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Upcasting

Thursday Mar 1st 2001

The most important aspect of inheritance is not that it provides methods for the new class. It’s the relationship expressed between the new class and the base class. This relationship can be summarized by saying “The new class is a type of the existing class.”

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The most important aspect of inheritance is not that it provides methods for the new class. It’s the relationship expressed between the new class and the base class. This relationship can be summarized by saying “The new class is a type of the existing class.”

This description is not just a fanciful way of explaining inheritance – it’s supported directly by the language. As an example, consider a base class called Instrument that represents musical instruments and a derived class called Wind. Because inheritance means that all of the methods in the base class are also available in the derived class, any message you can send to the base class can also be sent to the derived class. If the Instrument class has a play( ) method, so will Wind instruments. This means we can accurately say that a Wind object is also a type of Instrument. The following example shows how the compiler supports this notion:

//: Wind.java
// Inheritance & upcasting
import java.util.*;
 
class Instrument {
  public void play() {}
  static void tune(Instrument i) {
    // ...
    i.play();
  }
}
 
// Wind objects are instruments
// because they have the same interface:
class Wind extends Instrument {
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    Wind flute = new Wind();
    Instrument.tune(flute); // Upcasting
  }
} ///:~ 

What’s interesting in this example is the tune( ) method, which accepts an Instrument handle. However, in Wind.main( ) the tune( ) method is called by giving it a Wind handle. Given that Java is particular about type checking, it seems strange that a method that accepts one type will readily accept another type, until you realize that a Wind object is also an Instrument object, and there’s no method that tune( ) could call for an Instrument that isn’t also in Wind. Inside tune( ), the code works for Instrument and anything derived from Instrument, and the act of converting a Wind handle into an Instrument handle is called upcasting.

Why “upcasting”?

The reason for the term is historical and is based on the way class inheritance diagrams have traditionally been drawn with the root at the top of the page, growing downward. (Of course, you can draw your diagrams any way you find helpful.) The inheritance diagram for Wind.java is then:

Casting from derived to base moves up on the inheritance diagram, so it’s commonly referred to as upcasting. Upcasting is always safe because you’re going from a more specific type to a more general type. That is, the derived class is a superset of the base class. It might contain more methods than the base class, but it must contain at least the methods in the base class. The only thing that can occur to the class interface during the upcast is that it can lose methods, not gain them. This is why the compiler allows upcasting without any explicit casts or other special notation.

You can also perform the reverse of upcasting, called downcasting, but this involves a dilemma that is the subject of Chapter 11.

Composition vs. inheritance revisited
In object-oriented programming, the most likely way that you’ll create and use code is by simply packaging data and methods together into a class, and using objects of that class. Occasionally, you’ll use existing classes to build new classes with composition. Even less frequently than that you’ll use inheritance. So although inheritance gets a lot of emphasis while learning OOP, it doesn’t mean that you should use it everywhere you possibly can. On the contrary, you should use it sparingly, only when it’s clear that inheritance is useful. One of the clearest ways to determine whether you should use composition or inheritance is to ask whether you’ll ever need to upcast from your new class to the base class. If you must upcast, then inheritance is necessary, but if you don’t need to upcast, then you should look closely at whether you need inheritance. The next chapter (polymorphism) provides one of the most compelling reasons for upcasting, but if you remember to ask “Do I need to upcast?”, you’ll have a good tool for deciding between composition and inheritance.

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