Saturday, May 29, 2010

Abstract Types in Scala

Whenever I learn new programming languages, there is invariably features of the language that will surprise me.  One of those in Scala (one of many actually) is abstract types.  When I first read the textual description of an abstract type, I wondered what use it would ever entail.  However, the authors of Programming Scala gave a very clear example of proper use.

This code snippet comes from Chapter 2 of the book.

Starting with an abstract class, we can declare an abstract type.  In this case, type "In" on our class "BulkReader" is abstract.  It's there, but it does not have a concrete type associated with it.  Yet, our value "Source" is typed as type "In".  How can this be?

abstract class BulkReader {
  type In
  val source: In
  def read: String
The magic comes when we declare a concrete version of "BulkReader" and can assign a concrete type to "In":

class StringBulkReader(val source: String) extends BulkReader {
  type In = String
  def read = source

class FileBulkReader(val source: File) extends BulkReader {
  type In = File
  def read = {
    val in = new BufferedInputStream(new FileInputStream(source))
    val numBytes = in.available()
    val bytes = new Array[Byte](numBytes), 0, numBytes)
    new String(bytes)
Very cool!  In our two concrete instances of "BulkReader" we assigned two different types to our abstract type "In".  Note that the value typed as In, "source" is actually part of the concrete class's constructor which is, at this point for me, completely mind bending in terms of flexibility towards class design.

I have a feeling it will take me some time to get used to this notion and power before I really start to design code that makes use of it.


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