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Defining and Implementing Interfaces
Interfaces as Types
Interfaces in Java 8

Section 5.7


Some object-oriented programming languages, such as C++, allow a class to extend two or more superclasses. This is called multiple inheritance. In the illustration below, for example, class E is shown as having both class A and class B as direct superclasses, while class F has three direct superclasses.

class hierarchy diagram with multiple inheritance

Such multiple inheritance is not allowed in Java. The designers of Java wanted to keep the language reasonably simple, and felt that the benefits of multiple inheritance were not worth the cost in increased complexity. However, Java does have a feature that can be used to accomplish many of the same goals as multiple inheritance: interfaces.

5.7.1  Defining and Implementing Interfaces

We've encountered the term "interface" before, in connection with black boxes in general and subroutines in particular. The interface of a subroutine consists of the name of the subroutine, its return type, and the number and types of its parameters. This is the information you need to know if you want to call the subroutine. A subroutine also has an implementation: the block of code which defines it and which is executed when the subroutine is called.

In Java, interface is a reserved word with an additional, technical meaning. An "interface" in this sense consists of a set of instance method interfaces, without any associated implementations. (Actually, a Java interface can contain other things as well, as we'll see later.) A class can implement an interface by providing an implementation for each of the methods specified by the interface. Here is an example of a very simple Java interface:

public interface Drawable {
   public void draw(Graphics g);

This looks much like a class definition, except that the implementation of the draw() method is omitted. A class that implements the interface Drawable must provide an implementation for this method. Of course, the class can also include other methods and variables. For example,

public class Line implements Drawable {
    public void draw(Graphics g) {
        . . . // do something -- presumably, draw a line
    . . . // other methods and variables

Note that to implement an interface, a class must do more than simply provide an implementation for each method in the interface; it must also state that it implements the interface, using the reserved word implements as in this example: "public class Line implements Drawable". Any concrete class that implements the Drawable interface must defines a draw() instance method. Any object created from such a class includes a draw() method. We say that an object implements an interface if it belongs to a class that implements the interface. For example, any object of type Line implements the Drawable interface.

While a class can extend only one other class, it can implement any number of interfaces. In fact, a class can both extend one other class and implement one or more interfaces. So, we can have things like

class FilledCircle extends Circle 
                        implements Drawable, Fillable {
   . . .

The point of all this is that, although interfaces are not classes, they are something very similar. An interface is very much like an abstract class, that is, a class that can never be used for constructing objects, but can be used as a basis for making subclasses. The subroutines in an interface are abstract methods, which must be implemented in any concrete class that implements the interface. You can compare the Drawable interface with the abstract class

public abstract class AbstractDrawable {
   public abstract void draw(Graphics g);

The main difference is that a class that extends AbstractDrawable cannot extend any other class, while a class that implements Drawable can also extend some class, as well as implement other interfaces. Of course, an abstract class can contain non-abstract methods as well as abstract methods. An interface is like a "pure" abstract class, which contains only abstract methods.

Note that the methods declared in an interface must be public. In fact, since that is the only option, it is not necessary to specify the access modifier in the declaration.

In addition to method declarations, an interface can also include variable declarations. The variables must be "public static final" and effectively become public static final variables in every class that implements the interface. In fact, since the variables can only be public and static and final, specifying the modifiers is optional. For example,

public interface ConversionFactors {
    int INCHES_PER_FOOT = 12;
    int FEET_PER_YARD = 3;
    int YARDS_PER_MILE = 1760;

This is a convenient way to define named constants that can be used in several classes. A class that implements ConversionFactors can use the constants defined in the interface as if they were defined in the class.

You are not likely to need to write your own interfaces until you get to the point of writing fairly complex programs. However, there are several interfaces that are used in important ways in Java's standard packages. You'll learn about some of these standard interfaces in the next few chapters, and you will write classes that implement them.

5.7.2  Interfaces as Types

As with abstract classes, even though you can't construct an object from an interface, you can declare a variable whose type is given by the interface. For example, if Drawable is the interface given above, and if Line and FilledCircle are classes that implement Drawable, as above, then you could say:

Drawable figure;  // Declare a variable of type Drawable.  It can
                  //    refer to any object that implements the
                  //    Drawable interface.
figure = new Line();  // figure now refers to an object of class Line
figure.draw(g);   // calls draw() method from class Line

figure = new FilledCircle();   // Now, figure refers to an object
                               //   of class FilledCircle.
figure.draw(g);   // calls draw() method from class FilledCircle

A variable of type Drawable can refer to any object of any class that implements the Drawable interface. A statement like figure.draw(g), above, is legal because figure is of type Drawable, and any Drawable object has a draw() method. So, whatever object figure refers to, that object must have a draw() method.

Note that a type is something that can be used to declare variables. A type can also be used to specify the type of a parameter in a subroutine, or the return type of a function. In Java, a type can be either a class, an interface, or one of the eight built-in primitive types. These are the only possibilities. Of these, however, only classes can be used to construct new objects.

An interface can also be the base type of an array. For example, we can use an array type Drawable[] to declare variables and create arrays. The elements of the array can refer to any objects that implement the Drawable interface:

Drawable[] listOfFigures;
listOfFigures = new Drawable[10];
listOfFigures[0] = new Line();
listOfFigures[1] = new FilledCircle();
listOfFigures[2] = new Line();

Every element of the array will then have a draw() method, so that we can say things like listOfFigures[i].draw(g).

5.7.3  Interfaces in Java 8

The newest version of Java, Java 8, makes a few useful additions to interfaces. The one that I will discuss here is default methods. Unlike the usual abstract methods in interfaces, a default method has an implementation. When a class implements the interface, it does not have to provide an implementation for the default method -- although it can do so if it wants to provide a different implementation. Essentially, default methods are inherited from interfaces in much the same way that ordinary methods are inherited from classes. This moves Java partway towards supporting multiple inheritance. It's not true multiple inheritance, however, since interfaces still cannot define instance variables.

A default method in an interface must be marked with the modifier default. It can optionally be marked public but, as for everything else in interfaces, default methods are automatically public and the public modifier can be omitted. Here is an example.:

public interface Readable { // represents a source of input

    public char readChar();  // read the next character from the input

    default public String readLine() { // read up to the next line feed
        StringBuilder line = new StringBuilder();
        char ch = readChar();
        while (ch != '\n') {
            ch = readChar();
        return line.toString();


A concrete class that implements this interface must provide an implementation for readChar(). It will inherit a definition for readLine() from the interface, but can provide a new definition if necessary. Note that the default readLine() calls the abstract method readChar(), whose definition will only be provided in the implementing class. The reference to readChar() in the definition is polymorphic. The default implementation of readLine() is one that would make sense in almost any class that implements Readable. Here's a rather silly example of a class that implements Readable, including a main() routine that tests the class. Can you figure out what it does?

public class Stars implements Readable {

    public char readChar() {
        if (Math.random() > 0.02)
           return '*';
           return '\n';
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        Stars stars = new Stars();
        for (int i = 0 ; i < 10; i++ ) {
            String line = stars.readLine();
            System.out.println( line );

Default methods provide Java with a capability similar to something called a "mixin" in other programming languages, namely the ability to mix functionality from another source into a class. Since a class can implement several interfaces, it is possible to mix in functionality from several different sources.

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