JavaScript Promises for Dummies

Get to know JavaScript Promises better.

Javascript Promises are not difficult. However, lots of people find it a little bit hard to understand at the beginning. Therefore, I would like to write down the way I understand promise, in a dummy way.

Understanding Promises

A Promise in short:

"Imagine you are a kid. Your mom promises you that she'll get you a new phone next week."

You don't know if you will get that phone until next week. Your mom can either really buy you a brand new phone, or stand you up and withhold the phone if she is not happy :(.

That is a promise. A promise has 3 states. They are:

  1. Promise is pending: You don't know if you will get that phone until next week.
  2. Promise is resolved: Your mom really buy you a brand new phone.
  3. Promise is rejected: You don't get a new phone because your mom is not happy.

Creating a Promise

Let's convert this to JavaScript.

/* ES5 */
var isMomHappy = false;

// Promise
var willIGetNewPhone = new Promise(
    function (resolve, reject) {
        if (isMomHappy) {
            var phone = {
                brand: 'Samsung',
                color: 'black'
            };
            resolve(phone); // fulfilled
        } else {
            var reason = new Error('mom is not happy');
            reject(reason); // reject
        }

    }
);

The code is quite expressive in itself.

  1. We have a boolean isMomHappy, to define if mom is happy.
  2. We have a promise willIGetNewPhone. The promise can be either resolved (if mom get you a new phone) or rejected(mom is not happy, she don't buy you one).
  3. There is a standard syntax to define a new Promise, refer to MDN documentation, a promise syntax look like this.
// promise syntax look like this
new Promise(/* executor*/ function (resolve, reject) { ... } );
  1. What you need to remember is, when the result is successful, call resolve(your_success_value), if the result fails, call reject(your_fail_value) in your promise. In our example, if mom is happy, we will get a phone. Therefore, we call resolve function with phone variable. If mom is not happy, we will call reject function with a reason reject(reason);

Consuming Promises

Now that we have the promise, let's consume it.

/* ES5 */
...

// call our promise
var askMom = function () {
    willIGetNewPhone
        .then(function (fulfilled) {
            // yay, you got a new phone
            console.log(fulfilled);
         // output: { brand: 'Samsung', color: 'black' }
        })
        .catch(function (error) {
            // oops, mom don't buy it
            console.log(error.message);
         // output: 'mom is not happy'
        });
};

askMom();
  1. We have a function call askMom. In this function, we will consume our promise willIGetNewPhone.
  2. We want to take some action once the promise is resolved or rejected, we use .then and .catch to handle our action.
  3. In our example, we have function(fulfilled) { ... } in .then. What is the value of fulfilled? The fulfilled value is exactly the value you pass in your promise resolve(your_success_value). Therefore, it will be phone in our case.
  4. We have function(error){ ... } in .catch. What is the value of error? As you can guess, the error value is exactly the value you pass in your promise resolve(your_fail_value). Therefore, it will be reason in our case.

Let's run the example and see the result!

Demo: https://jsbin.com/nifocu/1/edit?js,console Result

Chaining Promises

Promises are chainable.

Let's say, you, the kid, promise your friend that you will show them the new phone when your mom buy you one.

That is another promise. Let's write it!

...

// 2nd promise
var showOff = function (phone) {
    return new Promise(
        function (resolve, reject) {
            var message = 'Hey friend, I have a new ' +
                phone.color + ' ' + phone.brand + ' phone';

            resolve(message);
        }
    );
};

Notes:

  • In this example, you might realize we didn't call the reject. It's optional.
  • We can shorten this sample like using Promise.resolve instead.
// shorten it
...

// 2nd promise
var showOff = function (phone) {
    var message = 'Hey friend, I have a new ' +
                phone.color + ' ' + phone.brand + ' phone';

    return Promise.resolve(message);
};

Let's chain the promises. You, the kid can only start the showOff promise after the willIGetNewPhone promise.

...

// call our promise
var askMom = function () {
    willIGetNewPhone
    .then(showOff) // chain it here
    .then(function (fulfilled) {
            console.log(fulfilled);
         // output: 'Hey friend, I have a new black Samsung phone.'
        })
        .catch(function (error) {
            // oops, mom don't buy it
            console.log(error.message);
         // output: 'mom is not happy'
        });
};

That's how easy to chain the promise.

Promises are Asynchronous

Promises are asynchronous. Let's log a message before and after we call the promise.

// call our promise
var askMom = function () {
    console.log('before asking Mom'); // log before
    willIGetNewPhone
        .then(showOff)
        .then(function (fulfilled) {
            console.log(fulfilled);
        })
        .catch(function (error) {
            console.log(error.message);
        });
    console.log('after asking mom'); // log after
}

What is the sequence of expected output? Probably you expect:

1. before asking Mom
2. Hey friend, I have a new black Samsung phone.
3. after asking mom

However, the actual output sequence is:

1. before asking Mom
2. after asking mom
3. Hey friend, I have a new black Samsung phone.

Output

Why? Because life (or JS) waits for no man.

You, the kid, wouldn't stop playing while waiting for your mom promise (the new phone). Don't you? That's something we call asynchronous, the code will run without blocking or waiting for the result. Anything that need to wait for promise to proceed, you put that in .then.

Promises in ES5, ES6/2015, ES7/Next

ES5 - Majority browsers

The demo code is workable in ES5 environments (all major browsers + NodeJs) if you include Bluebird promise library. It's because ES5 doesn't support promises out of the box. Another famous promise library is Q by Kris Kowal.

ES6 / ES2015 - Modern browsers, NodeJs v6

The demo code works out of the box because ES6 supports promises natively. In addition, with ES6 functions, we can further simplify the code with fat arrow => and use const and let.

Here is an example of ES6 code:

/* ES6 */
const isMomHappy = true;

// Promise
const willIGetNewPhone = new Promise(
    (resolve, reject) => { // fat arrow
        if (isMomHappy) {
            const phone = {
                brand: 'Samsung',
                color: 'black'
            };
            resolve(phone);
        } else {
            const reason = new Error('mom is not happy');
            reject(reason);
        }

    }
);

const showOff = function (phone) {
    const message = 'Hey friend, I have a new ' +
                phone.color + ' ' + phone.brand + ' phone';
    return Promise.resolve(message);
};

// call our promise
const askMom = function () {
    willIGetNewPhone
        .then(showOff)
        .then(fulfilled => console.log(fulfilled)) // fat arrow
        .catch(error => console.log(error.message)); // fat arrow
};

askMom();

Notes that all the var are replaced with const. All the function(resolve, reject) has been simplified to (resolve, reject) =>. There are a few benefits come with these changes. Read more on:-

ES7 - Async Await make the syntax look prettier

ES7 introduce async and await syntax. It makes the asynchronous syntax look prettier and easier to understand, without the .then and .error.

Rewrite our example with ES7 syntax.

/* ES7 */
const isMomHappy = true;

// Promise
const willIGetNewPhone = new Promise(
    (resolve, reject) => {
        if (isMomHappy) {
            const phone = {
                brand: 'Samsung',
                color: 'black'
            };
            resolve(phone);
        } else {
            const reason = new Error('mom is not happy');
            reject(reason);
        }

    }
);

// 2nd promise
async function showOff(phone) {
    return new Promise(
        (resolve, reject) => {
            var message = 'Hey friend, I have a new ' +
                phone.color + ' ' + phone.brand + ' phone';

            resolve(message);
        }
    );
};

// call our promise
async function askMom() {
    try {
        console.log('before asking Mom');

        let phone = await willIGetNewPhone;
        let message = await showOff(phone);

        console.log(message);
        console.log('after asking mom');
    }
    catch (error) {
        console.log(error.message);
    }
}

(async () => {
    await askMom();
})();
  1. Whenever you need to return a promise in a function, you prepend async to that function. E.g. async function showOff(phone)
  2. Whenever you need to call a promise, you prepend with await. E.g. let phone = await willIGetNewPhone; and let message = await showOff(phone);.
  3. Use try { ... } catch(error) { ... } to catch promise error, the rejected promise.

Why Promises and When to Use Them?

Why do we need promises? How's the world look like before promise? Before answering these questions, let's go back to the fundamental.

Normal Function vs Async Function

Let's take a look at these two example, both example perform addition of two number, one add using normal function, the other add remotely.

Normal Function to Add Two Numbers

// add two numbers normally

function add (num1, num2) {
    return num1 + num2;
}

const result = add(1, 2); // you get result = 3 immediately
Async Function to Add Two numbers
// add two numbers remotely

// get the result by calling an API
const result = getAddResultFromServer('http://www.example.com?num1=1&num2=2');
// you get result  = "undefined"

If you add the numbers with normal function, you get the result immediately. However when you issue a remote call to get result, you need to wait, you can't get the result immediately.

Or put it this way, you don't know if you will get the result because the server might be down, slow in response, etc. You don't want your entire process to be blocked while waiting for the result.

Calling APIs, downloading files, reading files are among some of the usual async operations that you'll perform.

World Before Promises: Callback

Must we use promise for asynchronous call? Nope. Prior to Promise, we use callback. Callback is just a function you call when you get the return result. Let's modify the previous example to accept a callback.

// add two numbers remotely
// get the result by calling an API

function addAsync (num1, num2, callback) {
    // use the famous jQuery getJSON callback API
    return $.getJSON('http://www.example.com', {
        num1: num1,
        num2: num2
    }, callback);
}

addAsync(1, 2, success => {
    // callback
    const result = success; // you get result = 3 here
});

The syntax looks ok, why do we need promises then?

What if You Want to Perform Subsequent Async Action?

Let's say, instead of just add the numbers one time, we want to add 3 times. In a normal function, we do this:-

// add two numbers normally

let resultA, resultB, resultC;

 function add (num1, num2) {
    return num1 + num2;
}

resultA = add(1, 2); // you get resultA = 3 immediately
resultB = add(resultA, 3); // you get resultB = 6 immediately
resultC = add(resultB, 4); // you get resultC = 10 immediately

console.log('total' + resultC);
console.log(resultA, resultB, resultC);

How it looks like with callbacks?

// add two numbers remotely
// get the result by calling an API

let resultA, resultB, resultC;

function addAsync (num1, num2, callback) {
    // use the famous jQuery getJSON callback API
    return $.getJSON('http://www.example.com', {
        num1: num1,
        num2: num2
    }, callback);
}

addAsync(1, 2, success => {
    // callback 1
    resultA = success; // you get result = 3 here

    addAsync(resultA, 3, success => {
        // callback 2
        resultB = success; // you get result = 6 here

        addAsync(resultB, 4, success => {
            // callback 3
            resultC = success; // you get result = 10 here

            console.log('total' + resultC);
            console.log(resultA, resultB, resultC);
        });
    });
});

Demo: https://jsbin.com/barimo/edit?html,js,console

The syntax is less user friendly. In a nicer term, It looks like a pyramid, but people usually refer this as "callback hell", because the callback nested into another callback. Imagine you have 10 callbacks, your code will nested 10 times!

Escape From Callback Hell

Promises come in to rescue. Let's look at the promise version of the same example.

// add two numbers remotely using observable

let resultA, resultB, resultC;

function addAsync(num1, num2) {
    // use ES6 fetch API, which return a promise
    return fetch(`http://www.example.com?num1=${num1}&num2=${num2}`)
        .then(x => x.json());
}

addAsync(1, 2)
    .then(success => {
        resultA = success;
        return resultA;
    })
    .then(success => addAsync(success, 3))
    .then(success => {
        resultB = success;
        return resultB;
    })
    .then(success => addAsync(success, 4))
    .then(success => {
        resultC = success;
        return resultC;
    })
    .then(success => {
        console.log('total: ' + success)
        console.log(resultA, resultB, resultC)
    });

Demo: https://jsbin.com/qafane/edit?js,console

With promises, we flatten the callback with .then. In a way, it looks cleaner because of no callback nesting. Of course, with ES7 async syntax, we can even further enhance this example, but I leave that to you. :)

New Kid On the Block: Observables

Before you settle down with promises, there is something that has come about to make it even easier to deal with async data called Observables.

Observables are lazy event streams which can emit zero or more events, and may or may not finish.

Some key differences between promises and observable are:

  • Observables are cancellable
  • Observable are lazy

Fear not, let look at the same demo written with Observables. In this example, I am using RxJS for the observables.

let Observable = Rx.Observable;
let resultA, resultB, resultC;

function addAsync(num1, num2) {
    // use ES6 fetch API, which return a promise
    const promise = fetch(`http://www.example.com?num1=${num1}&num2=${num2}`)
        .then(x => x.json());

    return Observable.fromPromise(promise);
}

addAsync(1,2)
  .do(x => resultA = x)
  .flatMap(x => addAsync(x, 3))
  .do(x => resultB = x)
  .flatMap(x => addAsync(x, 4))
  .do(x => resultC = x)
  .subscribe(x => {
    console.log('total: ' + x)
    console.log(resultA, resultB, resultC)
  });

Demo: https://jsbin.com/dosaviwalu/edit?js,console

Notes:

  • Observable.fromPromise converts a promise to observable stream.
  • .do and .flatMap are among some of the operators available for Bbservables
  • Streams are lazy. Our addAsync runs when we .subscribe to it.

Observables can do more funky stuff easily. For example, delay add function by 3 seconds with just one line of code or retry so you can retry a call a certain number of times.

...

addAsync(1,2)
  .delay(3000) // delay 3 seconds
  .do(x => resultA = x)
  ...

Well, let's talk about Observables in future post!

Summary

Get yourself familiar with callbacks and promises. Understand them and use them. Don't worry about Observables, just yet. All three can factor into your development depending on the situation.

Here are the demo code for all mom promise to buy phone examples:

That's it. Hopefully this article smoothen your path to tame the JavaScript promises. Happy coding!

Jecelyn Yeen

Coder. Diver. Board Game Lover.

Speak English, Mandarin, JavaScript, Typescript, C# and more.

Problem solver at @iflix.