Inheritance: reusing the interface

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reusing the interface

By itself, the concept of an object is a convenient tool. It allows you to package data and functionality together by concept, so you can represent an appropriate problem-space idea rather than being forced to use the idioms of the underlying machine. These concepts are expressed in the primary idea of the programming language as a data type (using the class keyword).

It seems a pity, however, to go to all the trouble to create a data type and then be forced to create a brand new one that might have similar functionality. It’s nicer if we can take the existing data type, clone it and make additions and modifications to the clone. This is effectively what you get with inheritance, with the exception that if the original class (called the base or super or parent class) is changed, the modified “clone” (called the derived or inherited or sub or child class) also reflects the appropriate changes. Inheritance is implemented in Java with the extends keyword. You make a new class and you say that it extends an existing class.

When you inherit you create a new type, and the new type contains not only all the members of the existing type (although the private ones are hidden away and inaccessible), but more importantly it duplicates the interface of the base class. That is, all the messages you can send to objects of the base class you can also send to objects of the derived class. Since we know the type of a class by the messages we can send to it, this means that the derived class is the same type as the base class . This type equivalence via inheritance is one of the fundamental gateways in understanding the meaning of object-oriented programming.

Since both the base class and derived class have the same interface, there must be some implementation to go along with that interface. That is, there must be a method to execute when an object receives a particular message. If you simply inherit a class and don’t do anything else, the methods from the base-class interface come right along into the derived class. That means objects of the derived class have not only the same type, they also have the same behavior, which doesn’t seem particularly interesting.

You have two ways to differentiate your new derived class from the original base class it inherits from. The first is quite straightforward: you simply add brand new functions to the derived class. These new functions are not part of the base class interface. This means that the base class simply didn’t do as much as you wanted it to, so you add more functions. This simple and primitive use for inheritance is, at times, the perfect solution to your problem. However, you should look closely for the possibility that your base class might need these additional functions.

Overriding base-class functionality

Although the extends keyword implies that you are going to add new functions to the interface, that’s not necessarily true. The second way to differentiate your new class is to change the behavior of an existing base-class function. This is referred to as overriding that function.

Is-a vs. is-like-a relationships

There’s a certain debate that can occur about inheritance: Should inheritance override only base-class functions? This means that the derived type is exactly the same type as the base class since it has exactly the same interface. As a result, you can exactly substitute an object of the derived class for an object of the base class. This can be thought of as pure substitution . In a sense, this is the ideal way to treat inheritance. We often refer to the relationship between the base class and derived classes in this case as an is-a relationship, because you can say “a circle is a shape.” A test for inheritance is whether you can state the is-a relationship about the classes and have it make sense.

There are times when you must add new interface elements to a derived type, thus extending the interface and creating a new type. The new type can still be substituted for the base type, but the substitution isn’t perfect in a sense because your new functions are not accessible from the base type. This can be described as an is-like-a relationship; the new type has the interface of the old type but it also contains other functions, so you can’t really say it’s exactly the same. For example, consider an air conditioner. Suppose your house is wired with all the controls for cooling; that is, it has an interface that allows you to control cooling. Imagine that the air conditioner breaks down and you replace it with a heat pump, which can both heat and cool. The heat pump is-like-an air conditioner, but it can do more. Because your house is wired only to control cooling, it is restricted to communication with the cooling part of the new object. The interface of the new object has been extended, and the existing system doesn’t know about anything except the original interface.



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