10 Features I Wish Java Would Steal From the Kotlin Language

This article is overdue. After the hype around the release of Kotlin 1.0 has settled, let’s have a serious look at some Kotlin language features that we should have in Java as well.

In this article, I’m not going to wish for unicorns. But there are some low hanging fruit (as far as I naively can see), which could be introduced into the Java language without great risk. While you’re reading this article, be sure to copy paste examples to http://try.kotlinlang.org, an online REPL for Kotlin

1. Data class

Language designers hardly ever agree on the necessity and the feature scope of what a class is. In Java, curiously, every class always has identity a concept that is not really needed in 80% – 90% of all real world Java classes. Likewise, a Java class always has a monitor on which you can synchronize.

In most cases, when you write a class, you really just want to group values, like Strings, ints, doubles. For instance:

public class Person {
    final String firstName;
    final String lastName;
    public JavaPerson(...) {
        ...
    }
    // Getters
    ...

    // Hashcode / equals
    ...

    // Tostring
    ...

    // Egh...
}

By the time you’ve finished typing all of the above, your fingers will no longer be. Java developers have implemented ugly workarounds for the above, like IDE code generation, or lombok, which is the biggest of all hacks. In a better Java, nothing in Lombok would really be needed.

As, for instance, if Java had Kotlin’s data classes:

data class Person(
  val firstName: String,
  val lastName: String
)

The above is all we need to declare the equivalent of the previous Java code. Because a data class is used to store data (duh), i.e. values, the implementation of things like hashCode(), equals(), toString() is obvious and can be provided by default. Furthermore, data classes are first class tuples, so they can be used as such, e.g. to destructure them again in individual references:

val jon = Person("Jon", "Doe") 
val (firstName, lastName) = jon

In this case, we may hope. Valhalla / Java 10 is being designed and with it, value types. We’ll see how many features will be provided on the JVM directly, and in the Java language. This will certainly be an exciting addition.

Notice how val is possible in Kotlin: Local variable type inference. This is being discussed for a future Java version right now.

2. Defaulted parameters

How many times do you overload an API like the following:

interface Stream<T> {
    Stream<T> sorted();
    Stream<T> sorted(Comparator<? super T> comparator);
}

The above are exactly the same JDK Stream operations. The first one simply applies Comparator.naturalOrder() to the second one. So we could write the following, in Kotlin:

fun sorted(comparator : Comparator<T> 
         = Comparator.naturalOrder()) : Stream<T>

The advantage of this isn’t immediately visible, when there is only one defaulted parameter. But imagine a function with tons of optional parameters:

fun reformat(str: String,
             normalizeCase: Boolean = true,
             upperCaseFirstLetter: Boolean = true,
             divideByCamelHumps: Boolean = false,
             wordSeparator: Char = ' ') {
...
}

Which can be called in any of the following ways:

reformat(str)
reformat(str, true, true, false, '_')
reformat(str,
  normalizeCase = true,
  upperCaseFirstLetter = true,
  divideByCamelHumps = false,
  wordSeparator = '_'
)

The power of defaulted parameters is that they are especially useful when passing arguments by name, rather than by index. This is currently not supported in the JVM, which until Java 8, doesn’t retain the parameter name at all (in Java 8, you can turn on a JVM flag for this, but with all of Java’s legacy, you shouldn’t rely on this yet).

Heck, this feature is something I’m using in PL/SQL every day. Of course, in Java, you can work around this limitation by passing a parameter object.

3. Simplified instanceof checks

If you will, this is really an instanceof switch. Some people may claim that this stuff is evil, bad OO design. Nja nja. I say, this happens every now and then. And apparently, in Java 7, string switches were considered sufficiently common to modify the language to allow them. Why not instanceof switches?

val hasPrefix = when(x) {
  is String -> x.startsWith("prefix")
  else -> false
}

Not only is this doing an instanceof switch, it is doing it in the form of an assignable expression. Kotlin’s version of this when expression is powerful. You can mix any sort of predicate expressions, similar to SQL’s CASE expression. For instance, this is possible as well:

when (x) {
  in 1..10 -> print("x is in the range")
  in validNumbers -> print("x is valid")
  !in 10..20 -> print("x is outside the range")
  else -> print("none of the above")
}

Compare to SQL (not implemented in all dialects):

CASE x
  WHEN BETWEEN 1 AND 10 THEN 'x is in the range'
  WHEN IN (SELECT * FROM validNumbers) THEN 'x is valid'
  WHEN NOT BETWEEN 10 AND 20 'x is outside the range'
  ELSE 'none of the above'
END

As you can see, only SQL is more powerful than Kotlin.

4. Map key / value traversal

Now this could really be done very easily only with syntax sugar. Granted, having local variable type inference would already be a plus, but check this out

val map: Map<String, Int> = ...

And now, you can do:

for ((k, v) in map) {
    ...
}

After all, most of the time when traversing a map, it’ll be by Map.entrySet(). Map could have been enhanced to extend Iterable<Entry<K, V>> in Java 5, but hasn’t. That’s really a pity. After all, it has been enhanced in Java 8 to allow for internal iteration over the entry set in Java 8 via Map.forEach():

map.forEach((k, v) -> {
    ...
});

It’s not too late, JDK gods. You can still let Map<K, V> extend Iterable<Entry<K, V>>

5. Map access literals

This one is something that would add tons and tons of value to the Java language. We have arrays, like most other languages. And like most other languages, we can access array elements by using square brackets:

int[] array = { 1, 2, 3 };
int value = array[0];

Note also the fact that we have array initialiser literals in Java, which is great. So, why not also allow for accessing map elements with the same syntax?

val map = hashMapOf<String, Int>()
map.put("a", 1)
println(map["a"])

In fact, x[y] is just syntax sugar for a method call backed by x.get(y). This is so great, we have immediately proceeded with renaming our Record.getValue() methods in jOOQ to Record.get() (leaving the old ones as synonyms, of course), such that you can now dereference your database record values as such, in Kotlin

ctx.select(a.FIRST_NAME, a.LAST_NAME, b.TITLE)
   .from(a)
   .join(b).on(a.ID.eq(b.AUTHOR_ID))
   .orderBy(1, 2, 3)
   .forEach {
       println("""${it[b.TITLE]} 
               by ${it[a.FIRST_NAME]} ${it[a.LAST_NAME]}""")
   }

Since jOOQ holds all column type information on individual record columns, you can actually know in advance that it[b.TITLE] is a String expression. Great, huh? So, not only can this syntax be used with JDK maps, it can be used with any library that exposes the basic get() and set() methods.

Stay tuned for more jOOQ and Kotlin examples here:
https://github.com/jOOQ/jOOQ/blob/master/jOOQ-examples/jOOQ-kotlin-example/src/main/kotlin/org/jooq/example/kotlin/FunWithKotlinAndJOOQ.kt

6. Extension functions

This one is a controversial topic, and I can perfectly understand when language designers stay clear of it. But every now and then, extension functions are very useful. The Kotlin syntax here is actually just for a function to pretend to be part of the receiver type:

fun MutableList<Int>.swap(index1: Int, index2: Int) {
  val tmp = this[index1] // 'this' corresponds to the list
  this[index1] = this[index2]
  this[index2] = tmp
}

This will now allow for swapping elements in a list:

val l = mutableListOf(1, 2, 3)
l.swap(0, 2)

This would be very useful for libraries like jOOλ, which extends the Java 8 Stream API by wrapping it in a jOOλ type (another such library is StreamEx, with a slightly different focus). The jOOλ Seq wrapper type is not really important, as it pretends to be a Stream on steroids. It would be great, if jOOλ methods could be put onto Stream artificially, just by importing them:

list.stream()
    .zipWithIndex()
    .forEach(System.out::println);

The zipWithIndex() method isn’t really there. The above would just translate to the following, less readable code:

seq(list.stream())
    .zipWithIndex()
    .forEach(System.out::println);

In fact, extension methods would even allow to bypass wrapping everything explicitly in a stream(). For instance, you could then do:

list.zipWithIndex()
    .forEach(System.out::println);

As all of jOOλ’s method could be designed to also be applied to Iterable.

Again, this is a controversial topic. For instance, because

While giving the illusion of being virtual, extension functions really are just sugared static methods. It’s a significant risk for object oriented application design to engage in that trickery, which is why this feature probably won’t make it into Java.

7. Safe-call operator (and also: Elvis operator)

Optional is meh. It’s understandable that an Optional type needed to be introduced in order to abstract over the absence of primitive type values, which cannot be null. We now have things like OptionalInt, e.g. to model things like:

OptionalInt result =
IntStream.of(1, 2, 3)
         .filter(i -> i > 3)
         .findFirst();

// Agressive programming ahead
result.orElse(OR_ELSE);

Optional is a monad

Yes. It allows you to flatMap() the absent value.

o_O

Sure, if you want to do sophisticated functional programming, you’ll start typing map() and flatMap() everywhere. Like today, when we’re typing getters and setters. Along will come lombok generating flatmapping calls, and Spring will add some @AliasFor style annotation for flatmapping. And only the enlightened will be able to decipher your code.

When all we needed was just a simple null safety operator before getting back to daily business. Like:

String name = bob?.department?.head?.name

I really like this type of pragmatism in Kotlin. Or do you prefer (flat)mapping?

Optional<String> name = bob
    .flatMap(Person::getDepartment)
    .map(Department::getHead)
    .flatMap(Person::getName);

Can you read this? I cannot. Neither can I write this. If you get this wrong, you’ll get boxoxed.

Of course, Ceylon is the only language that got nulls right. But Ceylon has tons of features that Java will not get before version 42, and I’m not wishing for unicorns. I’m wishing for the safe-call operator (and also the elvis operator, which is slightly different), which could be implemented in Java too. The above expression is just syntax sugar for:

String name = null;
if (bob != null) {
    Department d = bob.department
    if (d != null) {
        Person h = d.head;
        if (h != null)
            name = h.name;
    }
}

What can possibly be wrong with that simplification?

8. Everything is an expression

Now this might just be a unicorn. I don’t know if there is a JLS / parser limitation that will forever keep us in the misery of prehistoric distinction between statement and expression.

At some point in time, people have started using statements for things that yield side-effects, and expressions for more functional-ish things. It is thus not surprising, that all String methods are really expressions, operating on an immutable string, returning a new string all the time.

This doesn’t seem to go well with, for instance, if-else in Java, which is expected to contain blocks and statements, each possibly yielding side-effects.

But is that really a requirement? Can’t we write something like this in Java as well?

val max = if (a > b) a else b

OK, we have this weird conditional expression using ?:. But what about Kotlin’s when (i.e. Java’s switch)?

val hasPrefix = when(x) {
  is String -> x.startsWith("prefix")
  else -> false
}

Isn’t that much more useful than the following equivalent?

boolean hasPrefix;

if (x instanceof String)
    hasPrefix = x.startsWith("prefix");
else
    hasPrefix = false;

(yes, I know about ?:. I just find if-else easier to read, and I don’t see why that should be a statement, not an expression. Heck, in Kotlin, even try is an expression, not a statement:

val result = try {
    count()
} catch (e: ArithmeticException) {
    throw IllegalStateException(e)
}

Beautiful!

9. Single expression functions

Now this. This would save so much time reading and writing simple glue code. And in fact, we already have the syntax in annotations. Check out Spring’s magical @AliasFor annotation, for instance. It yields:

public @interface AliasFor {
    @AliasFor("attribute")
    String value() default "";
    @AliasFor("value")
    String attribute() default "";
}

Now, if you squint really hard, these are just methods yielding constant values, because annotations are just interfaces with generated byte code for their implementations. We can discuss syntax. Of course, this irregular usage of default is weird, given that it was not re-used in Java 8 for default methods, but I guess Java always needs the extra syntax so developers feel alive as they can better feel their typing fingers. That’s OK. We can live with that. But then again, why do we have to? Why not just converge to the following?

public @interface AliasFor {
    String value() = "";
    String attribute() = "";
}

And the same also for class / interface default methods?

// Stop pretending this isn't an interface
public interface AliasFor {
    String value() = "";
    String attribute() = "";
}

Now that would look nice. But given Java’s existing syntax, this might just be a unicorn, so let’s move on to…

10. Flow-sensitive typing

Now this. THIS!

We’ve blogged about sum types before. Java has sum types with exceptions since Java 7:

try {
    ...
}
catch (IOException | SQLException e) {
    // e can be of type IOException and/or SQLException
    // within this scope
}

But Java, unfortunately, doesn’t have flow-sensitive typing. Flow-sensitive typing is of the essence in a language that supports sum types, but it is also useful otherwise. For instance, in Kotlin:

when (x) {
    is String -> println(x.length)
}

We don’t need to cast, obviously, because we already checked that x is String. Conversely, in Java:

if (x instanceof String)
    System.out.println(((String) x).length());

Aaagh, all this typing. IDE autocompletion is smart enough to offer a contextual type’s methods already and then generate the unnecessary cast for you. But it would be great if this was never needed, every time we explicitly narrow a type using control flow structures.

For more info, see this wikipedia entry about flow sensitive typing. A feature that could absolutely be added to the Java language. After all, we already got flow-sensitive final local variables since Java 8.

11. (Bonus) Declaration site variance

Last but not least, better generics via declaration site variance. Many other languages know this, for instance also C#’s IEnumerable:

public interface IEnumerable<out T> : IEnumerable

The keyword out here means that the generic type T is produced from the type IEnumerable (as opposed to in, which stands for consumption). In C#, Scala, Ceylon, Kotlin, and many other languages, we can declare this on the type declaration, rather than on its usage (although, many languages allow for both). In this case, we say that IEnumerable is covariant with its type T, which means again that IEnumerable<Integer> is a subtype of IEnumerable<Object>

In Java, this isn’t possible, which is why we have a bazillion question by Java newbies on Stack Overflow. Why can’t I…

Iterable<String> strings = Arrays.asList("abc");
Iterable<Object> objects = strings; // boom

In languages like Kotlin, the above would be possible. After all, why shouldn’t it? A thing that can produce strings can also produce objects, and we can even use it in this way in Java:

Iterable<String> strings = Arrays.asList("abc");
for (Object o : strings) {
    // Works!
}

The lack of declaration site variance has made a lot of APIs very intelligible. Consider Stream:

<R> Stream<R> flatMap(Function<? super T, ? extends Stream<? extends R>> mapper);

This is just noise. A function is contravariant with its argument type and covariant with its result type by nature a better definition of Function or Stream would be:

interface Function<in T, out R> {}
interface Stream<out T> {}

If this were possible, all that ? super and ? extends garbage could be removed without losing any functionality.

In case you’re wondering what I’m even talking about? 🙂

The great news is, this is being discussed for a (near) future version of Java:
http://openjdk.java.net/jeps/8043488

Conclusion

Kotlin is a promising language, even if it is very late to a game that already seems to have been decided, not in favour of alternative languages on the JVM. Nonetheless, it is a very interesting language to learn from, and with a lot of very good decisions made about some simple things.

Some of these decisions will hopefully be picked up by the Java language gods and integrated into Java. This list here shows some features that might be “easy” to add.

More info about Kotlin idioms:
https://kotlinlang.org/docs/reference/idioms.html

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The Inconvenient Truth About Dynamic vs. Static Typing

Sometimes there are these moments of truth. They happen completely unexpectedly, such as when I read this tweet:

David is the author of the lesser-known but not at all lesser-interesting Whiley programming language, a language that has a lot of static type checking built in it. One of the most interesting features of the Whiley language is flow sensitive typing (sometimes also simply called flow typing), which is mostly useful when used along with union types. An example from the getting started guide

function indexOf(string str, char c) => null|int:

function split(string str, char c) => [string]:
  var idx = indexOf(str,c)

  // idx has type null|int
  if idx is int:

    // idx now has type int
    string below = str[0..idx]
    string above = str[idx..]
    return [below,above]

  else:
    // idx now has type null
    return [str] // no occurrence

Remember, other languages like Ceylon also know flow-sensitive typing, and even Java does to a certain extent, because Java has union types, too!

try {
    ...
}
catch (SQLException | IOException e) {
    if (e instanceof SQLException)
        doSomething((SQLException) e);
    else
        doSomethingElse((IOException) e);
}

Granted, Java’s flow-sensitive typing is explicit and verbose. We could expect the Java compiler to infer all the types. The following should type-check and compile just as well:

try {
    ...
}
catch (SQLException | IOException e) {
    if (e instanceof SQLException)
        // e is guaranteed to be of type SQLException
        doSomething(e);
    else
        // e is guaranteed to be of type IOException
        doSomethingElse(e);
}

Flow typing or flow sensitive typing means that the compiler can infer the only possible type from the control flow of the surrounding program. It is a relatively new concept in modern languages like Ceylon, and it makes static typing extremely powerful, especially if the language also supports sophisticated type inference via var or val keywords!

JavaScript static typing with Flow

Let’s get back to David’s Tweet and have a look at what the article said about Flow:

http://sitr.us/2014/11/21/flow-is-the-javascript-type-checker-i-have-been-waiting-for.html

The presence of a use of length with a null argument informs Flow that there should be a null check in that function. This version does type-check:

function length(x) {
  if (x) {
    return x.length;
  } else {
    return 0;
  }
}

var total = length('Hello') + length(null);

Flow is able to infer that x cannot be null inside the if body.

That’s quite cunning. A similar upcoming feature can be observed in Microsoft’s TypeScript. But Flow is different (or claims to be different) from TypeScript. The essence of Facebook Flow can be seen in this paragraph from the official Flow announcement:

Flow’s type checking is opt-in — you do not need to type check all your code at once. However, underlying the design of Flow is the assumption that most JavaScript code is implicitly statically typed; even though types may not appear anywhere in the code, they are in the developer’s mind as a way to reason about the correctness of the code. Flow infers those types automatically wherever possible, which means that it can find type errors without needing any changes to the code at all. On the other hand, some JavaScript code, especially frameworks, make heavy use of reflection that is often hard to reason about statically. For such inherently dynamic code, type checking would be too imprecise, so Flow provides a simple way to explicitly trust such code and move on. This design is validated by our huge JavaScript codebase at Facebook: Most of our code falls in the implicitly statically typed category, where developers can check their code for type errors without having to explicitly annotate that code with types.

Let this sink in

most JavaScript code is implicitly statically typed

again

JavaScript code is implicitly statically typed

Yes!

Programmers love type systems. Programmers love to reason formally about their data types and put them in narrow constraints to be sure the program is correct. That’s the whole essence of static typing: To make less mistakes because of well-designed data structures.

People also love to put their data structures in well-designed forms in databases, which is why SQL is so popular and “schema-less” databases will not gain more market share. Because in fact, it’s the same story. You still have a schema in a “schema-less” database, it’s just not type checked and thus leaves you all the burden of guaranteeing correctness.

On a side note: Obviously, some NoSQL vendors keep writing these ridiculous blog posts to desperately position their products, claiming that you really don’t need any schema at all, but it’s easy to see through that marketing gag. True need for schemalessness is as rare as true need for dynamic typing. In other words, when is the last time you’ve written a Java program and called every method via reflection? Exactly…

But there’s one thing that statically typed languages didn’t have in the past and that dynamically typed languages did have: Means to circumvent verbosity. Because while programmers love type systems and type checking, programmers do not love typing (as in typing on the keyboard).

Verbosity is the killer. Not static typing

Consider the evolution of Java:

Java 4

List list = new ArrayList();
list.add("abc");
list.add("xyz");

// Eek. Why do I even need this Iterator?
Iterator iterator = list.iterator();
while (iterator.hasNext()) {
    // Gee, I *know* I only have strings. Why cast?
    String value = (String) iterator.next();

    // [...]
}

Java 5

// Agh, I have to declare the generic type twice!
List<String> list = new ArrayList<String>();
list.add("abc");
list.add("xyz");

// Much better, but I have to write String again?
for (String value : list) {
    // [...]
}

Java 7

// Better, but I still need to write down two
// times the "same" List type
List<String> list = new ArrayList<>();
list.add("abc");
list.add("xyz");

for (String value : list) {
    // [...]
}

Java 8

// We're now getting there, slowly
Stream.of("abc", "xyz").forEach(value -> {
    // [...]
});

On a side-note, yes, you could’ve used Arrays.asList() all along.

Java 8 is still far from perfect, but things are getting better and better. The fact that I finally do not have to declare a type anymore in a lambda argument list because it can be inferred by the compiler is something really important for productivity and adoption.

Consider the equivalent of a lambda pre-Java 8 (if we had Streams before):

// Yes, it's a Consumer, fine. And yes it takes Strings
Stream.of("abc", "xyz").forEach(new Consumer<String>(){
    // And yes, the method is called accept (who cares)
    // And yes, it takes Strings (I already say so!?)
    @Override
    public void accept(String value) {
        // [...]
    }
});

Now, if we’re comparing the Java 8 version with a JavaScript version:

["abc", "xyz"].forEach(function(value) {
    // [...]
});

We have almost reached as little verbosity as the functional, dynamically typed language that is JavaScript (I really wouldn’t mind those missing list and map literals in Java), with the only difference that we (and the compiler) know that value is of type String. And we know that the forEach() method exists. And we know that forEach() takes a function with one argument.

In the end of the day, things seem to boil down to this:

Dynamically typed languages like JavaScript and PHP have become popular mainly because they “just ran”. You didn’t have to learn all the “heavy” syntax that classic statically typed languages required (just think of Ada and PL/SQL!). You could just start writing your program. Programmers “knew” that the variables would contain strings, there’s no need to write it down. And that’s true, there’s no need to write everything down!

Consider Scala (or C#, Ceylon, pretty much any modern language):

val value = "abc"

What else can it be, other than a String?

val list = List("abc", "xyz")

What else can it be, other than a List[String]?

Note that you can still explicitly type your variables if you must – there are always those edge cases:

val list : List[String] = List[String]("abc", "xyz")

But most of the syntax is “opt-in” and can be inferred by the compiler.

Dynamically typed languages are dead

The conclusion of all this is that once syntactic verbosity and friction is removed from statically typed languages, there is absolutely no advantage in using a dynamically typed language. Compilers are very fast, deployment can be fast too, if you use the right tools, and the benefit of static type checking is huge. (don’t believe it? read this article)

As an example, SQL is also a statically typed language where much of the friction is still created by syntax. Yet, many people believe that it is a dynamically typed language, because they access SQL through JDBC, i.e. through type-less concatenated Strings of SQL statements. If you were writing PL/SQL, Transact-SQL, or embedded SQL in Java with jOOQ, you wouldn’t think of SQL this way and you’d immediately appreciate the fact that your PL/SQL, Transact-SQL, or your Java compiler would type-check all of your SQL statements.

So, let’s abandon this mess that we’ve created because we’re too lazy to type all the types (pun). Happy typing!

And if you’re reading this, Java language expert group members, please do add var and val, as well as flow-sensitive typing to the Java language. We’ll love you forever for this, promised!