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Exploring Java

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5. Objects in Java

In this chapter, we'll get to the heart of Java and explore the object-oriented aspects of the language. Object-oriented design is the art of decomposing an application into some number of objects--self-contained application components that work together. The goal is to break the problem down into a number of smaller problems that are simpler and easier to understand. Ideally, the components can be implemented directly as objects in the Java language. And if things are truly ideal, the components correspond to well-known objects that already exist, so they don't have to be created at all.

An object design methodology is a system or a set of rules created by someone to help you identify objects in your application domain and pick the real ones from the noise. In other words, such a methodology helps you factor your application into a good set of reusable objects. The problem is that though it wants to be a science, good object-oriented design is still pretty much an art form. While you can learn from the various off-the-shelf design methodologies, none of them will help you in all situations. The truth is that experience pays.

I won't try to push you into a particular methodology here; there are shelves full of books to do that.[1] Instead, I'll provide a few hints to get you started. Here are some general design guidelines, which should be taken with a liberal amount of salt and common sense:

[1] Once you have some experience with basic object-oriented concepts, you might want to take a look at Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object Oriented Software by Gamma/Helm/Johnson/Vlissides (Addison-Wesley). This book catalogs useful object-oriented designs that have been refined over the years by experience. Many appear in the design of the Java APIs.

  • Think of an object in terms of its interface, not its implementation. It's perfectly fine for an object's internals to be unfathomably complex, as long as its "public face" is easy to understand.

  • Hide and abstract as much of your implementation as possible. Avoid public variables in your objects, with the possible exception of constants. Instead define "accessor" methods to set and return values (even if they are simple types). Later, when you need to, you'll be able to modify and extend the behavior of your objects without breaking other classes that rely on them.

  • Specialize objects only when you have to. When you use an object in its existing form, as a piece of a new object, you are composing objects. When you change or refine the behavior of an object, you are using inheritance. You should try to reuse objects by composition rather than inheritance whenever possible because when you compose objects you are taking full advantage of existing tools. Inheritance involves breaking down the barrier of an object and should be done only when there's a real advantage. Ask yourself if you really need to inherit the whole public interface of an object (do you want to be a "kind" of that object), or if you can just delegate certain jobs to the object and use it by composition.

  • Minimize relationships between objects and try to organize related objects in packages. To enhance your code's reusability, write it as if there is a tomorrow. Find what one object needs to know about another to get its job done and try to minimize the coupling between them.

5.1 Classes

Classes are the building blocks of a Java application. A class can contain methods, variables, initialization code, and, as we'll discuss later on, even other classes. It serves as a blueprint for making class instances, which are run-time objects that implement the class structure. You declare a class with the class keyword. Methods and variables of the class appear inside the braces of the class declaration:

class Pendulum { 
    float mass;  
    float length = 1.0; 
    int cycles; 
 
    float position ( float time ) { 
        ... 
    } 
    ... 
} 

The above class, Pendulum, contains three variables: mass, length, and cycles. It also defines a method called position() that takes a float value as an argument and returns a float value. Variables and method declarations can appear in any order, but variable initializers can't use forward references to uninitialized variables.

Once we've defined the Pendulum class, we can create a Pendulum object (an instance of that class) as follows:

Pendulum p; 
p = new Pendulum(); 

Recall that our declaration of the variable p does not create a Pendulum object; it simply creates a variable that refers to an object of type Pendulum. We still have to create the object dynamically, using the new keyword. Now that we've created a Pendulum object, we can access its variables and methods, as we've already seen many times:

p.mass = 5.0; 
float pos = p.position( 1.0 ); 

Variables defined in a class are called instance variables. Every object has its own set of instance variables; the values of these variables in one object can differ from the values in another object, as shown in Figure 5.1. If you don't initialize an instance variable when you declare it, it's given a default value appropriate for its type.

In Figure 5.1, we have a hypothetical TextBook application that uses two instances of Pendulum through the reference type variables bigPendulum and smallPendulum. Each of these Pendulum objects has its own copy of mass, length, and cycles.

As with variables, methods defined in a class are instance methods. An instance method is associated with an instance of the class, but each instance doesn't really have its own copy of the method. Instead, there's just one copy of the method, but it operates on the values of the instance variables of a particular object. As you'll see later when we talk about subclassing, there's more to learn about method selection.

Accessing Members

Inside of a class, we can access instance variables and call instance methods of the class directly by name. Here's an example that expands upon our Pendulum:

class Pendulum { 
    ... 
    void resetEverything() { 
        cycles = 0; 
        mass = 1.0; 
        ... 
        float startingPosition = position( 0.0 ); 
    } 
    ... 
} 

Other classes generally access members of an object through a reference, using the C-style dot notation:

class TextBook { 
    ... 
    void showPendulum() { 
        Pendulum bob = new Pendulum(); 
        ... 
        int i = bob.cycles; 
        bob.resetEverything(); 
        bob.mass = 1.01; 
        ... 
    } 
    ... 
} 

Here we have created a second class, TextBook, that uses a Pendulum object. It creates an instance in showPendulum() and then invokes methods and accesses variables of the object through the reference bob.

Several factors affect whether class members can be accessed from outside the class. You can use the visibility modifiers, public, private, and protected to restrict access; classes can also be placed into packages that affect their scope. The private modifier, for example, designates a variable or method for use only by other members inside the class itself. In the previous example, we could change the declaration of our variable cycles to private:

class Pendulum { 
    ... 
    private int cycles; 
    ... 

Now we can't access cycles from TextBook:

class TextBook { 
    ... 
    void showPendulum() { 
        ... 
        int i = bob.cycles;         // Compile time error 

If we need to access cycles, we might add a getCycles() method to the Pendulum class. We'll look at access modifiers and how they affect the scope of variables and methods in detail later.

Static Members

Instance variables and methods are associated with and accessed through a particular object. In contrast, members that are declared with the static modifier live in the class and are shared by all instances of the class. Variables declared with the static modifier are called static variables or class variables ; similarly, these kinds of methods are called static methods or class methods.

We can add a static variable to our Pendulum example:

class Pendulum { 
    ... 
    static float gravAccel = 9.80; 
    ... 

We have declared the new float variable gravAccel as static. That means if we change its value in any instance of a Pendulum, the value changes for all Pendulum objects, as shown in Figure 5.2.

Static members can be accessed like instance members. Inside our Pendulum class, we can refer to gravAccel by name, like an instance variable:

class Pendulum { 
    ... 
    float getWeight () { 
        return mass * gravAccel; 
    } 
    ... 
} 

However, since static members exist in the class itself, independent of any instance, we can also access them directly through the class. We don't need a Pendulum object to set the variable gravAccel; instead we can use the class name as a reference:

Pendulum.gravAccel = 8.76; 

This changes the value of gravAccel for any current or future instances. Why, you may be wondering, would we want to change the value of gravAccel? Well, perhaps we want to explore how pendulums would work on different planets. Static variables are also very useful for other kinds of data shared among classes at run-time. For instance you can create methods to register your objects so that they can communicate or you can count references to them.

We can use static variables to define constant values. In this case, we use the static modifier along with the final modifier. So, if we cared only about pendulums under the influence of the Earth's gravitational pull, we could change Pendulum as follows:

class Pendulum { 
    ... 
    static final float EARTH_G = 9.80; 
    ... 

We have followed a common convention and named our constant with capital letters; C programmers should recognize the capitalization convention, which resembles C #define statements. Now the value of EARTH_G is a constant; it can be accessed by any instance of Pendulum (or anywhere, for that matter), but its value can't be changed at run-time.

It's important to use the combination of static and final only for things that are really constant. That's because, unlike other kinds of variable references, the compiler is allowed to "inline" those values within classes that reference them. This is probably OK for things like PI, which aren't likely to change for a while, but may not be ideal for other kinds of identifiers, such as we'll discuss below.

Static members are useful as flags and identifiers, which can be accessed from anywhere. These are especially useful for values needed in the construction of an instance itself. In our example, we might declare a number of static values to represent various kinds of Pendulum objects:

class Pendulum { 
    ... 
    static int SIMPLE = 0, ONE_SPRING = 1, TWO_SPRING = 2; 
    ... 

We might then use these flags in a method that sets the type of a Pendulum or, more likely, in a special constructor, as we'll discuss shortly:

Pendulum pendy = new Pendulum(); 
pendy.setType( Pendulum.ONE_SPRING ); 

Remember, inside the Pendulum class, we can use static members directly by name as well:

class Pendulum { 
    ... 
    void resetEverything() { 
        setType ( SIMPLE ); 
        ... 
    } 
    ... 
} 


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