Feature Preview 2020-01-31

We are happy to announce a new feature coming up for Typedefs along with a preview available on try.typedefs.com: Specialised types.

Disclaimer: Keep in mind this is a preview and some things don’t exactly work as expected.


Specialisation is a feature that will dramatically increase the range of uses for Typedefs while keeping the same core language.


Specialisation allows Typedefs to use defintions that are not in the current file. For example, imagine writing a typedef for transactions:

(name Transaction (* Hash Date Amount))

Typedefs has this limitation that every type has to be defined as a typedef as well.

With that in mind, how do you define Hash, Date and Amount as a typedef? You might want Hash to be a number, or a string.

For Date, do you use Int and unix time? What about interfacing with the Date type of a library?

Even if you use Int, how do you implement them as a typedefs? You could define them as a product of bits like so:

(name Bit (+ 1 1)
(name Int (* Bit Bit Bit ... Bit))
           ; \---- 64 bits ----/

That’s slightly bizarre, because now we are representing bits as a gigantic tuple, which makes it both unwieldy to use in your host programming language and very inefficent.

Specialised Types

Our solution is to introduce references to types that are not defined anywhere and pretend they exist, until the very last step of the compilation pipeline. We call this mechanism “specialisation” because it allows us to use the same name to refer to different types that are specific to a certain backend or a certain runtime. For example the Maybe type might be called Maybe (In Haskell), Option (In OCaml) or Optional (In Java) depending on the backend. It might not even exist! But though they look different they share the same semantics: capturing the idea that a value might be absent.

Now we can rewrite our typedef as

(name Amount (mu (MkAmount Int)))
(name Date (mu (MkDate Date)))
(name Hash (mu (MkHash String)))
(name Transaction (* Hash Date Amount))

But there is a slight problem with that: The s-expression syntax we use matches our AST very closely. And our AST needs to know about the specialised types we’re using before we use them. For that we declare them in advance with the following syntax:

(specialised Int)
(specialised String)
(specialised Date)

; notice we don't need Date anymore since we're using
; the specialised version of it directly
(name Amount (mu (MkAmount Int)))
(name Hash (mu (MkHash String)))
(name Transaction (* Hash Date Amount))

This way the compiler will look for specialised version of those types in the selected backend and insert them in the right places.

Type Parameters

Specialised types shine when used with type parameters (or generics). One such example is the type Maybe or Optional or Option:

(specialised Maybe 1)

(name MyBool (+ 1 1))

(name MyType (mu (MkType (Maybe Bool))))

You will notice a couple things are different in this snippet:

  • The specialised type is followed by a number. This number represents the arity of the specialised type. In our case Maybe expects 1 argument so we follow it by the number 1. If we wanted to declare Either as a specialised type, we would have to write (specialised Either 2) because Either expects 2 arguments to be fully applied.

  • We can apply a specialised type directly to already defined types and the output will be as we expect: a serialiser/deserialiser that assumes encodeMaybe and decodeMaybe already exist and uses them in order to encode/decode MyType.

The Road Ahead

Specialised types are only the beginning. Not only do they allow us to reuse types that are defined differently in different host languages, but they also allow us to implement new features such as typedefs imports, a standard typedefs repository, reusing user-defined encoding/decoding function, reusing user-defined types, and more! Stay tuned for what is coming up next.