Document numberP0074R0
ProjectProgramming Language C++, Library Working Group
Reply-toJonathan Wakely <>

Making std::owner_less more flexible


The class template std::owner_less is inconvenient to use for anything but the simplest cases:

  shared_ptr<int> sp1;
  shared_ptr<void> sp2;
  shared_ptr<long> sp3;
  weak_ptr<int> wp1;

  owner_less<shared_ptr<int>> cmp;
  cmp(sp1, sp2);   // error, doesn't compile
  cmp(sp1, wp1);
  cmp(sp1, sp3);   // error, doesn't compile
  cmp(wp1, sp1);
  cmp(wp1, wp1);   // error, doesn't compile

Motivation and Scope

The first error in the example in the introduction can be avoided by using owner_less<shared_ptr<void>> but the initial attempt to do so still fails because sp1 can be converted to both shared_ptr<void> and weak_ptr<void>:

  owner_less<shared_ptr<void>> cmpv;
  cmpv(sp1, sp2);  // error, ambiguous conversion

To make it compile it's necessary to explicitly convert the shared_ptr<int> to the right argument type:

  owner_less<shared_ptr<void>> cmpv;
  cmpv(shared_ptr<void>(sp1), sp2);

Not only is this more verbose and less clear, but the conversion creates a temporary, incrementing and decrementing the reference count.

shared_ptr::owner_before and weak_ptr::owner_before are function templates that support mixed comparisons between shared_ptr<A> and weak_ptr<B>, but owner_less only supports comparing shared_ptr<A> and weak_ptr<A>. Mixing pointers to different types either causes implicit conversions (and reference-count updates) or just fails to compile. This is an unnecessary restriction, because the shared_ptr aliasing constructor means that objects which share ownership can store completely unrelated types of pointer.

Even if we don't care about mixing different types, the three owner_less::operator() overloads only support three out of four combinations of argument types, and the Adaptable Binary Function typedefs first_argument_type and second_argument_type only describe the argument types for one of those three overloads.

The proposed addition removes the typedefs, as they are unnecessary since C++11, and allows the example in the introduction to handle all the comparisons without creating any temporaries:

  owner_less<> cmp;
  cmp(sp1, sp2);   // no temporary created
  cmp(sp1, wp1);
  cmp(sp1, sp3);   // ok
  cmp(wp1, sp1);
  cmp(wp1, wp1);   // ok

Design Decisions

The proposed addition is directly inspired by N3421 and so is not novel.

There is no need to constrain the proposed member function templates, because owner_before is unconstrained.

The member function templates simply return bool rather than using decltype to detect the result of x.owner_before(y). Although this means that in N3421 terms the proposed specialization is not completely "transparent" there is no need to use decltype because bool is always the right return type. By defining the nested is_transparent typedef the following is supported:

  set<shared_ptr<X>, owner_less<>> s;
  shared_ptr<void> key = get_key();
  auto iter = s.find(key);

It might makes sense to alter the existing owner_less<shared_ptr<T>> and owner_less<weak_ptr<T>> partial specializations to add a fourth overload that takes two weak_ptrs or two shared_ptrs respectively, and also to remove the nested typedefs. The fourth overload seems unnecessary if this proposal is accepted, because it would still be simpler to use the new owner_less<void> specialization. Removing the typedefs is a potentially breaking change so is left for another proposal to do later if that change is wanted.

Impact On The Standard

This is a pure library extension. In C++ today owner_less<void> is an incomplete type, so defining it should not cause problems for any correct programs.

Technical Specification

In [util.smartptr.ownerless] p1 add a default template argument of type void,

template<class T = void> struct owner_less;

And after the two partial specializations add:

template<> struct owner_less<void> {
  template<class T, class U>
    bool operator()(shared_ptr<T> const&, shared_ptr<U> const&) const;
  template<class T, class U>
    bool operator()(shared_ptr<T> const&, weak_ptr<U> const&) const;
  template<class T, class U>
    bool operator()(weak_ptr<T> const&, shared_ptr<U> const&) const;
  template<class T, class U>
    bool operator()(weak_ptr<T> const&, weak_ptr<U> const&) const;

  typedef unspecified is_transparent;

Implementation Experience

The implementation is trivial and has been tested in the GNU libstdc++ library.


Thanks to Marshal Clow for comments on the proposal.