Revisiting Polymorphism

This week I found this article on JavaWorld by Jeff Friesen that is entirely about polymorphism. Polymorphism is a core concept for all software development and a lack of strong understand will lead to weak applications and poorly written code. One can never revisit topics like polymorphism too much. This article discussing the four types of polymorphism, upcasting and late binding, abstraction, downcasting, and runtime type identification (RTTI). The article presents everything in the form of a code example and constantly revisits in the explanation process, which I find incredibly useful.

The first part of the article is an overview of the four types of polymorphism, coercion, overloading, parametric and subtype.. Of these four there are some bits that stuck out more to me than others. For coercion the obvious example is when you pass a subclass type to a method’s superclass parameter. At compilation, the subclass object is treated as the superclass to restrict operation. The simple example that is forgotten is when you perform math operations on different “number” data types like int’s and floats. The compiler converts the int’s to float’s for the same reason as the subclass to superclass object. Another piece in this first section that stood out to me was the overloading type of polymorphism. The obvious example here is overloading methods. In a class, you can have different method signatures for the same method name and each will be called depending on the context. Again, there is a simple example that is overlooked in the operators like “+”. For example, this operator can be used to add int’s, float’s, and concatenate Strings depending on the types of the operands.

The upcasting section uses our favorite example, different types of shapes and is almost entirely written in reference to one line of code, Shape s = new Circle(); This upcasts from Circle to Shape. After this happens, the object has no knowledge about the Circle specific methods and only knows about the superclass, Shape methods. When a shared method (implemented in both Shape & Circle), the object is going to use the Shape implementation as well unless it is clear through context to use Circle’s.  Similar to this section that uses superclasses and subclasses, is the section on abstraction. The article uses the Shape and Circle example again but points out that having a draw() method that does something in Shape does not make any sense from a realistic standpoint. Abstraction resolves this, meaning that in an abstract class, there is no way to instantiate a method like draw() for the superclass of Shape. This also means that every abstract superclass needs subclasses to instantiate their behaviors.

These are just a few parts of the article that stood out to me personally. The article as a whole is incredibly useful and worthy of a bookmark by every developer. I will continue to revisit this article if I find myself lacking confidence about the topic of polymorphism in the future!

Original Article:


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