Thursday, January 9, 2014

C# feature I miss in Java: extension methods

I'm primarily an Android developer, so when I checked the Java 8 features list I thought there is a lot of cool stuff, by sadly I won't be able to use them anytime soon. It's the same case as AutoCloseable interface from Java 7. It's available from API lvl 19, and seeing how long it takes Android community to unanimously drop the support for Froyo, Gingerbread and Honeycomb, I think won't be able to use it before 2017. Anyways, good stuff is added to Java, but there is one cool feature from C# I do not see there: extension methods.

Let me explain to you what they are in case you haven't wrote any C# code. In almost every code base there are simple utility methods which operate on a single object.
public static final class CollectionsUtils {
  public static <E> Collection<E> filter(Collection<E> unfiltered, Predicate<? super E> predicate) { /* ... */ };
  public static <F, T> Collection<T> transform(Collection<F> fromCollection, Function<? super F, T> function) { /* ... */ };
}

// usage
CollectionsUtils.filter(list, IS_NOT_NULL);
Things get ugly when you want to call multiple utility methods:
CollectionsUtils.transform(CollectionsUtils.filter(list, IS_NOT_NULL), TO_STRING);
C# allows you to add "this" modifier to the first parameter of static method, which basically tells the compiler to pretend that the objects of that type have a method with the same signature as our static method, sans the "this" parameter. Underneath it's treated exactly as the ugly nested calls above, but it allows you to write the code this way:
list.filter(IS_NOT_NULL).transform(TO_STRING);
Syntactic sugar, but it goes a long way. I've intentionally choose the methods for this examples - whole LINQ-to-objects interface is based on extension methods.

Java 8 introduces a feature with similar name but completely different functionality: virtual extension methods. Simply put it allows merging the Foo interface and AbstractFoo abstract class with a reasonable implementation of some of Foo's methods. For example if your interface has size() method you can add the isEmpty() virtual extension method with default implementation returning true when size() returns 0. So it's a nice feature, but IMO less powerful than C# solution. Both solutions allow adding new methods with default implementation to interfaces you wrote without having to worry about backwards compatibility, but C# extension methods allows you also to extend 3rd party or even java.lang intefaces and classes to make their API cleaner or better suited to your particular problem.

I wonder why the C#-style extension methods weren't added to Java 8. Maybe there are some implementation issues I do not see, maybe there is a conflict with another language features, maybe the powers that be think it would be inconsistent with the language philosophy. Do let me know if you have such information.