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Thinking in Java
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Collections and iterators

If you don’t know how many objects you’re going to need to solve a particular problem, or how long they will last, you also don’t know how to store those objects. How can you know how much space to create for those objects? You can’t, since that information isn’t known until run time.

The solution to most problems in object-oriented design seems flippant: You create another type of object. The new type of object that solves this particular problem holds references to other objects. Of course, you can do the same thing with an array, which is available in most languages. But this new object, generally called a container (also called a collection, but the Java library uses that term in a different sense so this book will use “container”), will expand itself whenever necessary to accommodate everything you place inside it. So you don’t need to know how many objects you’re going to hold in a container. Just create a container object and let it take care of the details.

Fortunately, a good OOP language comes with a set of containers as part of the package. In C++, it’s part of the Standard C++ Library and is sometimes called the Standard Template Library (STL). Object Pascal has containers in its Visual Component Library (VCL). Smalltalk has a very complete set of containers. Java also has containers in its standard library. In some libraries, a generic container is considered good enough for all needs, and in others (Java, for example) the library has different types of containers for different needs: several different kinds of List classes (to hold sequences), Map classes (also known as associative arrays, to associate objects with other objects), and Set classes (to hold one of each type of object). Container libraries may also include queues, trees, stacks, etc.

All containers have some way to put things in and get things out; there are usually methods to add elements to a container, and others to fetch those elements back out. But fetching elements can be more problematic, because a single-selection method is restrictive. What if you want to manipulate or compare a set of elements in the container instead of just one?

The solution is an iterator, which is an object whose job is to select the elements within a container and present them to the user of the iterator. As a class, it also provides a level of abstraction. This abstraction can be used to separate the details of the container from the code that’s accessing that container. The container, via the iterator, is abstracted to be simply a sequence. The iterator allows you to traverse that sequence without worrying about the underlying structure—that is, whether it’s an ArrayList, a LinkedList, a Stack, or something else. This gives you the flexibility to easily change the underlying data structure without disturbing the code in your program. Java began (in version 1.0 and 1.1) with a standard iterator, called Enumeration, for all of its container classes. Java 2 added a much more complete container library that contains an iterator called Iterator that does more than the older Enumeration.

From a design standpoint, all you really want is a sequence that can be manipulated to solve your problem. If a single type of sequence satisfied all of your needs, there’d be no reason to have different kinds. There are two reasons that you need a choice of containers. First, containers provide different types of interfaces and external behavior. A stack has a different interface and behavior than that of a queue, which is different from that of a set or a list. One of these might provide a more flexible solution to your problem than the other. Second, different containers have different efficiencies for certain operations. The best example compares two types of List: an ArrayList and a LinkedList. Both are simple sequences that can have identical interfaces and external behaviors. But certain operations can have radically different costs. Randomly accessing elements in an ArrayList is a constant-time operation; it takes the same amount of time regardless of the element you select. However, in a LinkedList it is expensive to move through the list to randomly select an element, and it takes longer to find an element that is farther down the list. On the other hand, if you want to insert an element in the middle of a sequence, it’s cheaper in a LinkedList than in an ArrayList. These and other operations have different efficiencies depending on the underlying structure of the sequence. In the design phase, you might start with a LinkedList and, when tuning for performance, change to an ArrayList. Because of the abstraction via the base class List and via iterators, you can change from one to the other with minimal impact on your code.
Thinking in Java
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire