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Thinking in Java
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5: Hiding the Implementation

A primary consideration in object-oriented design is “separating the things that change from the things that stay the same.”

This is particularly important for libraries. Users (client programmers) of that library must be able to rely on the part they use, and know that they won’t need to rewrite code if a new version of the library comes out. On the flip side, the library creator must have the freedom to make modifications and improvements with the certainty that the client code won’t be affected by those changes.

This can be achieved through convention. For example, the library programmer must agree to not remove existing methods when modifying a class in the library, since that would break the client programmer’s code. The reverse situation is thornier, however. In the case of a field, how can the library creator know which fields have been accessed by client programmers? This is also true with methods that are only part of the implementation of a class, and not meant to be used directly by the client programmer. But what if the library creator wants to rip out an old implementation and put in a new one? Changing any of those members might break a client programmer’s code. Thus the library creator is in a strait jacket and can’t change anything.

To solve this problem, Java provides access specifiers to allow the library creator to say what is available to the client programmer and what is not. The levels of access control from “most access” to “least access” are public, protected, package access (which has no keyword), and private. From the previous paragraph you might think that, as a library designer, you’ll want to keep everything as “private” as possible, and expose only the methods that you want the client programmer to use. This is exactly right, even though it’s often counterintuitive for people who program in other languages (especially C) and are used to accessing everything without restriction. By the end of this chapter you should be convinced of the value of access control in Java.

The concept of a library of components and the control over who can access the components of that library is not complete, however. There’s still the question of how the components are bundled together into a cohesive library unit. This is controlled with the package keyword in Java, and the access specifiers are affected by whether a class is in the same package or in a separate package. So to begin this chapter, you’ll learn how library components are placed into packages. Then you’ll be able to understand the complete meaning of the access specifiers.

package: the library unit

A package is what becomes available when you use the import keyword to bring in an entire library, such as

import java.util.*;


This brings in the entire utility library that’s part of the standard Java distribution. For instance, there’s a class called ArrayList in java.util, so you can now either specify the full name java.util.ArrayList (which you can do without the import statement), or you can simply say ArrayList (because of the import).

If you want to bring in a single class, you can name that class in the import statement

import java.util.ArrayList;


Now you can use ArrayList with no qualification. However, none of the other classes in java.util are available.

The reason for all this importing is to provide a mechanism to manage name spaces. The names of all your class members are insulated from each other. A method f( ) inside a class A will not clash with an f( ) that has the same signature (argument list) in class B. But what about the class names? Suppose you create a Stack class that is installed on a machine that already has a Stack class that’s written by someone else? This potential clashing of names is why it’s important to have complete control over the name spaces in Java, and to be able to create a completely unique name regardless of the constraints of the Internet.

Most of the examples thus far in this book have existed in a single file and have been designed for local use, so they haven’t bothered with package names. (In this case the class name is placed in the “default package.”) This is certainly an option, and for simplicity’s sake this approach will be used whenever possible throughout the rest of this book. However, if you’re planning to create libraries or programs that are friendly to other Java programs on the same machine, you must think about preventing class name clashes.

When you create a source-code file for Java, it’s commonly called a compilation unit (sometimes a translation unit). Each compilation unit must have a name ending in .java, and inside the compilation unit there can be a public class that must have the same name as the file (including capitalization, but excluding the .java filename extension). There can be only one public class in each compilation unit, otherwise the compiler will complain. If there are additional classes in that compilation unit, they are hidden from the world outside that package because they’re not public, and they comprise “support” classes for the main public class.

When you compile a .java file, you get an output file for each class in the .java file. Each output file has the name of a class in the .java file, but with an extension of .class. Thus you can end up with quite a few .class files from a small number of .java files. If you’ve programmed with a compiled language, you might be used to the compiler spitting out an intermediate form (usually an “obj” file) that is then packaged together with others of its kind using a linker (to create an executable file) or a librarian (to create a library). That’s not how Java works. A working program is a bunch of .class files, which can be packaged and compressed into a Java ARchive (JAR) file (using Java’s jar archiver). The Java interpreter is responsible for finding, loading, and interpreting[26] these files.

A library is a group of these class files. Each file has one class that is public (you’re not forced to have a public class, but it’s typical), so there’s one component for each file. If you want to say that all these components (each in their own separate .java and .class files) belong together, that’s where the package keyword comes in.

When you say:

package mypackage;


at the beginning of a file (if you use a package statement, it must appear as the first noncomment in the file), you’re stating that this compilation unit is part of a library named mypackage. Or, put another way, you’re saying that the public class name within this compilation unit is under the umbrella of the name mypackage, and anyone who wants to use the name must either fully specify the name or use the import keyword in combination with mypackage (using the choices given previously). Note that the convention for Java package names is to use all lowercase letters, even for intermediate words.

For example, suppose the name of the file is MyClass.java. This means there can be one and only one public class in that file, and the name of that class must be MyClass (including the capitalization):

package mypackage;
public class MyClass {
  // . . .


Now, if someone wants to use MyClass or, for that matter, any of the other public classes in mypackage, they must use the import keyword to make the name or names in mypackage available. The alternative is to give the fully qualified name:

mypackage.MyClass m = new mypackage.MyClass();


The import keyword can make this much cleaner:

import mypackage.*;
// . . . 
MyClass m = new MyClass();


It’s worth keeping in mind that what the package and import keywords allow you to do, as a library designer, is to divide up the single global name space so you won’t have clashing names, no matter how many people get on the Internet and start writing classes in Java.
Thinking in Java
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire