Inheritance as an API

2013-09-15 22:46

Saying “API” nowadays is thought first and foremost to refer to a collection of HTTP request handlers that expose data from some Web service in a machine-readable format (usually JSON). This is not the meaning of API I have in mind right here, though. The classic one talks about any conglomerate of programming language constructs – functions, classes, packages – that are available for us to use.

You can interact with an API in numerous different ways, but one of them is somewhat less common. Occasionally, besides having functions to call and objects to create, you are also presented with base classes to inherit. This is symptomatic to more complex libraries, written mostly in statically typed languages. Among them, the one that takes the most advantage of this technique is probably Java.

Note that what I’m talking about here is substantially different from implementing an interface. That is a relatively common occurrence, required when working with listeners and callbacks:

  1. private OnClickListener mHelloButtonClickListener = new OnClickListener() {
  2.     @Override
  3.     public void onClick(View v) {
  4.         Toast.makeText(getContext(), "Hello world!", Toast.LENGTH_SHORT).show();
  5.     }
  6. };

as well as in many other situations and patterns. There is nothing terribly special about it, given that even non-object oriented languages have equivalent mechanisms of accomplishing the same objective: separating the “how” from “what” in code, possibly to exchange or expand the latter.

Inheriting from a base class is something else entirely. The often criticized, ideologically skewed interpretation of OOP would claim that inheritance is meant to introduce more specialized kinds of existing types of objects. In practice, that’s almost completely missing the real point.

What’s important in creating a derived class is that:

  • like with interface, it needs to override certain methods and fill them with code
  • but also, it may do so using a unique, additional API

Combined, these two qualities allow to introduce much more sophisticated ways of communication between the API and its client code. It’s a powerful tool and should be used sparingly, but certain types of libraries and (especially) frameworks can benefit greatly from it.

As an example, look at the Guice framework for dependency injection. If you use it in your project, you need to configure it by specifying bindings: mapping between the interfaces used by your code and their implementations. This is necessary for the framework can wire them together, possibly in more then one way (different in production code and in test code, for example).
Bindings are quite sophisticated constructs. For non-trivial applications – and these are the ones you generally want to apply dependency injection to – they cannot really be pinned down to a single function call. Other, similar frameworks would therefore use completely external configuration files (usually in XML), which has a lot of downsides.

Guice, however, has a sufficiently smart API that allows to realize all configuration in actual, compilable code. To achieve this, it uses inheritance, exactly as described above. Here’s a short sample:

  1. public class BillingModule extends AbstractModule {
  2.     @Override
  3.     protected void configure() {
  4.       bind(TransactionLog.class).to(DatabaseTransactionLog.class);
  5.       bind(CreditCardProcessor.class).to(PaypalCreditCardProcessor.class);
  6.     }
  7. }

Overridden methods in the above class (well, one method) serve as “sections” in the “configuration file”. Inherited methods, on the other hand, provide an internal, limited namespace that can be used to compose configuration “entries”. Since everything is real code, we can have the compiler check everything for some basic sanity as well.

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Author: Xion, posted under Programming »


4 comments for post “Inheritance as an API”.
  1. Xender:
    September 16th, 2013 o 16:03

    “Saying “API” nowadays is thought first and foremost to refer to a collection of HTTP request handlers that expose data from some Web service in a machine-readable format (usually JSON).”

    Are there more concrete words for “web API” vs. “library API”?

  2. Xion:
    September 18th, 2013 o 14:54

    I think it’s “REST API” (even for web services that are hardly RESTful) and “native API”, respectively. At least that would be clearly unambiguous distinction for me.

  3. Xender:
    September 21st, 2013 o 20:24

    Hmm, “Native API” have different meaning in context of Android, so i don;t think it’s best word choice either….

  4. Xion:
    September 25th, 2013 o 22:14

    Argh, naming is hard. Let’s go coding.

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