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84JDC Tech Tips November 6, 2001

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  • Alexandre Bairos
    Nov 6, 2001
      To: bairos@...
      Subject: JDC Tech Tips November 6, 2001

      J D C T E C H T I P S


      WELCOME to the Java Developer Connection(sm) (JDC) Tech Tips,
      November 6, 2001. This issue covers:

      * Using Method Pointers
      * Abstract Classes vs. Interfaces

      These tips were developed using Java(tm) 2 SDK, Standard Edition,
      v 1.3.

      You can view this issue of the Tech Tips on the Web at

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      Suppose that you're using the Java programming language to
      implement some type of a sort or search algorithm. Suppose too
      that you need to pass to the algorithm a comparator method, that
      is, a method used to compare and rank two elements.

      A low-level language such as C supports function pointers,
      which are memory addresses of functions. You can pass these
      pointers to library functions such as qsort(), and combine qsort
      and a comparator function you specify to perform arbitrary types
      of sorting.

      The Java programming language does not have pointers that are
      visible to the user, and there are no global functions (methods).
      Every method is a part of some class. So how can you designate
      a particular comparator method for use when you're sorting,
      searching, or doing similar kinds of operations? Here's one

      class Compare {
      public int compare(Integer a, Integer b) {
      int aval = a.intValue();
      int bval = b.intValue();
      return aval < bval ? -1 :
      (aval == bval ? 0 : 1);

      public class MethPtr1 {
      static int compare_ab(
      Integer a, Integer b, Compare c) {
      return c.compare(a, b);

      public static void main(String args[]) {
      Integer a = new Integer(47);
      Integer b = new Integer(37);

      int cmp = compare_ab(a, b, new Compare());

      if (cmp < 0) {
      System.out.println("a < b");
      else if (cmp == 0) {
      System.out.println("a == b");
      else {
      System.out.println("a > b");

      In this example, the method compare_ab is a very simplified
      version of a sort method. It's passed two Integer objects, along
      with a comparator. The method then ranks the Integer objects,
      returning -1 if the first object is less than the second, 0 if
      they're equal, and 1 if the first object is greater than the

      The comparator is an instance of the Compare class that has a
      method compare defined within it. The instance is called a
      "function object," given that it defines a single method, and
      that method performs operations on other objects that are passed
      to the method.

      An instance of Compare is created each time compare_ab is
      called. This could be optimized by creating one instance of
      Compare to be used throughout the program, or by using a
      singleton class.

      The output of the program is:

      a > b

      The approach above does the job, but it has some problems. One is
      that there's a fixed ranking strategy built into the compare
      method. If you wanted to reverse the order of comparison, or take
      the absolute value of the numbers before comparing them, you'd be
      out of luck. Also, a standard sorting or searching algorithm is
      not going to know about a Compare class that you've defined; the
      algorithm has to be implemented in terms of a standardized

      To solve these problems, you can change the program like this:

      import java.util.Comparator;

      class Compare implements Comparator {
      public int compare(Object a, Object b) {
      int aval = ((Integer)a).intValue();
      int bval = ((Integer)b).intValue();
      return aval < bval ? -1 :
      (aval == bval ? 0 : 1);

      public class MethPtr2 {
      static int compare_ab(
      Integer a, Integer b, Comparator c) {
      return c.compare(a, b);

      public static void main(String args[]) {
      Integer a = new Integer(47);
      Integer b = new Integer(37);

      Comparator c = new Compare();
      int cmp = compare_ab(a, b, c);
      int cmp = compare_ab(
      a, b, new Comparator() {
      public int compare(
      Object aa, Object bb) {
      int aval = (
      int bval = (
      return aval < bval ? -1 :
      (aval == bval ? 0 : 1);

      if (cmp < 0) {
      System.out.println("a < b");
      else if (cmp == 0) {
      System.out.println("a == b");
      else {
      System.out.println("a > b");

      java.util.Comparator is a standard interface that specifies the
      compare method. This interface is used by other classes and
      methods, for example, Collections.sort. You implement this
      interface, defining whatever comparison method you desire.

      Note that it's possible to use an anonymous inner class to
      implement the Comparator interface. The example above shows an
      alternative that illustrates the use of an inner class. This
      approach is useful in situations where you only need to use the
      implementing class in one place.

      The example is a demonstration of programming using interface
      types. When the MethPtr2 program calls compare_ab, the program
      passes the method a Compare object. But the corresponding
      parameter in compare_ab is defined as a Comparator. This is
      roughly like saying:

      Comparator x = new Compare();

      This is valid because the Compare class implements the Comparator
      interface. Another common example from the Collections Framework

      List x = new ArrayList();

      Passing a method to another method, by means of a function object
      or interface, so that the passed-in method can be called, is
      sometimes referred to as a "callback." Here's a more explicit
      example of a callback:

      import java.util.*;

      interface Visitor {
      void visit(Object o);

      class Walker {
      public static void walk(Object o, Visitor v) {
      if (o instanceof Map) {
      o = ((Map)o).entrySet();
      if (o instanceof Collection) {
      Collection c = (Collection)o;
      Iterator iter = c.iterator();
      while (iter.hasNext()) {
      else {
      throw new IllegalArgumentException();

      public class MethPtr3 implements Visitor {
      public void visit(Object o) {

      void doit() {
      List data1 = new ArrayList();
      Walker.walk(data1, this);

      Set data2 = new TreeSet();
      Walker.walk(data2, this);

      Map data3 = new HashMap();
      data3.put("test31key", "test31value");
      data3.put("test32key", "test32value");
      data3.put("test33key", "test33value");
      Walker.walk(data3, this);

      public static void main(String args[]) {
      new MethPtr3().doit();

      Suppose that you have a collection data structure, that is, a
      List, Set, or Map, and you'd like to write a utility method that
      traverses the structure. As each element is visited, you'd also
      like to call a method that you specify. The program above does

      Walker.walk is a static method that accepts a reference to a data
      structure, along with an object of a class that implements the
      Visitor interface. The method uses iterators to traverse the
      structure, and it calls back to the visit method defined in the
      MethPtr3 class. When you run this program, the result is:


      Most of the time, using function objects and interfaces is the
      right approach to implementing method pointers. But there's
      another mechanism that's important to know. Suppose that you're
      writing a debugger, interpreter, or similar type of program, and
      you want it look up and call methods by their string name. In
      other words, the user specifies a method name, and your program
      calls this method. How would you do this?

      This task is impossible in many other programming languages, but
      Java's reflection features make it easy. Here's an example:

      import java.lang.reflect.*;

      class A {
      public void f1() {
      System.out.println("A.f1 called");
      public void f2() {
      System.out.println("A.f2 called");

      class B {
      public void f1() {
      System.out.println("B.f1 called");
      public void f2() {
      System.out.println("B.f2 called");

      public class MethPtr4 {
      static void callMethod(Object obj, Method meth)
      throws Exception {
      meth.invoke(obj, null);

      static void findMethod(String cname, String mname)
      throws Exception {
      Class cls = Class.forName(cname);
      Method meth = cls.getMethod(mname, new Class[]{});
      callMethod(cls.newInstance(), meth);

      public static void main(String args[]) throws Exception {
      if (args.length != 2) {
      System.err.println("missing class/method names");

      findMethod(args[0], args[1]);

      After you compile this program, run it as follows:

      java MethPtr4 A f2

      Here you're specifying a class (A) and a method in the class to
      be invoked (f2). The findMethod method loads a class
      (Class.forName), and then finds a method within the class. Both
      the class and method names are specified by strings. After the
      method is found, it is represented by a Method object. The object
      is passed to the callMethod method, along with an object of the
      appropriate class.

      This approach is powerful, but it's best not to use it unless you
      really need it. For example, if you say:

      java MethPtr4 A f3

      you get an exception. By contrast, if you're not using
      reflection, and you call a nonexistent method (f3) in your
      program, you get a compile error. In other words, when you call
      a method using reflection, some of the checking a compiler does
      is necessarily deferred.

      For more information about using method pointers, see
      Section 11.2.6, The Method Class, in "The Java(tm) Programming
      Language Third Edition" by Arnold, Gosling, and Holmes
      http://java.sun.com/docs/books/javaprog/thirdedition/. Also see
      item 22, Replace function pointers with classes and interfaces,
      in "Effective Java Programming Language Guide" by Joshua Bloch

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      In the JDC Tech Tips for October 9, 2001
      (http://java.sun.com/jdc/JDCTechTips/2001/tt1009.html), there was
      an item about using an abstract class hierarchy to implement the
      Java equivalent of a C union. The code looked something like

      abstract class Time {
      public abstract int getMinutes();

      class Days extends Time {
      private int days;
      public int getMinutes() {
      return days * 24 * 60;

      class HoursMinutes extends Time {
      private int hours;
      private int minutes;
      public int getMinutes() {
      return hours * 60 + minutes;

      A reader asked why an interface could not be used instead of an
      abstract class, with the code written as follows:

      interface Time {
      int getMinutes();

      class Days implements Time {
      private final int days;
      public Days(int days) {
      this.days = days;
      public int getMinutes() {
      return days * 24 * 60;

      class HoursMinutes implements Time {
      private final int hours;
      private final int minutes;
      public HoursMinutes(int hours, int minutes) {
      this.hours = hours;
      this.minutes = minutes;
      public int getMinutes() {
      return hours * 60 + minutes;

      public class AIDemo1 {
      public static void main(String args[]) {
      Time t1 = new Days(10);
      Time t2 = new HoursMinutes(15, 59);

      In fact, the interface approach does work. However, there are
      a series of tradeoffs between the use of abstract classes and
      interfaces. This tip examines some of those tradeoffs.

      Both of these mechanisms define a contract, that is, required
      behavior that another class must implement. If you have the
      following definitions:

      abstract class A {
      abstract void f();

      interface B {
      void f();

      then a concrete class that extends A must define f. A class that
      implements B must define f.

      Beyond this common feature, the two mechanisms are quite
      different. Interfaces provide a form of multiple inheritance
      ("interface inheritance"), because you can implement multiple
      interfaces. A class, by comparison, can only extend
      ("implementation inheritance") one other class. An abstract class
      can have static methods, protected parts, and a partial
      implementation. Interfaces are limited to public methods and
      constants with no implementation allowed.

      So what's the difference between using abstract classes and
      interfaces in the example above? One difference is that an
      abstract class is easier to evolve over time. Suppose that you
      want to add a method:

      public int getSeconds();

      to the Time contract. If you use an abstract class, you can say:

      public int getSeconds() {
      return getMinutes() * 60;

      In other words, you provide a partial implementation of the
      abstract class. Doing it this way means that subclasses of the
      abstract class do not need to provide their own implementation of
      getSeconds unless they want to override the default version.

      If Time is an interface, you can say:

      interface Time {
      int getMinutes();
      int getSeconds();

      But you're not allowed to implement getSeconds within the
      interface. This means that all classes that implement Time are
      now broken, unless they are fixed to define a getSeconds method.
      So if you want to use an interface in this situation, you need to
      be absolutely sure that you've got it right the first time. That
      way you don't have to add to the interface at a later time,
      thereby invalidating all the classes that use the interface.

      Another issue with this example is that you might want to factor
      out common data into the abstract class. There is no equivalent
      to this functionality for interfaces. For example, if you say:

      interface A {
      int x = 7;

      class B implements A {
      void f() {
      int i = x; // OK
      x = 37; // error

      all is well if you want to declare a constant in the interface,
      but it's not possible to declare a mutable data field this way.

      Let's look at another example:

      import java.io.*;

      interface Distance {
      double getDistance(Object o);

      interface Composite extends Comparable,
      Distance, Serializable {}

      class MyPoint implements Comparable, Distance, Serializable {
      //class MyPoint implements Composite {

      private final int x;
      private final int y;

      public MyPoint(int x, int y) {
      this.x = x;
      this.y = y;

      public int getX() {
      return x;
      public int getY() {
      return y;

      public int compareTo(Object o) {
      MyPoint obj = (MyPoint)o;
      if (x != obj.x) {
      return x < obj.x ? -1 : 1;
      return y < obj.y ? -1 : (y == obj.y ? 0 : 1);

      public double getDistance(Object o) {
      MyPoint obj = (MyPoint)o;
      int sum = (x - obj.x) * (x - obj.x) +
      (y - obj.y) * (y - obj.y);
      return Math.sqrt(sum);

      public class AIDemo2 {
      public static void main(String args[]) {
      MyPoint mp1 = new MyPoint(1, 1);
      MyPoint mp2 = new MyPoint(2, 2);

      double d = mp1.getDistance(mp2);

      int cmp = mp1.compareTo(mp2);
      if (cmp < 0) {
      System.out.println("mp1 < mp2");
      else if (cmp == 0) {
      System.out.println("mp1 == mp2");
      else {
      System.out.println("mp1 > mp2");

      MyPoint is a class that represents geometric X,Y points, with the
      usual constructor and accessor methods defined. The class
      implements three interfaces. One interface is used to compare one
      point to another, one is used to compute the Euclidean distance
      between points, and the last declares that MyPoint objects are

      An alternate approach would be to define a new interface
      Composite (called a "subinterface") that extends the three
      interfaces, and then implement Composite in MyPoint. This is an
      example of a "nonhierarchical type framework".

      The output of the program is:

      mp1 < mp2

      It's easy to retrofit an existing class to implement a new
      interface. Doing this is sometimes called a "mixin." In a mixin,
      a class declares that it provides some optional, side behavior in
      addition to its primary function. Comparable is an example of
      a mixin.

      Note that it would be awkward to implement the AIDemo2 example
      using abstract classes. Implementing several unrelated interfaces
      in a class is hard to duplicate using abstract classes.

      It's often desirable to combine interfaces and abstract classes.
      For example, part of the design of the Collections Framework
      looks roughly like this:

      interface List {
      int size();
      boolean isEmpty();

      abstract class AbstractList implements List {
      public abstract int size();
      public boolean isEmpty() {
      return size() == 0;

      class ArrayList extends AbstractList {
      public int size() {
      return 0; // placeholder

      At the top of the hierarchy are interfaces, such as Collection
      and List, that describe a contract, that is, a specification of
      required behavior. At the next level are abstract classes, such
      as AbstractList, that provide a partial implementation. Note that
      size is not defined in AbstractList, but that isEmpty is defined
      in terms of size. If a list has zero size, it is empty by
      definition. A concrete class, such as ArrayList, then defines any
      abstract methods not already defined.

      If you use this scheme, and program in terms of interface types
      (List instead of ArrayList), there are several benefits:

      o Much of the implementation work is already done for you in the
      abstract classes.

      o You can easily switch from one implementation to another
      (LinkedList instead of ArrayList).

      o If ArrayList or LinkedList are not satisfactory, you can
      develop your own class that implements List.

      o If you cannot extend a given class, because you're already
      extending another class, you can instead implement the
      interface for the desired class and then forward method calls
      to a private instance of the desired class.

      Interfaces tend to be a better choice than abstract classes in
      many cases, though you need to get the interface right the first
      time. Changing the interface after the fact will break a lot of
      code. Abstract classes are useful when you're providing a partial
      implementation. In this case, you should also define an interface
      as illustrated above, and implement the interface in the abstract

      For more information about abstract classes vs. interfaces, see
      Section 4.4, Working with Interfaces, and Section 4.6, When to Use
      Interfaces, in "The Java(tm) Programming Language Third Edition"
      by Arnold, Gosling, and Holmes
      http://java.sun.com/docs/books/javaprog/thirdedition/. Also see
      item 14, Favor composition over inheritance, and item 16,
      Prefer interfaces to abstract classes, in "Effective Java
      Programming Language Guide" by Joshua Bloch

      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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      Copyright 2001 Sun Microsystems, Inc. All rights reserved.
      901 San Antonio Road, Palo Alto, California 94303 USA.

      This document is protected by copyright. For more information, see:


      This issue of the JDC Tech Tips is written by Glen McCluskey.

      JDC Tech Tips
      November 6, 2001

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