Monday, October 26, 2009

New features in C# 4.0 - Features for COM interop

Dynamic lookup as well as named and optional parameters greatly improve the experience of interoperating with COM APIs such as the Office Automation APIs. In order to remove even more of the speed bumps, a couple of small COM-specific features are also added to C# 4.0.

Dynamic import

Many COM methods accept and return variant types, which are represented in the PIAs as object. In the vast majority of cases, a programmer calling these methods already knows the static type of a returned object from context, but explicitly has to perform a cast on the returned value to make use of that knowledge. These casts are so common that they constitute a major nuisance.

In order to facilitate a smoother experience, you can now choose to import these COM APIs in such a way that variants are instead represented using the type dynamic. In other words, from your point of view, COM signatures now have occurrences of dynamic instead of object in them.

This means that you can easily access members directly off a returned object, or you can assign it to a strongly typed local variable without having to cast. To illustrate, you can now say

excel.Cells[1, 1].Value = "Hello";
instead of
((Excel.Range)excel.Cells[1, 1]).Value2 = "Hello";
Excel.Range range = excel.Cells[1, 1];
instead of
Excel.Range range = (Excel.Range)excel.Cells[1, 1];

Compiling without PIAs

Primary Interop Assemblies are large .NET assemblies generated from COM interfaces to facilitate strongly typed interoperability. They provide great support at design time, where your experience of the interop is as good as if the types where really defined in .NET. However, at runtime these large assemblies can easily bloat your program, and also cause versioning issues because they are distributed independently of your application.

The no-PIA feature allows you to continue to use PIAs at design time without having them around at runtime. Instead, the C# compiler will bake the small part of the PIA that a program actually uses directly into its assembly. At runtime the PIA does not have to be loaded.

Omitting ref

Because of a different programming model, many COM APIs contain a lot of reference parameters. Contrary to refs in C#, these are typically not meant to mutate a passed-in argument for the subsequent benefit of the caller, but are simply another way of passing value parameters.

It therefore seems unreasonable that a C# programmer should have to create temporary variables for all such ref parameters and pass these by reference. Instead, specifically for COM methods, the C# compiler will allow you to pass arguments by value to such a method, and will automatically generate temporary variables to hold the passed-in values, subsequently discarding these when the call returns. In this way the caller sees value semantics, and will not experience any side effects, but the called method still gets a reference.

Open issues

A few COM interface features still are not surfaced in C#. Most notably these include indexed properties and default properties. As mentioned above these will be respected if you access COM dynamically, but statically typed C# code will still not recognize them.

There are currently no plans to address these remaining speed bumps in C# 4.0.

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