Knowing Your Boundaries: C++/Objective-C with the Membrane Library

Apple’s preferred framework for writing new Mac OS X applications is Cocoa. Most cross-platform application development for the Mac not done by Apple is done in Carbon.

One reason for this state of affairs is that most large apps for the Mac are legacy apps, originally written for Mac OS 9 and earlier using the Toolbox. These large, flagship apps, such as Photoshop and Microsoft Office, are very important to the platform and with any luck won’t be going away anytime soon. For that reason alone, Apple must stick with a dual-API strategy.

But the second reason has to do with a different kind of history: the history of languages.

Apple’s OO language of choice is Objective-C, thanks to its NeXT heritage. Most cross-platform application development which isn’t done in scripting languages or Java is done in C++. Integrating large C++ and Objective-C codebases is just too hard. C++ and Objective-C code can be mixed, but their error-handling mechanisms and resource allocation traditions are incompatible, so there are no high-profile, large-scale examples.2 It’s easier to write (or buy, thank you, Metrowerks) your own C++ layer over Carbon, and stick with a single set of mechanisms.

Until now.

Well, more accurately, until June of 2003. That’s when Mac Murrett and I introduced the Membrane library to MacHack 18, along with a paper and sample code.

As the paper states in its introduction:

C++ and Objective-C can be used in the same codebase, but their error-handling mechanisms don’t mix well without some extra effort. This means careful resource allocation on both sides and translation code at every boundary between them. Sound like too much work? This paper describes the Membrane C++/Objective-C library, which makes these steps as easy as possible – often simple one-liners – while still both allowing for great flexibility and encouraging rigorous and systematic error-handling policies.

Membrane allows you to create rules for converting C++ exception types to Objective-C NSExceptions and vice versa. It allows you to encapsulate objects from one language in another so deallocation is automatic. This means you can develop the right way, fast.

For small codebases, this is not necessarily a big win. If you only call a few C++ APIs in your Cocoa application, you can just throw some try/catch blocks around them and be done with it. Alternately, if your C++ code doesn’t use exceptions much, you won’t need to convert them with Membrane.

So the conditions where Membrane will be really useful are: large codebase, modern C++ practices.

Working on such a project? Then go to the permanent Membrane Web page at and have a look.

1Yes, there are exceptions, the biggest of them being iTunes. Funny coincidence that it’s the only new Apple app ported to Windows, eh?
2The exception to this statement being Safari and the C++ KDE codebase. But the KDE codebase is old and rarely uses such modern C++ best practices as exceptions.