Saturday, June 11, 2016

Basics: Just what IS an object, anyway?

This is a pretty long one by the standards of this blog.  Try to stay with it, though, the concepts are crucial.

Whether people are experienced developers used to procedural languages or newcomers to programming in general, really understanding objects tends to be a bit of a sticking point.  It's odd, because once you start to get it, everything seems quite natural.

An object is a representation of...  something.  Sometimes they represent fairly nebulous concepts, sometimes they represent very real physical things, but in all cases they're a kind of model.  Objects have properties, just like a flower has a color or a bee has [6] legs.  Objects have methods, which are really just things you can ask them to do, like 'release pollen' or 'sting someone'.  Finally, objects have events, or at least they can generate events.  That could be 'I've been pollinated' or 'I left my stinger in someone'.  Any particular object may make use of one, two or all three of these constructs.

Objects are based on classes in Java.  There is an all too human tendency to use the terms interchangeably and I've probably been guilty of doing that, too.  Technically, a class defines how an object should be built and an object is an instance of such a class.  Basically, after you write your code you compile it to create a .class file, and then when you run your code you can make a new object from said class. Making objects is easy enough, most of them get created (or instantiated) by using the new keyword like this:

    SimpleObject myObject = new SimpleObject();

Let's break that down:

First, we have declared that we're interested in working with a variable of type SimpleObject.  In other words, someone out there has written a SimpleObject.java file that defined a SimpleObject class and you're going to make an object from that definition.

That variable will be called 'myObject'.  We have to name our variables or we'd have a really hard time referring to them in our code!

We're not referring to a previously existing SimpleObject, we're going to make a completely new one.  The actual creation is handled by a constructor inside of SimpleObject.java, and we need to rely on that constructor doing its job, correctly setting up anything within the new object that needs to be in place.

Some objects don't appear to have constructors at all if you read the code, but that just means that there is no need for a constructor to do any setup work, so the programmer was able to rely on Java creating a default constructor for them.  The code for SimpleObject may have been written either way.  We don't care at this point, we just know we can call it.  I'll get back to constructors a little later when we talk about actually writing a class of your own.

Defining an class in Java is straightforward enough.  You don't really have to do any more than create a .java file with a bit of correct syntax.  The following example is enough to make a SimpleObject class (which really can't do anything but exist):

package com.oopuniversity.simpleobject;

public class SimpleObject {
}

Of course, a class that doesn't do anything isn't very useful, but I think it's good to have a picture in your head of all the 'extra' stuff that absolutely needs to be in place.  Code can look a bit busy to new developers, and its best to know what is basically template stuff that you should make sure is there and then ignore.

Just to break it down, that 'package' statement up at the top tells the compiler where the generated class file should go.  It's basically specifying an output directory, but using periods instead of slashes or backslashes.   Packaging is primarily an organizational tool and it turns out to be an important one later on.

Then we have 'public class SimpleObject' which tells us we're defining a class called SimpleObject.  That public keyword is important, it controls whether other objects in a larger program are able to create SimpleObjects or even refer to them at all.  For now, just use 'public'.  The day will come when you start to use other modifiers for specific reasons, but if you're reading this to learn you don't have those reasons yet.

Then we have some curly braces.  Those are ubiquitous in Java programs, and basically set boundaries for chunks of code.  In this case, they are setting the boundary for the beginning and end of the class, although they don't actually contain anything.  Anything between those brackets will be considered an attempt at having something be a part of SimpleObject.

Man, four paragraphs to describe three lines...  I guess a fair amount of information is consolidated down into even that useless bit of code!  Fortunately, that stuff always stays pretty much the same.  Once you understand that structure, you can kind of stop worrying about it and move on.

I mentioned above that I would talk about constructors.  Well, that time has come.  The following code is (aside from being in a different package) precisely identical to the previous code:

package com.oopuniversity.simpleobjectwithconstructor;

public class SimpleObject {
    public SimpleObject() {
    }
}

The only differences are:

  1. We changed the package definition, which lets us have this version of SimpleObject sit in the same project as the previous version without any conflicts.
  2. Now we have something new inside the braces that define the class.

The package definition is needed because I'm keeping everything inside one big project.  Just like you can't have two files with the same name in one directory, you can't have two classes with the same name in one package.

The new stuff inside the braces is defining a default constructor for SimpleObject.  It's public which means other objects can use it to make a new SimpleObject.  It has nothing between the parentheses, which means you can create a SimpleObject without having to give it any parameters, which are nothing more than pieces of information you give it (we'll talk about those soon).  Then it has some more of those fun curly braces, which again define boundaries.  Anything inside this particular pair of braces belongs not just to the class, but to the constructor itself.

Why would you want to write a constructor like this, making your class busier?  Well, you wouldn't, and that's why you get this for free with any class you write that doesn't bother defining a constructor of its own.  However, you DO need to know about and understand this for one simple reason:  It is also possible to define a class using a constructor (or a whole bunch of them if you like) that has parameters.  If you do this, the compiler will *not* create a default constructor for you and you won't be able to use a default constructor unless you explicitly write one.

https://github.com/OOPUniversity/OOP_Basics