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Section 10.1

Generic Programming

Generic programming refers to writing code that will work for many types of data. We encountered the alternative to generic programming in Subsection 7.2.4, where we looked at dynamic arrays of integers. The source code presented there for working with dynamic arrays of integers works only for data of type int. But the source code for dynamic arrays of double, String, Color, or any other type would be almost identical, except for the substitution of one type name for another. It seems silly to write essentially the same code over and over. Java's approach to this problem is parameterized types. As we saw in Section 7.3, the parameterized class ArrayList implements dynamic arrays. Since it is parameterized, there are types such as ArrayList<String> to represent dynamic arrays of String, ArrayList<Color> for dynamic arrays of colors, and more generally ArrayList<T> for any object type T. ArrayList is just one class, but the source code works for many different types. This is generic programming.

The ArrayList class is just one of many standard classes that are used for generic programming in Java. We will spend the next three sections looking at some of these classes and how they are used, and we'll see that there are also generic methods and generic interfaces. The classes and interfaces discussed in these sections are defined in the package java.util, and you will need import statements at the beginning of your programs to get access to them.

In Section 10.5, we will see that it is possible to define new generic classes, interfaces, and methods. Until then, we will stick to using Java's predefined generics. And in Section 10.6, we will look at streams, a relatively new feature of Java that makes extensive use of generics.

It is no easy task to design a library for generic programming. Java's solution has many nice features but is certainly not the only possible approach. It is almost certainly not the best, and has a few features that in my opinion can only be called bizarre, but in the context of the overall design of Java, it might be close to optimal. To get some perspective on generic programming in general, it might be useful to look very briefly at some other approaches to generic programming.

10.1.1  Generic Programming in Smalltalk

Smalltalk was one of the very first object-oriented programming languages. It is still used today, although its use is not very common. It never achieved anything like the popularity of Java or C++, but it is the source of many ideas used in these languages. In Smalltalk, essentially all programming is generic, because of two basic properties of the language.

First of all, variables in Smalltalk are typeless. A data value has a type, such as integer or string, but variables do not have types. Any variable can hold data of any type. Parameters are also typeless, so a subroutine can be applied to parameter values of any type. Similarly, a data structure can hold data values of any type. For example, once you've defined a binary tree data structure in SmallTalk, you can use it for binary trees of integers or strings or dates or data of any other type. There is simply no need to write new code for each data type.

Secondly, all data values are objects, and all operations on objects are defined by methods in a class. This is true even for types that are "primitive" in Java, such as integers. When the "+" operator is used to add two integers, the operation is performed by calling a method in the integer class. When you define a new class, you can define a "+" operator, and you will then be able to add objects belonging to that class by saying "a + b" just as if you were adding numbers. Now, suppose that you write a subroutine that uses the "+" operator to add up the items in a list. The subroutine can be applied to a list of integers, but it can also be applied, automatically, to any other data type for which "+" is defined. Similarly, a subroutine that uses the "<" operator to sort a list can be applied to lists containing any type of data for which "<" is defined. There is no need to write a different sorting subroutine for each type of data.

Put these two features together and you have a language where data structures and algorithms will work for any type of data for which they make sense, that is, for which the appropriate operations are defined. This is real generic programming. This might sound pretty good, and you might be asking yourself why all programming languages don't work this way. This type of freedom makes it easier to write programs, but unfortunately it makes it harder to write programs that are correct and robust (see Chapter 8). Once you have a data structure that can contain data of any type, it becomes hard to ensure that it only holds the type of data that you want it to hold. If you have a subroutine that can sort any type of data, it's hard to ensure that it will only be applied to data for which the "<" operator is defined. More particularly, there is no way for a compiler to ensure these things. The problem will only show up at run time when an attempt is made to apply some operation to a data type for which it is not defined, and the program will crash.

10.1.2  Generic Programming in C++

Unlike Smalltalk, C++ is a very strongly typed language. Every variable has a type, and can only hold data values of that type. This means that the kind of generic programming that is used in Smalltalk is impossible in C++. Nevertheless, C++ has a powerful and flexible system of generic programming. It is made possible by a language feature known as templates. In C++, instead of writing a different sorting subroutine for each type of data, you can write a single subroutine template. The template is not a subroutine; it's more like a factory for making subroutines. We can look at an example, since the syntax of C++ is very similar to Java's:

template<class ItemType>
void sort( ItemType A[], int count ) {
      // Sort items in the array, A, into increasing order.
      // The items in positions 0, 1, 2, ..., (count-1) are sorted.
      // The algorithm that is used here is selection sort.
   for (int i = count-1; i > 0; i--) {
      int position_of_max = 0;
      for (int j = 1; j <= i ; j++)
         if ( A[j] > A[position_of_max] )
            position_of_max = j;
      ItemType temp = A[i];
      A[i] = A[position_of_max];
      A[position_of_max] = temp;

This piece of code defines a subroutine template. If you remove the first line, "template<class ItemType>", and substitute the word "int" for the word "ItemType" in the rest of the template, you get a subroutine for sorting arrays of ints. (Even though it says "class ItemType", you can actually substitute any type for ItemType, including the primitive types.) If you substitute "string" for "ItemType", you get a subroutine for sorting arrays of strings. This is pretty much what the compiler does with the template. If your program says "sort(list,10)" where list is an array of ints, the compiler uses the template to generate a subroutine for sorting arrays of ints. If you say "sort(cards,10)" where cards is an array of objects of type Card, then the compiler generates a subroutine for sorting arrays of Cards. At least, it tries to. The template uses the ">" operator to compare values. If this operator is defined for values of type Card, then the compiler will successfully use the template to generate a subroutine for sorting cards. If ">" is not defined for Cards, then the compiler will fail—but this will happen at compile time, not, as in Smalltalk, at run time where it would make the program crash. (By the way, in C++, it is possible to write definitions of operators like > for any type, so that it is possible that > might work for values of type Card.)

In addition to subroutine templates, C++ also has templates for making classes. If you write a template for a binary tree class, you can use it to generate classes for binary trees of ints, binary trees of strings, binary trees of dates, and so on—all from one template. Modern C++ comes with a large number of pre-written templates called the Standard Template Library or STL. The STL is quite complex. Many people would say that it's much too complex. But it is also one of the most interesting features of C++.

10.1.3  Generic Programming in Java

Java's generic programming features have gone through several stages of development. Early versions of Java did not have parameterized types, but they did have classes to represent common data structures. Those classes were designed to work with Objects; that is, they could hold objects of any type, and there was no way to restrict the types of objects that could be stored in a given data structure. For example, ArrayList was not originally a parameterized type, so that any ArrayList could hold any type of object. This means that if list was an ArrayList, then list.get(i) would return a value of type Object. If the programmer was actually using the list to store Strings, the value returned by list.get(i) would have to be type-cast to treat it as a string:

String item = (String)list.get(i);

This is still a kind of generic programming, since one class can work for any kind of object, but it was closer in spirit to Smalltalk than it was to C++, since there is no way to do type checks at compile time. Unfortunately, as in Smalltalk, the result is a category of errors that show up only at run time, rather than at compile time. If a programmer assumes that all the items in a data structure are strings and tries to process those items as strings, a run-time error will occur if other types of data have inadvertently been added to the data structure. In Java, the error will most likely occur when the program retrieves an Object from the data structure and tries to type-cast it to type String. If the object is not actually of type String, the illegal type-cast will throw an error of type ClassCastException.

Java 5.0 introduced parameterized types, which made it possible to create generic data structures that can be type-checked at compile time rather than at run time. For example, if list is of type ArrayList<String>, then the compiler will only allow objects of type String to be added to list. Furthermore, the return type of list.get(i) is String, so type-casting is not necessary. Java's parameterized classes are similar to template classes in C++ (although the implementation is very different), and their introduction moves Java's generic programming model closer to C++ and farther from Smalltalk. In this chapter, I will use the parameterized types exclusively, but you should remember that their use is not mandatory. It is still legal to use a parameterized class as a non-parameterized type, such as a plain ArrayList. In that case, any type of object can be stored in the data structure. (But if that is what you really want to do, it would be preferable to use the type ArrayList<Object>.)

Note that there is a significant difference between parameterized classes in Java and template classes in C++. A template class in C++ is not really a class at all—it's a kind of factory for generating classes. Every time the template is used with a new type, a new compiled class is created. With a Java parameterized class, there is only one compiled class file. For example, there is only one compiled class file, ArrayList.class, for the parameterized class ArrayList. The parameterized types ArrayList<String> and ArrayList<Integer> both use the same compiled class file, as does the plain ArrayList type. The type parameter—String or Integer—just tells the compiler to limit the type of object that can be stored in the data structure. The type parameter has no effect at run time and is not even known at run time. The type information is said to be "erased" at run time. This type erasure introduces a certain amount of weirdness. For example, you can't test "if (list instanceof ArrayList<String>)" because the instanceof operator is evaluated at run time, and at run time only the plain ArrayList exists. Similarly, you can't type-cast to the type ArrayList<String>. Even worse, you can't create an array that has base type ArrayList<String> by using the new operator, as in "new ArrayList<String>[N]". This is because the new operator is evaluated at run time, and at run time there is no such thing as "ArrayList<String>"; only the non-parameterized type ArrayList exists at run time. (However, although you can't have an array of ArrayList<String>, you can have an ArrayList of ArrayList<String>—with the type written as ArrayList<ArrayList<String>>—which is just as good or better.)

Fortunately, most programmers don't have to deal with such problems, since they turn up only in fairly advanced programming. Most people who use parameterized types will not encounter the problems, and they will get the benefits of type-safe generic programming with little difficulty.

It's worth noting that if the type parameter in a parameterized type can be deduced by the compiler, then the name of the type parameter can be omitted. For example, the word "String" is optional in the constructor in the following statement, because the ArrayList that is created must be an ArrayList<String> to match the type of the variable:

ArrayList<String> words = new ArrayList<>();

10.1.4  The Java Collection Framework

As I've said, Java comes with a number of parameterized types that implement common data structures. This collection of data structure classes and interfaces is referred to as the Java Collection Framework, or JCF. We will spend the next few sections learning about the JCF.

The generic data structures in the Java Collection Framework can be divided into two categories: collections and maps. A collection is more or less what it sounds like: a collection of objects. A map associates objects in one set with objects in another set in the way that a dictionary associates definitions with words or a phone book associates phone numbers with names. A map is similar to what I called an "association list" in Subsection 7.5.2. In Java, collections and maps are represented by the parameterized interfaces Collection<T> and Map<T,S>. Here, "T" and "S" stand for any type except for the primitive types. Map<T,S> is an example of a parameterized type that has two type parameters, T and S; we will not deal further with this possibility until we look at maps more closely in Section 10.3. In this section and the next, we look at collections only.

There are two types of collections: lists and sets. A list is a collection in which the objects are arranged in a linear sequence. A list has a first item, a second item, and so on. For any item in the list, except the last, there is an item that directly follows it. For collections that are "sets," the defining property is that no object can occur more than once in a set; the elements of a set are not necessarily thought of as being in any particular order. The ideas of lists and sets are represented as parameterized interfaces List<T> and Set<T>. These are sub-interfaces of Collection<T>. That is, any object that implements the interface List<T> or Set<T> automatically implements Collection<T> as well. The interface Collection<T> specifies general operations that can be applied to any collection at all. List<T> and Set<T> add additional operations that are appropriate for lists and sets respectively.

Of course, any actual object that is a collection, list, or set must belong to a concrete class that implements the corresponding interface. For example, the class ArrayList<T> implements the interface List<T> and therefore also implements Collection<T>. This means that all the methods that are defined in the list and collection interfaces can be used with an ArrayList. We will look at various classes that implement the list and set interfaces in the next section. But before we do that, we'll look briefly at some of the general operations that are available for all collections.

The interface Collection<T> specifies methods for performing some basic operations on any collection of objects. Since "collection" is a very general concept, operations that can be applied to all collections are also very general. They are generic operations in the sense that they can be applied to various types of collections containing various types of objects. Suppose that coll is an object that implements the interface Collection<T> (for some specific non-primitive type T). Then the following operations, which are specified in the interface Collection<T>, are defined for coll:

Since these methods are part of the Collection<T> interface, they must be defined for every object that implements that interface. There is a problem with this, however. For example, the size of some collections cannot be changed after they are created. Methods that add or remove objects don't make sense for these collections. While it is still legal to call the methods, an exception will be thrown when the call is evaluated at run time. The type of the exception is UnsupportedOperationException. Furthermore, since Collection<T> is only an interface, not a concrete class, the actual implementation of the method is left to the classes that implement the interface. This means that the semantics of the methods, as described above, are not guaranteed to be valid for all collection objects; they are valid, however, for classes in the Java Collection Framework.

There is also the question of efficiency. Even when an operation is defined for several types of collections, it might not be equally efficient in all cases. Even a method as simple as size() can vary greatly in efficiency. For some collections, computing the size() might involve counting the items in the collection. The number of steps in this process is equal to the number of items. Other collections might have instance variables to keep track of the size, so evaluating size() just means returning the value of a variable. In this case, the computation takes only one step, no matter how many items there are. When working with collections, it's good to have some idea of how efficient operations are and to choose a collection for which the operations that you need can be implemented most efficiently. We'll see specific examples of this in the next two sections.

10.1.5  Iterators and for-each Loops

The interface Collection<T> defines a few basic generic algorithms, but suppose you want to write your own generic algorithms. Suppose, for example, you want to do something as simple as printing out every item in a collection. To do this in a generic way, you need some way of going through an arbitrary collection, accessing each item in turn. We have seen how to do this for specific data structures: For an array, you can use a for loop to iterate through all the array indices. For a linked list, you can use a while loop in which you advance a pointer along the list. For a binary tree, you can use a recursive subroutine to do an inorder traversal. Collections can be represented in any of these forms and many others besides. With such a variety of traversal mechanisms, how can we even hope to come up with a single generic method that will work for collections that are stored in wildly different forms? This problem is solved by iterators. An iterator is an object that can be used to traverse a collection. Different types of collections have iterators that are implemented in different ways, but all iterators are used in the same way. An algorithm that uses an iterator to traverse a collection is generic, because the same technique can be applied to any type of collection. Iterators can seem rather strange to someone who is encountering generic programming for the first time, but you should understand that they solve a difficult problem in an elegant way.

The interface Collection<T> defines a method that can be used to obtain an iterator for any collection. If coll is a collection, then coll.iterator() returns an iterator that can be used to traverse the collection. You should think of the iterator as a kind of generalized pointer that starts at the beginning of the collection and can move along the collection from one item to the next. Iterators are defined by a parameterized interface named Iterator<T>. If coll implements the interface Collection<T> for some specific type T, then coll.iterator() returns an iterator of type Iterator<T>, with the same type T as its type parameter. The interface Iterator<T> defines just three methods. If iter refers to an object that implements Iterator<T>, then we have:

Using iterators, we can write code for printing all the items in any collection. Suppose, for example, that coll is of type Collection<String>. In that case, the value returned by coll.iterator() is of type Iterator<String>, and we can say:

Iterator<String> iter;          // Declare the iterator variable.
iter = coll.iterator();         // Get an iterator for the collection.
while ( iter.hasNext() ) {
   String item = iter.next();   // Get the next item.

The same general form will work for other types of processing. For example, the following code will remove all null values from any collection of type Collection<Color> (as long as that collection supports removal of values):

Iterator<Color> iter = coll.iterator():
while ( iter.hasNext() ) {
    Color item = iter.next();
    if (item == null)

(Note, by the way, that when Collection<T>, Iterator<T>, or any other parameterized type is used in actual code, they are always used with actual types such as String or Color in place of the "formal type parameter" T. An iterator of type Iterator<String> is used to iterate through a collection of Strings; an iterator of type Iterator<Color> is used to iterate through a collection of Color; and so on.)

An iterator is often used to apply the same operation to all the elements in a collection. In many cases, it's possible to avoid the use of iterators for this purpose by using a for-each loop. The for-each loop was discussed in Subsection 7.1.1 for use with arrays and in Subsection 7.3.3 for use with ArrayLists. But in fact, a for-each loop can be used to iterate through any collection. For a collection coll of type Collection<T>, a for-each loop takes the form:

for ( T x : coll ) { // "for each object x, of type T, in coll"
   //  process x  

Here, x is the loop control variable. Each object in coll will be assigned to x in turn, and the body of the loop will be executed for each object. Since objects in coll are of type T, x is declared to be of type T. For example, if namelist is of type Collection<String>, we can print out all the names in the collection with:

for ( String name : namelist ) { 
   System.out.println( name );

This for-each loop could, of course, be written as a while loop using an iterator, but the for-each loop is much easier to follow.

10.1.6  Equality and Comparison

There are several methods in the Collection interface that test objects for equality. For example, the methods coll.contains(object) and coll.remove(object) look for an item in the collection that is equal to object. However, equality is not such a simple matter. The obvious technique for testing equality—using the == operator—does not usually give a reasonable answer when applied to objects. The == operator tests whether two objects are identical in the sense that they share the same location in memory. Usually, however, we want to consider two objects to be equal if they represent the same value, which is a very different thing. Two values of type String should be considered equal if they contain the same sequence of characters. The question of whether those characters are stored in the same location in memory is irrelevant. Two values of type Date should be considered equal if they represent the same time.

We have seen that the Object class defines the boolean-valued method equals(Object) for testing whether one object is equal to another. This method is used by many, but not by all, collection classes for deciding whether two objects are to be considered the same. In the Object class, obj1.equals(obj2) is defined to be the same as obj1 == obj2. However, for many sub-classes of Object, this definition is not reasonable, and it should be overridden. The String class, for example, overrides equals() so that for a String str, the value of str.equals(obj) is true when obj is also a String and obj contains the same sequence of characters as str.

If you write your own class, you might want to define an equals() method in that class to get the correct behavior when objects are tested for equality. For example, a Card class that will work correctly when used in collections could be defined as:

public class Card {  // Class to represent playing cards.
   private int suit;  // Number from 0 to 3 that codes for the suit --
                      // spades, diamonds, clubs or hearts.
   private int value; // Number from 1 to 13 that represents the value.
   public boolean equals(Object obj) {
       try {
          Card other = (Card)obj;  // Type-cast obj to a Card.
          if (suit == other.suit && value == other.value) {
                // The other card has the same suit and value as
                // this card, so they should be considered equal.
             return true;
          else {
             return false;
       catch (Exception e) {
              // This will catch the NullPointerException that occurs if obj
              // is null and the ClassCastException that occurs if obj is
              // not of type Card.  In these cases, obj is not equal to
              // this Card, so return false.
           return false;
    . // other methods and constructors

Without the equals() method in this class, methods such as contains() and remove() from the interface Collection<Card> will not work as expected.

A similar concern arises when items in a collection are sorted. Sorting refers to arranging a sequence of items in ascending order, according to some criterion. The problem is that there is no natural notion of ascending order for arbitrary objects. Before objects can be sorted, some method must be defined for comparing them. Objects that are meant to be compared should implement the interface java.lang.Comparable. In fact, Comparable is defined as a parameterized interface, Comparable<T>, which represents the ability to be compared to an object of type T. The interface Comparable<T> defines one method:

public int compareTo( T obj )

The value returned by obj1.compareTo(obj2) should be negative if and only if obj1 comes before obj2, when the objects are arranged in ascending order. It should be positive if and only if obj1 comes after obj2. A return value of zero means that the objects are considered to be the same for the purposes of this comparison. This does not necessarily mean that the objects are equal in the sense that obj1.equals(obj2) is true. But in general, classes that implement Comparable should try to define .equals() and compareTo() so that obj1.equals(obj2) and obj1.compareTo(obj2) == 0 always have the same value. (Some classes in the JCF use compareTo() rather than equals() to test objects for equality.)

The String class implements the interface Comparable<String> and defines compareTo in a reasonable way. In this case, the return value of compareTo is zero if and only if the two strings that are being compared are equal. If you define your own class and want to be able to sort objects belonging to that class, you should do the same. For example:

 * Represents a full name consisting of a first name and a last name.
public class FullName implements Comparable<FullName> {

   private String firstName, lastName;  // Non-null first and last names.
   public FullName(String first, String last) {  // Constructor.
      if (first == null || last == null)
         throw new IllegalArgumentException("Names must be non-null.");
      firstName = first;
      lastName = last;
   public boolean equals(Object obj) {
      try {
         FullName other = (FullName)obj;  // Type-cast obj to type FullName
         return firstName.equals(other.firstName) 
                                && lastName.equals(other.lastName);
      catch (Exception e) {
         return false;  // if obj is null or is not of type FullName
   public int compareTo( FullName other ) {
      int compareLast = lastName.compareTo(other.lastName);
      if ( compareLast < 0 ) {
             // If lastName comes before the last name of
             // the other object, then this FullName comes
             // before the other FullName.  Return a negative
             // value to indicate this.
         return -1;
      else if ( compareLast > 0 ) {
             // If lastName comes after the last name of
             // the other object, then this FullName comes
             // after the other FullName.  Return a positive
             // value to indicate this.
         return 1;
      else {
             // Last names are the same, so base the comparison on
             // the first names, using compareTo from class String.
         return firstName.compareTo(other.firstName);
   . // other methods 

I find it a little odd that the class here is declared as "class FullName implements Comparable<FullName>", with "FullName" repeated as a type parameter in the name of the interface. However, it does make sense. It means that we are going to compare objects that belong to the class FullName to other objects of the same type. Even though this is the only reasonable thing to do, that fact is not obvious to the Java compiler—and the type parameter in Comparable<FullName> is there for the compiler.

(We have previously encountered FullName as a record class, in Subsection 7.4.1. Remember that record classes can implement interfaces, so we could define a FullName record class to implement Comparable<FullName>. In the record class, the equals() method would already be defined appropriately.)

There is another way to allow for comparison of objects in Java, and that is to provide a separate object that is capable of making the comparison. The object must implement the interface Comparator<T>, where T is the type of the objects that are to be compared. The interface Comparator<T> defines the method:

public int compare( T obj1, T obj2 )

This method compares two objects of type T and returns a value that is negative, or positive, or zero, depending on whether obj1 comes before obj2, or comes after obj2, or is considered to be the same as obj2 for the purposes of this comparison. Comparators are useful for comparing objects that do not implement the Comparable interface and for defining several different orderings on the same collection of objects. Since Comparator is a functional interface, comparators are often defined by lambda expressions (see Section 4.5).

Note that it can often make sense to use a Comparator for which obj1.equals(obj2) does not always have the same value as compare(obj1,obj2) == 0. For example, when sorting addresses by zip code, you would use a Comparator that looks at the zip code field in the addresses that it compares.

In the next two sections, we'll see how Comparable and Comparator are used in the context of collections and maps.

10.1.7  Generics and Wrapper Classes

As noted in Section 7.3 about ArrayLists, Java's generic programming does not apply to the primitive types. This is because generic data structures can only hold objects, and values of primitive type are not objects. However, the "wrapper classes" that were introduced in Subsection 7.3.2 make it possible to get around this restriction to a great extent.

Recall that each primitive type has an associated wrapper class: class Integer for type int, class Boolean for type boolean, class Character for type char, and so on.

An object of type Integer contains a value of type int. The object serves as a "wrapper" for the primitive type value, which allows it to be used in contexts where objects are required, such as in generic data structures. For example, a list of Integers can be stored in a variable of type ArrayList<Integer>, and interfaces such as Collection<Integer> and Set<Integer> are defined. Furthermore, class Integer defines equals(), compareTo(), and toString() methods that do what you would expect (that is, that compare and write out the corresponding primitive type values in the usual way). Similar remarks apply for all the wrapper classes.

Recall also that Java does automatic conversions between a primitive type and the corresponding wrapper type. (These conversions, which are called autoboxing and unboxing, were also introduced in Subsection 7.3.3.) This means that once you have created a generic data structure to hold objects belonging to one of the wrapper classes, you can use the data structure pretty much as if it actually contained primitive type values. For example, if numbers is a variable of type Collection<Integer>, it is legal to call numbers.add(17) or numbers.remove(42). You can't literally add the primitive type value 17 to numbers, but Java will automatically convert the 17 to the corresponding wrapper object, Integer.valueOf(17), and the wrapper object will be added to the collection. (The creation of the object does add some time and memory overhead to the operation, and you should keep that in mind in situations where efficiency is important. An array of int is more efficient than an ArrayList<Integer>.)

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