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The Pipe Operator: A Glimpse into the Future of Functional JavaScript

In the dynamic landscape of JavaScript, the TC39 proposal for the Pipe Operator tends to stand out as an interesting progression in terms of streamlining function composition in a way increases readability, maintainability, and DX.

In this article, we dive a bit deeper into the realms of functional programming in JavaScript, and how upcoming language features such as the Pipe Operator aid in the ability to facilitate a more declarative approach to functional programming.

At its core, the Pipe Operator, denoted by (|>) introduces syntactic sugar for function composition, allowing developers to pass the result of an expression as an argument to a function. And, while the syntax may appear somewhat unfamiliar at first glance, this seemingly simple language feature harbors some rather profound implications for code clarity and maintainability.

Before diving into some examples, let’s first take a look at how functions are typically composed in JavaScript, and then touch on some of the drawbacks that result from these traditional approaches.

For instance, consider this simple example which demonstrates how one could compose three functions:

As can be seen in the above, composing functions together in this manner is cumbersome at best. Moreover, implementations such as this significantly lack in readability as they effectively obscure intent; that is, we simply want to end up with “abc”, but to do so requires an inversion of our thinking.

Of course, we can simplify things quite a bit by implementing a simple compose function (or utilizing a utility library, such as lodash/fp), which we can then leverage for composing functions in a more natural way:

With the above implementation, managing the composition of functions becomes easier?-?and we can also defer invoking the function to a later time. Yet, it still leaves much to be desired, especially in terms of maintainability. For instance, should we need to change the composition, the order of arguments must be changed proportionately.

Alternatively, developers may choose to bypass chaining altogether and opt for a temporary variable approach in order to simplify implementation and readability. For example:

While this is rather subjective, the use of temporary variables arguably creates unnecessary cognitive load as one must follow the order of assignments, and contend with temporary values which, if not implemented as constants, could lead to potential mutations, etc.

Considering the traditional approach to nested function calls which results in a right-ward drift that is challenging to read and understand, the Pipe Operator on the other hand turns this paradigm on its head, so to speak, by enabling left-to-right composition of functions which organically reflects our natural way of thinking and recognizing patterns, as can be seen in the following:

In the above example, expression is the value that is first passed to functionA, the result of which (i.e. the value returned from functionA) is then passed to functionB, and so on until the last function (functionC) returns, at which point the final value is assigned to result. The readability of this approach as compared to traditional function composition is self-evident, reducing cognitive load and making the flow of data much more apparent.

Given the previous examples, with the Pipe Operator, we can now simplify the implementation in a much more natural way:

The simplicity and utility of the Pipe Operator results in much more succinct expressions which in turn reduces the mental overhead of reading and understanding the implementations intent.

The practical applications of the Pipe Operator are vast, as they can be used to simplify compositions for everything from data processing pipelines to event handling flows.

For instance, consider a scenario where we need to process a dataset through a series of transformations. Using the Pipe Operator, we can accomplish this in a simple and concise manner:

With the streamlined syntax of the Pipe Operator, both intent and the flow of control become much clearer. In addition, maintainability is vastly improved as we can change the order of the processes with considerably less effort. For example, if we decide we want to enrich the results prior to normalizing, we simply just change the order accordingly as needed:

As we see, changing the order of invocations is rather simple, thus maintainability is vastly improved.

A particularly intriguing aspect of the Pipe Operator proposal is the inclusion of “Topic References”; a concept which increases expressiveness and the utility of the Pipe Operator by providing direct access to values via a topicToken.

Topic References allow for elegant handling of the current value within the pipeline, using a symbol (currently, %) as a placeholder reference to the value. This feature enables more complex operations and interactions with the piped value beyond that of simply passing the value as an argument to a function.

The main purpose of topic references is to enhance readability and flexibility for use-cases which involve multiple transformations or operations. By using a placeholder for the current value, developers can clearly express operations like method calls, arithmetic operations, and more complex function invocations directly on the value being piped through, without needing to wrap these operations in additional functions.

Consider a scenario where you’re processing a string to ultimately transform it into a formatted message. Without topic references, each step would require an additional function, even for simple operations. With topic references, however, the process becomes much more direct and readable:

One point to note regarding the topicToken is that it has not been finalized, thus the token is subject to change but will ultimately be one of the following: %, ^^, @@, ^, or #. Currently, @babel/plugin-proposal-pipeline-operator defaults to %, which can be configured to use one of the proposed topicTokens.

Through the use of topic references, the Pipe Operator proposal not only adheres to traditional functional programming principles, but also enhances developer experience by allowing for more intuitive and maintainable implementations. Features such as these represents a significant step forward in providing more declarative and expressive patterns in JavaScript.

The Pipe Operator proposal is currently in the pipeline for standardization, reflecting a collective effort within the JavaScript community to adopt functional programming paradigms. By facilitating a more declarative approach to coding, this proposal aligns with the language’s evolution towards offering constructs that support modern development practices.

Key benefits of the Pipe Operator include:

  • Enhanced Readability: Allows for a straightforward expression of data transformations, improving the readability of the code and making it more accessible to developers.
  • Reduced Complexity: Simplifies complex expressions that would otherwise require nested function calls or intermediate variables, thereby reducing the potential for errors.
  • A More Functional Paradigm: By promoting function composition, the Pipe Operator strengthens JavaScript’s capabilities as a language well-suited for functional programming.

As the JavaScript ecosystem continues to evolve, with TC39 proposals such as the Pipe Operator set to play an important role in shaping the future of the language, especially from a functional programming perspective.

While the proposal is still under consideration, its potential to enhance developer experience and promote functional programming principles is most certainly something to look forward to.

(Update: August, 2021, proposal has been moved to Stage 2)

Simplified Partial Application with ES6

When implementing Partial Application in ES6, implementations naturally become quite easier to reason about as default parameters, rest parameters and arrow functions can be leveraged to provide a much more comprehensive implementation.

While on the surface this may appear insignificant, when compared to having relied almost exclusively on the arguments object and Array.prototype to provide the same functionality in ES5, the benefits become rather apparent.

For instance, consider a simple multiply function which, depending on the arity of the invocation, either computes basic multiplication against the provided parameters, or returns a partial application. That is to say, if invoked as a unary function (single argument), the function returns a partial application (a new function which multiplies by the given argument). If invoked as a variadic function (variable amount of arguments), the function returns the product of the arguments.

In ES5, we could implement such a function as follows:

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Given the above example, in order to inspect and iterate over the provided arguments, we need to rely on the Array.prototype, specifically, we need to invoke on Array prototype in order to apply the slice method so as to convert the arguments object to an Array. Additionally, we also have to account for a default value of arguments[0] should it be omitted or NaN.

Not only does this require a superfluous amount of code, but it also results in a more complicated implementation that becomes considerably more verbose, and as a result, more difficult to reason about; especially for developers who may not be familiar with the specific mechanisms employed within the implementation.

ES6 to the rescue …

With the introduction of default parameters, …rest parameters, and Arrow Functions (fat arrows) in ES6, the implementation of the above example can be significantly reduced, and as a result, becomes considerably easier to understand, as we can simply re-write the multiply function as:

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As can be seen, implementing the multiply function in ES6 not only reduces the SLOC by 1/2 of the previous ES5 implementation, but more importantly, by using rest parameters, it allows us to determine and work with the functions arity in a much more natural way. Moreover, both iterating over the provided arguments and returning the partial application becomes considerably more concise simply by using arrow functions, and the need to account for undefined arguments becomes moot thanks to default parameters.

In addition, variadic invocations of such functions can also be simplified considerably using the ES6 spread operator. For example, in order to pass an Array of arguments to a function in ES5, one would need to call Function.apply against the function, like so:

With ES6 spread operators, however, we can simply invoke the function directly with the given array preceded by the spread operator:


Hopefully this article has shed some light on a few of the features available in ES6 which allow for writing implementations which not only read much more naturally, but can be written with considerably less mental overhead.