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Android C++ reference counting, part 2

In last article, we introduced the strong pointer, or sp. Today, we will take about another type of smart pointer - weak pointer, or wp as called in Android. Let's look at an example.

using namespace android;

// class Memory subclass RefBase so it can be reference counted
// and be accepted by both sp<T> and wp<T>, where sp stands for
// strong pointer and wp stands for weak pointer. 
// A weak pointer won't prevent the object it points to from being 
// deleted - as long as there is no strong pointer pointing to the 
// raw object it will be deleted. Hence, to make sure the raw object
// is still valid, you will first need to promote it to be strong 
// pointer first. If the promote success, use it; otherwise, you know
// underlying object is no longer valid and you won't want to use it.  

class Memory: public RefBase {
    Memory(int size) : mSize(size), mData(NULL) {
        ALOGD("        Memory constructor %p ",this);

    virtual ~Memory() {
        ALOGD("        Memory destructor %p", this);
        if (mData)  free(mData);

    virtual void onFirstRef() {
        ALOGD("        onFirstRef on %p",this);
        mData = malloc(mSize);

    int size() {return mSize;}
    int mSize;
    void *mData;

// used as a MARK in the output
#define L(N)   ALOGD("LINE %d TRIGGER:",N);
// print out the strong counter numbers of the object
#define C(obj) ALOGD("        Count of %p : %d", (void*)obj, obj->getStrongCount());

int main()
    wp<Memory> wpm1;
    Memory *m = new Memory(1);
    {//scope for spm1
        // create a Memory instance and let it be managed by a sp
        sp<Memory> spm1(m); 
        // assign the sp to the weak pointer, wpm1
        wpm1 = spm1;

        { // scope for spm2
            // You can't access wp's underlying raw pointer directly, since
            // there is no accessor apis defined for it.
            // Recall that for sp, there are three accessor apis/operators
            // you can use: get(),*,->
            // To access the raw pointer the wp pointing to, you need first
            // promote it to an sp, and use the returning sp if it is not NULL.
            sp<Memory> spm2 = wpm1.promote();
            if (spm2 != NULL) {
                ALOGD("        Promotion to sp successfully");
                // ref count is 2, since both spm1 and spm2 pointed to it
        // at this point, spm2 is out of scope, ref count of the m becomes 1 
    // Beyond previous close curly, spm1 was also out of scope.
    // Since there was no strong pointer to m, m was destroyed.
    // Hence, following promotion will fail and we should not try to
    // use it any more.
    sp<Memory> spm3 = wpm1.promote();
    if (spm3 == NULL) {
        ALOGD("        Promotion Fail. Object already been destructed");

    return 0;

And, here is the output.

        Memory constructor 0x5597001050 
        onFirstRef on 0x5597001050
        Promotion to sp successfully
        Count of 0x5597001050 : 2
        Memory destructor 0x5597001050
        Promotion Fail. Object already been destructed

You maybe wondering what is the usage of weak pointer.  Here are two examples:
  1. hold a weak reference to observers. Only notify observer when it is alive.
  2. To solve the memory leak issue involved in the circular strong reference. Suppose A hold a strong reference to B and B hold strong reference to A. Then, neither A or B will be destroyed since there is always one strong reference to them. One of the solution is to make one of reference be weak reference.  
To wrap up, you may want to check out c++11 newly introduced std::shared_ptr and std::weak_ptr. The first one maps to sp and the later wp.

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