Behind C++/WinRT: How does C++/WinRT decide which interfaces are implemented?

Raymond Chen

Last time, we diagnosed a problem by realizing that the unkwn.h header had not been included prior to including any C++/WinRT headers, and that means that C++/WinRT did not activate its code that supports classic COM interfaces.

This is going to be the first in what will probably be a very sporadic series of looking into the C++/WinRT implementation, as reverse-engineered by me.¹ I’m writing it in part so that I’ll be able to refer back to this write-up the next time I have to debug this code. And in part so that there are more people who understand the insides of C++/WinRT and can help support it. (This is the selfish reason for many of the articles I write: I’m writing them in order to reduce my own workload.)

It all hangs on this definition of is_interface:


template <typename T>
struct is_interface : std::disjunction<
    std::is_base_of<Windows::Foundation::IInspectable, T>,
        std::is_base_of<::IUnknown, T>,
        std::negation<is_implements<T>>>> {};


template <typename T>
struct is_interface :
    std::is_base_of<Windows::Foundation::IInspectable, T> {};


The WINRT_IMPL_IUNKNOWN_DEFINED macro is an internal C++/WinRT macro that remembers whether unknwn.h has been included. If so, then ::IUnknown is defined, and C++/WinRT can activate classic COM support. Let’s translate the C++ type traits template meta-programming into something we’re more familiar with.

One of the main tools of the C++ type traits system is the std::integral_constant<T, v>. This is a type that wraps a constant value v of type T.

template<typename T, T v>
struct integral_constant
    static constexpr T value = v;
    ... other stuff not relevant here ...

For example, std::integral_constant<int, 42>::value is an integer constant whose value is 42.

This seems pointless, but it’s not. Template meta-programming doesn’t have variables; it operates on types. The std::integral_constant lets you treat a type as if it were a variable whose value is the integral_constant::value.

C++ comes with a number of pre-made integral constants. Relevant today are std::true_type and std::false_type, which wrap a Boolean true or false, respectively. And it also comes with some pre-made template types that manipulate them:

  • std::conjunction performs a logical and on its arguments.²
  • std::disjunction performs a logical or on its arguments.
  • std::negation performs a logical not on its argument.

Okay, now we can start taking apart the first expression.

template <typename T>
struct is_interface : std::disjunction<
    std::is_base_of<Windows::Foundation::IInspectable, T>,
        std::is_base_of<::IUnknown, T>,
        std::negation<is_implements<T>>>> {};

We mentally convert the std::disjunction to ||, the std::conjunction to &&, and the std::negation to !.

template <typename T>
struct is_interface is true if
    std::is_base_of<Windows::Foundation::IInspectable, T> ||
        std::is_base_of<::IUnknown, T> &&

Now we can read out the logic. Something is considered an interface if either

  • It derives from winrt::Windows::Foundation::IInspectable, or
  • It derives from ::IUnknown and is not an implements.

The rejection of implements prevents is_interface from misdetecting implements as a itself being COM interface.

Onward to the #else: If unknwn.h was not included, then we use a simpler definition of is_interface that merely detects derivation from winrt::Windows::Foundation::IInspectable.

In order to detect classic COM interfaces, C++/WinRT needs ::IUnknown to have been defined. Otherwise, it has nothing to test as a base class.

So that’s the quick diagnosis of yesterday’s problem wherein C++/WinRT failed to recognize classic COM interfaces.

Next time, we’ll dig in deeper to how the is_interface definition is used to pick out the interfaces.

Bonus chatter: As I noted last time, the requirement that you include unknwn.h before including C++/WinRT is no longer present as of C++/WinRT version 2.0.210922.5. The trick is to forward-declare the ::IUnknown type so that you can talk about it without knowing what it is. The std::is_base_class template type requires only that the proposed derived class be complete. The base class (::IUnknown) doesn’t have to be complete.

Exercise: Why is it okay for std::is_base_class to accept an incomplete base class? How can it possibly detect whether something derives from a class which has no definition?

¹ A lot of learning comes from reverse-engineering. When doing debugging, you are pretty much forced into it.

² Actually, std::conjunction and std::disjunction behave more like their JavaScript equivalent operators && and || because they short-circuit and support “truthiness”.

Answer to exercise: If the base class is incomplete, then nothing can derive from it. You can’t derive from an incomplete type.


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