>)
   slot script;                    // All you need is a hot script
   slot star;                      //  and a big name.
end class <project>;         // Last two words are optional.

define class <actor> (<object>)
   slot name :: <string>,    // Actor's name
      required-init-keyword: name:;
   slot salary :: <number>,  // Cost to hire
      init-value: 1000000,
      init-keyword: salary:;
   slot fans :: <number>,    // Audience size
      init-value: 1000000,
      init-keyword: fans:;
end class;

define class <script> (<object>)
   slot name :: <string>,           // Script's name
      required-init-keyword: name:; 
   slot fx-budget :: <number>,      // Cost of special effects
      init-value: 10000,
      init-keyword: fx-budget:;
end class;

define class <sci-fi> (<script>)
   inherited slot fx-budget, init-value: 20000000;
end class;

define class <romance> (<script>)
   inherited slot fx-budget, init-value: 0;
end class;

define variable arnold = 
   make(<actor>, name: "Arnold", fans: 10000000);

define variable betty = 
   make(<actor>, name: "Betty", fans: 5000000);

define variable tender :: <script> = 
   make(<romance>, name: "Tender Sunshine");

define variable zarx :: <script> = 
   make(<sci-fi>, name: "Land of the Zarx-Eaters");

define constant $ticket-price = 7;
Another reason to provide type declarations is that it allows the compiler to generate more efficient code. For example, if you wrote code that stores an appropriately declared value in an <actor>'s name slot, at compile time the compiler would be able to deduce the value's type. Values that are known to be strings will be stored efficiently, with no runtime type checking. Those known not to be strings will generate compile-time warnings, just as they would in a strongly typed language. If you choose to leave off declarations, the compiler will insert instructions for runtime type checking, so you'll have crash-safe code no matter what. This is an example of how Dylan always lets you compile in a way that's both maximally safe and efficient.

In general, Dylan programs should crash much less often than comparable C programs, because most errors will be detected and handled gracefully and automatically. Automatic memory management is one big source of this safety, since it eliminates the majority of bugs that usually come from manually operating on raw memory pointers. Dylan's ability to ensure safety, however, is limited when working with code imported from outside Dylan, such as the Macintosh Toolbox, which forces Dylan programmers to use raw memory pointers in some cases. Apple Dylan will insulate programmers as much as possible from these pointers with an application framework.


Your application creates objects by calling make, which creates instances of a class. Listing 2 gives some examples of actors and scripts being created with calls to make. Values for slots are provided with keyword arguments to make, called init-keywords. Dylan keywords, which are similar to Smalltalk keywords, are a way to provide optional function parameters. I'll have more to say about specifying and using keywords in function calls in the section on functions.

Since the slots in <project> don't have init-keywords, you can't provide values for them when you use make to make projects. If a project is created with make(<project>), the slots are uninitialized, and any attempt to read their values in this uninitialized state is an error that will be detected and reported.

The name slot in <actor> has a required-init-keyword: option, which is used further down to specify the name of the arnold object. Required init-keywords are commonly used for slots with no default value because this requires callers to provide a value when they make objects.

The other slots in <actor>, salary and fans, have default values as well as init-keywords. When an actor is created, the slot's value can be defaulted (for example, arnold's salary) or overridden (for example, arnold's fans). Slots can also be initialized with the init-function: option, which calls a function to compute the default value.

The declaration salary :: <number> restricts the salary slot to hold only numbers. Notice that we didn't choose a specific numeric type for the salary slot type (such as short, int, long, or double), though we easily could have. Dylan provides a rich library of numeric types, including integers of unlimited size (which are good for devalued currencies and salaries of major athletes). By using <number> instead of a more specific numeric type, your type declaration becomes a tool for documentation and error checking, even while you're in the midst of rapid prototyping. We're not obliged to make some arbitrary and premature optimization at this stage, as we would with C or C++. Using <number> captures as much of our design as we want for now; we can always come back and tune it later.

A Dylan class inherits slots from all its superclasses and can also define its own new slots, just as in C++. All slots in a given class must be unique; there cannot be two different slots with the same name. You can override some properties of an inherited slot, however, by partially respecifying the slot. Taking a look at the definition of <sci-fi> in Listing 2, we see that it overrides the default init-value for fx-budget inherited from <script> with a somewhat higher value. The keyword inherited indicates that the slot is inherited from a superclass; it's not a new slot with the coincidentally identical (and therefore illegal) name.

You can specify many other interesting options for slots, such as class allocation, which shares a singly allocated value used by all instances of that class; class allocation roughly corresponds to a static data member in C++. Dylan also lets you provide virtual allocation for slots. Rather than being stored in the slot, a virtual slot's value is computed by a function each time the slot is referenced. This feature is missing from C++ and is very different from what C++ refers to as virtual data members.


In Listing 2, we make some objects out of the classes and bind them to global variables with the define variable statement. The variables holding the actors have no type declaration -- we didn't do this with any design considerations in mind, but just to show you that it can be done. Like slot declarations, type declarations for global variables are optional; they're used to increase efficiency, not to change the program logic. The other two variables have :: <script> type declarations, which is OK, since the values stored there are indirect instances of <script>. The variable tender is an instance of <romance>, which is a subclass of <script>.

Also included is a define constant statement, which looks just like define variable, except that once you give it a value, the running program isn't allowed to change it. The $ in the name $ticket-price is something of a coincidence. By convention, all constants in Dylan are given names beginning with a dollar character, as in define constant $pi = 3.14159.

It's worth noting that define constant doesn't restrict mutable objects from being mutated. Some collections, such as vectors, are mutable in that the value of an element can change, and class instances are mutable in that a slot can change (unless you declare the slot as a constant in the class definition, of course). Since define constant describes the identifier, not the object, what it really means is that the identifier will always refer to that particular object, and to no other object. This is the same as a const pointer in C++, where the pointer is not allowed to change but the object pointed to may be mutated.

$ticket-price is a real constant after all, because its value of 7 (like all numbers) cannot be mutated; for example, you cannot change the 7 to an 8 without changing the object itself.


Variables (and constants, which are a kind of variable) can contain any type of Dylan data object, including numbers, strings, and user-defined objects like actors and scripts. But in Dylan, the classes and functions themselves are also objects, and hence are also stored in variables. It turns out that <actor> is just another variable, as is arnold. The value of the variable whose name is <actor> happens to be a class, and the value of the variable whose name is arnold is an instance of that class.

When we say everything's an object in Dylan, we mean everything. A variable is just a way of naming an object so that you can refer to it in your program. Since you can refer to functions or classes just as easily as you can refer to numbers, we think of them as "variables." So don't be shocked when you see documentation referring to something like print as a variable. It's just a variable whose value happens to be a function.


Dylan uses a simple, consistent, functional interface for slot access, which avoids many of the confusing aspects of C++'s data members. Functions in Dylan have many elegant features that make them more powerful than their counterparts in C++, but without adding a lot of complicated syntax. In this section we'll talk about some of the ways you can create and use Dylan functions.


By default, a pair of accessor functions, called getter and setter functions, is created for each slot. For example, the definition of <actor> in Listing 1 automatically creates the following six functions:
name(a)                     // Gets the name of actor a
name-setter(new, a)         // Sets the name of actor a to new
salary(a)                   // Gets the salary of actor a
salary-setter(new, a)       // Sets the salary of actor a to new
fans(a)                     // Gets the audience size of actor a
fans-setter(new, a)         // Sets the audience size of actor a to new
Slot access in Dylan looks exactly like a function call, even though the compiler may implement slot access much more efficiently. Alternatively, you can use the more traditional dot notation for slot access. Therefore, the syntax is exactly equivalent to property(object). You can use whichever syntax best fits the situation.

This functional interface is a great feature, because it allows a class's implementation details to remain an abstraction for the users of a class. The fans property, which indicates the box office drawing power, might be stored as a slot in some classes or it might be computed on the fly by a function for other classes. Users will always see a functional interface, and never need to know about the internal implementation.

Whenever a slot reference appears on the left side of an assignment statement, the reference is translated into a call to the appropriate setter function. For example, these are all equivalent ways of changing the name slot of the arnold object: := "Arnie";
name(arnold) := "Arnie";
name-setter("Arnie", arnold);   
Slots can also take a setter: option, which lets you provide the name of the setter function. The default is to give it a name like name-setter, but you can use a different name, or specify that no setter at all should be created. If there is no setter function, you effectively make the slot's value read-only. As you'll see later in the section on modules, you can also control read and write access to slots by selectively exporting getter and setter functions to other modules.


Object-oriented languages, including Dylan, provide polymorphic functions, which means a given function may be executed as one of several possible implementations of that function, called methods. In our code above, name is just such a function. Calling name(arnold) calls the name method for actors, but calling name(tender) invokes the name method for scripts, which may have a very different implementation.

So, when Dylan sees a call to name(x), depending on what type of object is, one of several methods is selected and executed. In Dylan, name is called a generic function, consisting of a family of name methods that implement the functionality of name for various classes (see Figure 2). Each of these methods "belongs to" its generic function (in this case, name) rather than to a class. This is a key point; it's the core difference between C++'s object model and Dylan's.

Figure 2. Generic function containing several methods

C++'s virtual methods are polymorphic only to the extent that they share a common ancestor. In C++, if you wanted name to work on both actors and scripts, you'd have to create a class (for example, nameableObject) just to contain the name method, and then modify both actor and script classes to inherit from it. This scenario creates quite a few unwanted complications. First, it clutters up your object hierarchies with unnatural "glue" classes that have little to do with the problem domain being represented. Second, it requires you to add inheritance links to bring together classes that otherwise have no reason to be connected, which reduces modularity. Multiple inheritance is extremely awkward in C++ (much less so in Dylan), so you usually want to avoid it wherever possible when using C++.

You also may not have the desire or the ability to change classes near the root of a C++ class hierarchy, either because you don't have access to the affected classes' source code, or because the recompilation time would be very costly. The latter is usually not a problem in Dylan, because most commercial Dylan implementations (including Apple Dylan) provide incremental compilation, which means you can edit, recompile, and relink classes in a matter of seconds.


As with slots and global variables, type declarations for Dylan function parameters are optional. Providing type declarations, which is called specializing the method, restricts a method to be valid for a specific set of operands. Listing 3 shows several methods belonging to the double generic function, specialized for various parameter types. (The value returned by a Dylan function is simply the value returned by the last expression executed in its body; there's no need for an explicit return statement.)

Listing 3. Method specificity

define method double (x)      // No type declaration, default handler
   pair(x, x);                // Works on any type of object
end method double;
define method double (x :: <number>)// Works on all numbers
   2 * x;                                 // Returns 2 times x
end method double;

define method double (x :: <string> // Works on all strings
   concatenate(x, x);                     // Returns "stringstring"
end method double;

define method double (x == cup:)          // Works on the symbol cup:
   pint:;                                 // Returns the symbol pint:
end method double;
The first method in Listing 3 has no specialization at all, so it's equivalent to a default specialization of x :: <object>, which means it will work on anything. It returns a new structure (an instance of the built-in class <pair>), containing two pointers to the argument x.

The default specialization might not be satisfactory for all objects, of course, so the second method specializes the behavior for the case where x is a <number>. In this case, double returns the argument multiplied by 2. For a <string>, the third method returns a new string created by concatenating the argument to itself.

    Dylan provides a large library of collection types, including strings, vectors, hash tables, and much more, along with an extensive and highly consistent library of operations on them. Working with Dylan's collections is much easier than with C, since you don't have the administrative headaches of manual storage management.*
The last method in Listing 3 illustrates Dylan's ability to specialize on specific instances (called singletons), not just whole classes. Through the use of == rather than ::, the parameter is constrained by an equality test, not class membership. The object in this case is a symbol, which is an interesting data type not found in C or C++. A symbol is a case-insensitive immutable string, often used where you might use an enum in C. In this method, double is defined to return the symbol pint: whenever the argument is the symbol cup:.
    The foo: syntax is a convenient way to refer to symbols in your code, but it can be confusing, especially when passing symbols as keyword parameters in function calls. Dylan provides a second, equivalent syntax for symbols, which looks like a string with a # (for example, #"foo"). This also lets you create symbols with spaces in their names.*
When double is invoked on an argument, the most specific method is invoked. Singletons are considered to be the most specific; if a match isn't found, a method for the most specific matching parameter type is found. For example, double("foo") would invoke the third method, because <string> is more specific than <object>, which is what the first method is specialized to. If no match is found, Dylan will catch it and signal an error.


In addition to having the normal kind of parameters (also called required parameters), whose number and position are fixed, Dylan functions can take varying numbers of additional parameters.

A #rest parameter collects an arbitrary number of arguments as a sequence. For example, the following function takes one required argument, view, and any number of additional arguments. A for loop is used inside the function to iterate over the arguments.

define method polygon (view :: <view>, #rest points)
   for (p in points)
   end for;
end method;
Here's an example of using this function:
polygon(myWindow, p1, p2, p3, p4, p5);   // Typical usage
Keyword parameters specified with #key are quite handy, especially for functions with many parameters, which often take default values. As we saw earlier, make takes keyword parameters in order to create objects. These can be provided in any order by the caller, or omitted entirely if default values are specified. The keywords themselves provide an extra degree of clarity to the calling code, since they serve to document the arguments they introduce. For example:
define method rent-car (customer :: <person>,
                                          // Two required parameters
   location :: <city>,              // and up to 4 keywords
   #key color = white:,                   // Default color is white
      sunroof? = #f,                      // Default no sunroof
      automatic? = #t,                    // Default automatic shift
      days = 3)                           // Default 3-day rental
end method;
Notice the usage of #t and #f. These are the Dylan values for Boolean true and false, respectively.

Some examples of using this function are as follows:

rent-car(arnold, dallas, days: 7, sunroof?: #t);
rent-car(betty, dallas, days: 8, color: #"red");
rent-car(colin, vegas);            // Everything defaulted
You also have the option of specifying the return parameters for Dylan functions, as illustrated in Listing 4. This provides more information to the compiler to assist in optimization, as well as documents your code for other users. Dylan functions can return multiple values, which means the caller can get zero, one, or more than one value from the callee. This lets you program in a cleaner, more functional style than in C. In Dylan, you don't need to mix your input and output parameters and bash inputs to make them outputs, or clutter your code with definitions for funny data structures that do nothing more than carry the results of one function back to another.

Listing 4. Example of return declarations and multiple return values

define class <brick> (<object>)
   slot vert;
   slot horiz;
   slot depth;
   slot density;
end class;

define method calculate-weight (b :: <brick>)
   => weight :: <number>;        // Declares return parameter
   let (x, y, z) = bounding-box(b);       // Binds multiple values
   x * y * z * b.density;                 // Returns one value
end method;

define method bounding-box (b :: <brick>)
   => (height :: <number>, width :: <number>, length :: <number>);
   values(b.vert, b.horiz, b.depth);      // Returns three values
end method;
All methods in a generic function must be congruent. Basically, this means they must all take the same number of required parameters, and they must agree on taking keyword and rest values. There are a few more options you can specify for a generic function using the define generic statement, which can also constrain method congruency.


One interesting feature of Dylan is that functions are multiply polymorphic (unlike in C++ or Smalltalk). A function can have as many required parameters as you like, and any or all of them can be specialized. When you call a generic function, a method is picked based on the specializations of all the required parameters, not just of the first one.

There are two methods in the profits generic function defined in Listing 5. The second of these methods is more specialized than the first one, because its script parameter (<sci-fi>) is more specific than that in the first (<script>). It just happens that the script parameter is in the second position. When selecting the method to handle a call like profits(betty, tender), Dylan determines that the first method is the only one that's applicable, so that's the one that's used (see Figure 3). It turns out that both methods are applicable in a call like profits(arnold, zarx). The second method is more specific, so that's what gets invoked.

Listing 5.

define method profits (star :: <actor>, script :: <script>)
   ( * $ticket-price)           // Money from ticket sales
   - (script.fx-budget + star.salary);   //  minus expenses
end method;

define method profits (star :: <actor>, script :: <sci-fi>)
   next-method() / 2;          // Sci-fi is out of fashion these days
end method;

Figure 3. Method selection based on all arguments (not just the first one)

The body of the second profits method uses a special trick to inherit functionality provided in the base method. It calls next-method, a Dylan function that calls the next appropriate method in the generic function, in decreasing order of specificity. In the example, next-method gets a numeric value calculated by the first method, divides it by 2, and returns that to the caller. As a result, you don't have to write the basic equation twice; new methods have the option of calling up the specificity chain and doing what they want with the results. You can also add code to perform tasks before or after calling next-method.


Dylan provides an important abstraction tool, called a module, which typically contains several related functions and classes. Modules let you simplify or limit access to objects by controlling their names. In other words, a module is a namespace, a set of names and the objects they refer to.

A module's definition specifies which names are exported. This gives you control over which variables, functions, classes, and slots are private to that module and which are public. For example, suppose the code in Listing 2 lived in a module called the studio module. We could define this module with the statement below, which exports three classes and three functions. Since arnold and betty are not exported, they're private to the studio module, and are inaccessible to any code outside it.

define module studio
   use dylan;
   export <project>, <actor>, <script>, name, name-setter,
end module
Modules can selectively import some or all of another module's exports. Once imported, these can be used internally, extended, or reexported. We can define a new hollywood module that uses (imports everything exported from) the studio module. Notice that both modules also use the dylan module. Since the dylan module defines all the basic language primitives (like addition), it's a good idea for user-defined modules to always use it.
define module hollywood 
   use dylan;
   use studio, 
      export: name, profits;
   export <movie>, <tv-show>, <videogame>, do-oscars;
end module
This definition assumes that the hollywood module defines three new classes, plus one new function for computing the Oscar winners. It may define others for internal purposes, but those are the only internal classes and functions that it exports. The module also exports two functions imported from the studio module, name and profits. Even though the hollywood module imports the <actor> class from the studio module, there's no way to access the salary slot because salary wasn't exported, and hence cannot be imported into the hollywood module (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Selectively exporting names from modules to other modules

You can selectively export just the getter but not the setter function for a slot, which has the effect of making the slot read-only to all other modules. This is what hollywood does with name. Code in the hollywood module can change an object's name because name-setter is imported from studio, but clients outside hollywood can only read, but not set, an object's name.

You could go ahead and define a new function in the hollywood module called fans, but it would have nothing to do with the fans slot in <actor>. This new fans function would be totally unrelated, and could have a different number of parameters than the fans function in the studio module. It's like two different cities each having a street called Main Street; the references are not valid across city borders. This is another key advantage of namespaces -- they reduce the pressure to keep names unique at the expense of legibility or clarity.

You can even rename what you import, which is useful to prevent name conflicts, or to emphasize the origin of a name. For example, the following version of the hollywood module imports the <project> class from studio, but renames it. Within this hollywood module, the class is known only as <production>, not <project>. Modules have many more fancy renaming and import/export features, but we'll skip them for now.

define module hollywood 
   use dylan;
   use studio, 
      export: name, profits,
      rename: {<project> => <production>};
   export <movie>, <tv-show>, <videogame>, do-oscars;
end module
Modules let you control the interface to a portion of code by specifying exactly what you want to make public. You can even use several modules to provide high- and low-level interfaces to the same internal code -- a capability not available in C++. For example, a hollywood-tourist module would import, rename, and export a subset of documented high-level calls to one set of users, whereas a separate hollywood-insider module might import, rename, and export more detailed calls to a different audience. This helps keep the implementation and interface nicely separated.

C++ has many notions of scope, including lexical (block scope inside functions), class, file, and name space. Some people even rely on the selective inclusion of header files or verbose name prefixes ("typographic scoping") to prevent name collisions. Dylan's simpler scheme -- just lexical scope and modules -- provides precise control over the importing, exporting, and naming of classes, functions, and variables in a clean and consistent way.


In this whirlwind tour, you've had a quick look at how to write classes, functions, and modules in Dylan. Methods are grouped into generic functions, instead of being "owned" by classes. Modules package the names of related classes and functions into convenient APIs.

Apple Dylan isn't planned to ship until later this year, but that doesn't mean you can't play with Dylan before then. If you like what you've seen here, or want to see more, check out the goodies on the CD or those available from on-line services (see "Where to Get Dylan Software and Information").

Just like the Macintosh, Dylan was carefully designed from scratch to make your life a lot more fun and productive. Enjoy, and happy hacking!


    Some experimental freeware Dylan implementations are now available. Marlais, an interpreter, has been ported to Macintosh, Windows, and UNIXreg., and is included on this issue's CD so that you can play with the code examples in this article. Mindy, a byte-code compiler, is available for UNIX. Also on the CD is the Dylan Interim Reference Manual and other goodies.

    Other sources of Dylan software and documentation include the following on-line services:

  • On the Internet is the Apple Dylan World Wide Web server and Apple's Dylan ftp site.

  • On AppleLink, look in Developer Support: Developer Services: Development Platforms: Dylan Related.

  • On eWorld, go (Command-G) to "dev service"; then click Tool Chest: Development Platforms: Dylan Related.

  • On CompuServe, type GO APPLE to get to the Apple support forum. There are 16 libraries; go into Programmers/Developers Library #15.

    Dylan discussions can be found on the Internet newsgroup called comp.lang.dylan. You can also access Dylan discussions through e-mail. Internet users can ask to be included in discussions by sending a request to (AppleLink users can use the address

    If you'd like to become a beta tester of Apple Dylan, please send a message, including your name, address, telephone number, and a brief statement of what you'd like to do with Apple Dylan, to AppleLink DYLAN.

STEVE STRASSMANN (AppleLink STRAZ, Internet has a patent on surgical catheters (#4,838,859) and is the co-author of the infamous UNIX-Haters Handbook. After getting his Ph.D. at the MIT Media Lab in entertainment engineering, he joined the Dylan team at Apple in Cambridge, Mass.*

Thanks to our technical reviewers Stoney Ballard, Jeff Barbose, Ken Dickey, Phil Kania, Ken Karakotsios, David Moon, Carl Nelson, and Kent Sandvik.*


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