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Thinking in Java
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Interchangeable objects
with polymorphism

When dealing with type hierarchies, you often want to treat an object not as the specific type that it is, but instead as its base type. This allows you to write code that doesn’t depend on specific types. In the shape example, methods manipulate generic shapes without respect to whether they’re circles, squares, triangles, or some shape that hasn’t even been defined yet. All shapes can be drawn, erased, and moved, so these methods simply send a message to a shape object; they don’t worry about how the object copes with the message.

Such code is unaffected by the addition of new types, and adding new types is the most common way to extend an object-oriented program to handle new situations. For example, you can derive a new subtype of shape called pentagon without modifying the methods that deal only with generic shapes. This ability to easily extend a design by deriving new subtypes is one of the essential ways to encapsulate change. This greatly improves designs while reducing the cost of software maintenance.

There’s a problem, however, with attempting to treat derived-type objects as their generic base types (circles as shapes, bicycles as vehicles, cormorants as birds, etc.). If a method is going to tell a generic shape to draw itself, or a generic vehicle to steer, or a generic bird to move, the compiler cannot know at compile time precisely what piece of code will be executed. That’s the whole point—when the message is sent, the programmer doesn’t want to know what piece of code will be executed; the draw method can be applied equally to a circle, a square, or a triangle, and the object will execute the proper code depending on its specific type. If you don’t have to know what piece of code will be executed, then when you add a new subtype, the code it executes can be different without requiring changes to the method call. Therefore, the compiler cannot know precisely what piece of code is executed, so what does it do? For example, in the following diagram the BirdController object just works with generic Bird objects and does not know what exact type they are. This is convenient from BirdController’s perspective because it doesn’t have to write special code to determine the exact type of Bird it’s working with or that Bird’s behavior. So how does it happen that, when move( ) is called while ignoring the specific type of Bird, the right behavior will occur (a Goose runs, flies, or swims, and a Penguin runs or swims)?

TIJ311.png

The answer is the primary twist in object-oriented programming: the compiler cannot make a function call in the traditional sense. The function call generated by a non-OOP compiler causes what is called early binding, a term you may not have heard before because you’ve never thought about it any other way. It means the compiler generates a call to a specific function name and the linker resolves this call to the absolute address of the code to be executed. In OOP, the program cannot determine the address of the code until run time, so some other scheme is necessary when a message is sent to a generic object.

To solve the problem, object-oriented languages use the concept of late binding. When you send a message to an object, the code being called isn’t determined until run time. The compiler does ensure that the method exists and performs type checking on the arguments and return value (a language in which this isn’t true is called weakly typed), but it doesn’t know the exact code to execute.

To perform late binding, Java uses a special bit of code in lieu of the absolute call. This code calculates the address of the method body, using information stored in the object (this process is covered in great detail in Chapter 7). Thus, each object can behave differently according to the contents of that special bit of code. When you send a message to an object, the object actually does figure out what to do with that message.

In some languages you must explicitly state that you want a method to have the flexibility of late-binding properties (C++ uses the virtual keyword to do this). In these languages, by default, methods are not dynamically bound. In Java, dynamic binding is the default behavior and you don’t need to remember to add any extra keywords in order to get polymorphism.

Consider the shape example. The family of classes (all based on the same uniform interface) was diagrammed earlier in this chapter. To demonstrate polymorphism, we want to write a single piece of code that ignores the specific details of type and talks only to the base class. That code is decoupled from type-specific information and thus is simpler to write and easier to understand. And, if a new type—a Hexagon, for example—is added through inheritance, the code you write will work just as well for the new type of Shape as it did on the existing types. Thus, the program is extensible.

If you write a method in Java (as you will soon learn how to do):

void doStuff(Shape s) {
  s.erase();
  // ...
  s.draw();
}


This method speaks to any Shape, so it is independent of the specific type of object that it’s drawing and erasing. If some other part of the program uses the doStuff( ) method:

Circle c = new Circle();
Triangle t = new Triangle();
Line l = new Line();
doStuff(c);
doStuff(t);
doStuff(l);


the calls to doStuff( ) automatically work correctly, regardless of the exact type of the object.

This is a rather amazing trick. Consider the line:

doStuff(c);


What’s happening here is that a Circle is being passed into a method that’s expecting a Shape. Since a Circle is a Shape it can be treated as one by doStuff( ). That is, any message that doStuff( ) can send to a Shape, a Circle can accept. So it is a completely safe and logical thing to do.

We call this process of treating a derived type as though it were its base type upcasting. The name cast is used in the sense of casting into a mold and the up comes from the way the inheritance diagram is typically arranged, with the base type at the top and the derived classes fanning out downward. Thus, casting to a base type is moving up the inheritance diagram: “upcasting.”

TIJ312.png

An object-oriented program contains some upcasting somewhere, because that’s how you decouple yourself from knowing about the exact type you’re working with. Look at the code in doStuff( ):

  s.erase();
  // ...
  s.draw();


Notice that it doesn’t say “If you’re a Circle, do this, if you’re a Square, do that, etc.” If you write that kind of code, which checks for all the possible types that a Shape can actually be, it’s messy and you need to change it every time you add a new kind of Shape. Here, you just say “You’re a shape, I know you can erase( ) and draw( ) yourself, do it, and take care of the details correctly.”

What’s impressive about the code in doStuff( ) is that, somehow, the right thing happens. Calling draw( ) for Circle causes different code to be executed than when calling draw( ) for a Square or a Line, but when the draw( ) message is sent to an anonymous Shape, the correct behavior occurs based on the actual type of the Shape. This is amazing because, as mentioned earlier, when the Java compiler is compiling the code for doStuff( ), it cannot know exactly what types it is dealing with. So ordinarily, you’d expect it to end up calling the version of erase( ) and draw( ) for the base class Shape, and not for the specific Circle, Square, or Line. And yet the right thing happens because of polymorphism. The compiler and run-time system handle the details; all you need to know right now is that it does happen, and more importantly, how to design with it. When you send a message to an object, the object will do the right thing, even when upcasting is involved.
Thinking in Java
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire