Experiences with the New Java 5 Language Features

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Wildcards and covariant returns

Another common use for wildcards is with covariant returns. The same rules apply to covariant returns as assignments. If you want to return a more specific generic type in an overridden method, the declaring method must use wildcards:

public interface NumberGenerator {
    public List<? extends Number> generate();

public class FibonacciGenerator extends NumberGenerator {
    public List<Integer> generate() {

If this were to use arrays, the interface could return Number[] and the implementation could return Integer[].

Lower bounds

We've talked mostly about upper bounded wildcards. There is also a lower bounded wildcard. A List<? super Number> is a list whose exact "element type" is unknown, but it is M Number or a super type of Number. So it could be a List<Number> or a List<Object>.

Lower bounded wildcards are not nearly as common as upper bounded wildcards. But when you need them, they are essential.

Lower vs. upper bounds

List<? extends Number> readList = new ArrayList<Integer>();
Number n = readList.get(0);

List<? super Number> writeList = new ArrayList<Object>();
writeList.add(new Integer(5));

The first list is a list that you can read numbers from.

The second list is a list that you can write numbers to.

Unbounded wildcard

Finally, the List<?> is a list of anything and is almost the same as List<? extends Object>. You can always read Objects, but you cannot write to the list.

Wildcards in public APIs

To summarize, wildcards are great for hiding implementation details from callers as we saw a few sections back, but even though lower bounded wildcards appear to provide read-only access, they do not, due to non-generic methods such as remove(int position). If you want a truly immutable collection, use the methods on java.util.Collections, like unmodifiableList().

Be aware of wildcards when writing APIs. In general, you should try to use wildcards when passing generic types. It makes the API accessible to a wider range of callers.

In this example, by accepting a List<? extends Number> instead of List<Number>, the method below can be called with many different types of Lists:

void removeNegatives(List<? extends Number> list);

Constructing Generic Types

Now we'll cover constructing your own generic types. We'll show example idioms where type safety can be improved by using generics, as well as common problems that occur when trying to implement generic types.

Collection-like functions

This first example of a generic class is a collection-like example. Pair has two type parameters, and the fields are instances of the types:

public final class Pair<A,B> {
    public final A first;
    public final B second;

    public Pair(A first, B second) {
        this.first = first;
        this.second = second;

This makes it possible to return two items from a method without having to write special-purpose classes for each two-type combo. The other thing you could have done is return Object[], which isn't type-safe or pretty.

In the usage below, we return a File and a Boolean from a method. The client of the method can use the fields directly without casting:

public Pair<File,Boolean> getFileAndWriteStatus(String path){
    // create file and status
    return new Pair<File,Boolean>(file, status);

Pair<File,Boolean> result = getFileAndWriteStatus("...");
File f = result.first;
boolean writeable = result.second;

Beyond collections

In this example generics are used for additional compile-time safety. By parameterizing the DBFactory class by the type of Peer it creates, you are forcing Factory subclasses to return a specific subtype of Peer:

public abstract class DBFactory<T extends DBPeer> {
    protected abstract T createEmptyPeer();

    public List<T> get(String constraint) {
        List<T> peers = new ArrayList<T>();
        // database magic
        return peers;

By implementing DBFactory<Customer> the CustomerFactory is forced to return a Customer from createEmptyPeer():

public class CustomerFactory extends DBFactory<Customer>{

    public Customer createEmptyPeer() {
        return new Customer();

Generic methods

Whenever you want to place constraints on a generic type between parameters or a parameter and a return type, you probably want to use a generic method.

For example, if you write a reverse function that reverses in place, you don't need a generic method. However, if you want reverse to return a new List, you'd like the element type of the new List to be the same as the List that was passed in. In that case, you need a generic method:

<T> List<T> reverse(List<T> list)


When implementing a generic class, you may want to construct an array, T[]. Because generics is implemented by erasure, this is not allowed.

You may try to cast an Object[] to T[]. This is not safe.

Reification solution

The solution, courtesy of the generics tutorial, is to use a "Type Token." By adding a Class<T> parameter to the constructor, you force clients to supply the correct class object for the type parameter of the class:

public class ArrayExample<T> {
    private Class<T> clazz;

    public ArrayExample(Class<T> clazz) {
        this.clazz = clazz;

    public T[] getArray(int size) {
        return (T[])Array.newInstance(clazz, size);

To construct an ArrayExample<String>, the client would have to pass String.class to the constructor because the type of String.class is Class<String>.

Having the class objects makes it possible then to construct an array with exactly the right element type.


In summary, the new language features make for a substantial change to Java. By understanding when and how to use them, you'll write better code.

Jess Garms is the Javelin compiler team lead at BEA Systems. Prior to that, Jess worked on BEA's Java IDE, WebLogic Workshop. Additionally, he has a great deal of experience with cryptography, and co-authored Professional Java Security, published by Wrox Press.

Tim Hanson is the Javelin compiler architect at BEA Systems. Tim developed much of BEA's Java compiler - one of the earliest 1.5-compliant implementations. He has written numerous other compilers, including a CORBA/IDL compiler while at IBM, and an XQuery compiler.