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Visual programming and Beans

Thursday Mar 1st 2001

So far in this book you’ve seen how valuable Java is for creating reusable pieces of code. The “most reusable” unit of code has been the class, since it comprises a cohesive unit of characteristics (fields) and behaviors (methods) that can be reused either directly via composition or through inheritance.

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and Beans

So far in this book you’ve seen how valuable Java is for creating reusable pieces of code. The “most reusable” unit of code has been the class, since it comprises a cohesive unit of characteristics (fields) and behaviors (methods) that can be reused either directly via composition or through inheritance.

Inheritance and polymorphism are essential parts of object-oriented programming, but in the majority of cases when you’re putting together an application, what you really want is components that do exactly what you need. You’d like to drop these parts into your design like the electronic engineer puts together chips on a circuit board (or even, in the case of Java, onto a Web page). It seems, too, that there should be some way to accelerate this “modular assembly” style of programming.

Visual programming” first became successful – very successful – with Microsoft’s Visual Basic (VB), followed by a second-generation design in Borland’s Delphi (the primary inspiration for the Java Beans design). With these programming tools the components are represented visually, which makes sense since they usually display some kind of visual component such as a button or a text field. The visual representation, in fact, is often exactly the way the component will look in the running program. So part of the process of visual programming involves dragging a component from a pallet and dropping it onto your form. The application builder tool writes code as you do this, and that code will cause the component to be created in the running program.

Simply dropping the component onto a form is usually not enough to complete the program. Often, you must change the characteristics of a component, such as what color it is, what text is on it, what database it’s connected to, etc. Characteristics that can be modified at design time are referred to as properties. You can manipulate the properties of your component inside the application builder tool, and when you create the program this configuration data is saved so that it can be rejuvenated when the program is started.

By now you’re probably used to the idea that an object is more than characteristics; it’s also a set of behaviors. At design-time, the behaviors of a visual component are partially represented by events, meaning “Here’s something that can happen to the component.” Ordinarily, you decide what you want to happen when an event occurs by tying code to that event.

Here’s the critical part: the application builder tool is able to dynamically interrogate (using reflection) the component to find out which properties and events the component supports. Once it knows what they are, it can display the properties and allow you to change those (saving the state when you build the program), and also display the events. In general, you do something like double clicking on an event and the application builder tool creates a code body and ties it to that particular event. All you have to do at that point is write the code that executes when the event occurs.

All this adds up to a lot of work that’s done for you by the application builder tool. As a result you can focus on what the program looks like and what it is supposed to do, and rely on the application builder tool to manage the connection details for you. The reason that visual programming tools have been so successful is that they dramatically speed up the process of building an application – certainly the user interface, but often other portions of the application as well.

What is a Bean?

After the dust settles, then, a component is really just a block of code, typically embodied in a class. The key issue is the ability for the application builder tool to discover the properties and events for that component. To create a VB component, the programmer had to write a fairly complicated piece of code following certain conventions to expose the properties and events. Delphi was a second-generation visual programming tool and the language was actively designed around visual programming so it is much easier to create a visual component. However, Java has brought the creation of visual components to its most advanced state with Java Beans, because a Bean is just a class. You don’t have to write any extra code or use special language extensions in order to make something a Bean. The only thing you need to do, in fact, is slightly modify the way that you name your methods. It is the method name that tells the application builder tool whether this is a property, an event, or just an ordinary method.

In the Java documentation, this naming convention is mistakenly termed a “design pattern.” This is unfortunate since design patterns (see Chapter 16) are challenging enough without this sort of confusion. It’s not a design pattern, it’s just a naming convention and it’s fairly simple:

  1. For a property named xxx, you typically create two methods: getXxx( ) and setXxx( ). Note that the first letter after get or set is automatically lowercased to produce the property name. The type produced by the “get” method is the same as the type of the argument to the “set” method. The name of the property and the type for the “get” and “set” are not related.
  2. For a boolean property, you can use the “get” and “set” approach above, but you can also use “is” instead of “get.”
  3. Ordinary methods of the Bean don’t conform to the above naming convention, but they’re public.
  4. For events, you use the “listener” approach. It’s exactly the same as you’ve been seeing: addFooBarListener(FooBarListener) and removeFooBarListener(FooBarListener) to handle a FooBarEvent. Most of the time the built-in events and listeners will satisfy your needs, but you can also create your own events and listener interfaces.
Point 1 above answers a question about something you might have noticed in the change from Java 1.0 to Java 1.1: a number of method names have had small, apparently meaningless name changes. Now you can see that most of those changes had to do with adapting to the “get” and “set” naming conventions in order to make that particular component into a Bean.

We can use these guidelines to create a simple Bean:

//: Frog.java
// A trivial Java Bean
package frogbean;
import java.awt.*;
import java.awt.event.*;
 
class Spots {}
 
public class Frog {
  private int jumps;
  private Color color;
  private Spots spots;
  private boolean jmpr;
  public int getJumps() { return jumps; }
  public void setJumps(int newJumps) { 
    jumps = newJumps;
  }
  public Color getColor() { return color; }
  public void setColor(Color newColor) { 
    color = newColor; 
  }
  public Spots getSpots() { return spots; }
  public void setSpots(Spots newSpots) {
    spots = newSpots; 
  }
  public boolean isJumper() { return jmpr; }
  public void setJumper(boolean j) { jmpr = j; }
  public void addActionListener(
      ActionListener l) {
    //...
  }
  public void removeActionListener(
      ActionListener l) {
    // ...
  }
  public void addKeyListener(KeyListener l) {
    // ...
  }
  public void removeKeyListener(KeyListener l) {
    // ...
  }
  // An "ordinary" public method:
  public void croak() {
    System.out.println("Ribbet!");
  }
} ///:~ 

First, you can see that it’s just a class. Usually, all your fields will be private, and accessible only through methods. Following the naming convention, the properties are jumps, color, spots, and jumper (notice the change in case of the first letter in the property name). Although the name of the internal identifier is the same as the name of the property in the first three cases, in jumper you can see that the property name does not force you to use any particular name for internal variables (or, indeed, to even have any internal variable for that property).

The events this Bean handles are ActionEvent and KeyEvent, based on the naming of the “add” and “remove” methods for the associated listener. Finally, you can see that the ordinary method croak( ) is still part of the Bean simply because it’s a public method, not because it conforms to any naming scheme.

Extracting BeanInfo

with the Introspector

One of the most critical parts of the Bean scheme occurs when you drag a Bean off a palette and plop it down on a form. The application builder tool must be able to create the Bean (which it can do if there’s a default constructor) and then, without access to the Bean’s source code, extract all the necessary information to create the property sheet and event handlers.

Part of the solution is already evident from the end of Chapter 11: Java 1.1 reflection allows all the methods of an anonymous class to be discovered. This is perfect for solving the Bean problem without requiring you to use any extra language keywords like those required in other visual programming languages. In fact, one of the prime reasons that reflection was added to Java 1.1 was to support Beans (although reflection also supports object serialization and remote method invocation). So you might expect that the creator of the application builder tool would have to reflect each Bean and hunt through its methods to find the properties and events for that Bean.

This is certainly possible, but the Java designers wanted to provide a standard interface for everyone to use, not only to make Beans simpler to use but also to provide a standard gateway to the creation of more complex Beans. This interface is the Introspector class, and the most important method in this class is the static getBeanInfo( ). You pass a Class handle to this method and it fully interrogates that class and returns a BeanInfo object that you can then dissect to find properties, methods, and events.

Usually you won’t care about any of this – you’ll probably get most of your Beans off the shelf from vendors, and you don’t need to know all the magic that’s going on underneath. You’ll simply drag your Beans onto your form, then configure their properties and write handlers for the events you’re interested in. However, it’s an interesting and educational exercise to use the Introspector to display information about a Bean, so here’s a tool that does it (you’ll find it in the frogbean subdirectory):

//: BeanDumper.java
// A method to introspect a Bean
import java.beans.*;
import java.lang.reflect.*;
 
public class BeanDumper {
  public static void dump(Class bean){
    BeanInfo bi = null;
    try {
      bi = Introspector.getBeanInfo(
        bean, java.lang.Object.class);
    } catch(IntrospectionException ex) {
      System.out.println("Couldn't introspect " +
        bean.getName());
      System.exit(1);
    }
    PropertyDescriptor[] properties = 
      bi.getPropertyDescriptors();
    for(int i = 0; i < properties.length; i++) {
      Class p = properties[i].getPropertyType();
      System.out.println(
        "Property type:\n  " + p.getName());
      System.out.println(
        "Property name:\n  " + 
        properties[i].getName());
      Method readMethod = 
        properties[i].getReadMethod();
      if(readMethod != null)
        System.out.println(
          "Read method:\n  " + 
          readMethod.toString());
      Method writeMethod = 
        properties[i].getWriteMethod();
      if(writeMethod != null)
        System.out.println(
          "Write method:\n  " +
          writeMethod.toString());
      System.out.println("====================");
    }
    System.out.println("Public methods:");
    MethodDescriptor[] methods =
      bi.getMethodDescriptors();
    for(int i = 0; i < methods.length; i++)
      System.out.println(
        methods[i].getMethod().toString());
    System.out.println("======================");
    System.out.println("Event support:");
    EventSetDescriptor[] events = 
      bi.getEventSetDescriptors();
    for(int i = 0; i < events.length; i++) {
      System.out.println("Listener type:\n  " +
        events[i].getListenerType().getName());
      Method[] lm = 
        events[i].getListenerMethods();
      for(int j = 0; j < lm.length; j++)
        System.out.println(
          "Listener method:\n  " +
          lm[j].getName());
      MethodDescriptor[] lmd = 
        events[i].getListenerMethodDescriptors();
      for(int j = 0; j < lmd.length; j++)
        System.out.println(
          "Method descriptor:\n  " +
          lmd[j].getMethod().toString());
      Method addListener = 
        events[i].getAddListenerMethod();
      System.out.println(
          "Add Listener Method:\n  " +
        addListener.toString());
      Method removeListener =
        events[i].getRemoveListenerMethod();
      System.out.println(
        "Remove Listener Method:\n  " +
        removeListener.toString());
      System.out.println("====================");
    }
  }
  // Dump the class of your choice:
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    if(args.length < 1) {
      System.err.println("usage: \n" +
        "BeanDumper fully.qualified.class");
      System.exit(0);
    }
    Class c = null;
    try {
      c = Class.forName(args[0]);
    } catch(ClassNotFoundException ex) {
      System.err.println(
        "Couldn't find " + args[0]);
      System.exit(0);
    }
    dump(c);
  }
} ///:~ 

BeanDumper.dump( ) is the method that does all the work. First it tries to create a BeanInfo object, and if successful calls the methods of BeanInfo that produce information about properties, methods, and events. In Introspector.getBeanInfo( ), you’ll see there is a second argument. This tells the Introspector where to stop in the inheritance hierarchy. Here, it stops before it parses all the methods from Object, since we’re not interested in seeing those.

For properties, getPropertyDescriptors( ) returns an array of PropertyDescriptors. For each PropertyDescriptor you can call getPropertyType( ) to find the class of object that is passed in and out via the property methods. Then, for each property you can get its pseudonym (extracted from the method names) with getName( ), the method for reading with getReadMethod( ), and the method for writing with getWriteMethod( ). These last two methods return a Method object that can actually be used to invoke the corresponding method on the object (this is part of reflection).

For the public methods (including the property methods), getMethodDescriptors( ) returns an array of MethodDescriptors. For each one you can get the associated Method object and print out its name.

For the events, getEventSetDescriptors( ) returns an array of (what else?) EventSetDescriptors. Each of these can be queried to find out the class of the listener, the methods of that listener class, and the add- and remove-listener methods. The BeanDumper program prints out all of this information.

If you invoke BeanDumper on the Frog class like this:

java BeanDumper frogbean.Frog

the output, after removing extra details that are unnecessary here, is:

class name: Frog
Property type:
  Color
Property name:
  color
Read method:
  public Color getColor()
Write method:
  public void setColor(Color)
====================
Property type:
  Spots
Property name:
  spots
Read method:
  public Spots getSpots()
Write method:
  public void setSpots(Spots)
====================
Property type:
  boolean
Property name:
  jumper
Read method:
  public boolean isJumper()
Write method:
  public void setJumper(boolean)
====================
Property type:
  int
Property name:
  jumps
Read method:
  public int getJumps()
Write method:
  public void setJumps(int)
====================
Public methods:
public void setJumps(int)
public void croak()
public void removeActionListener(ActionListener)
public void addActionListener(ActionListener)
public int getJumps()
public void setColor(Color)
public void setSpots(Spots)
public void setJumper(boolean)
public boolean isJumper()
public void addKeyListener(KeyListener)
public Color getColor()
public void removeKeyListener(KeyListener)
public Spots getSpots()
======================
Event support:
Listener type:
  KeyListener
Listener method:
  keyTyped
Listener method:
  keyPressed
Listener method:
  keyReleased
Method descriptor:
  public void keyTyped(KeyEvent)
Method descriptor:
  public void keyPressed(KeyEvent)
Method descriptor:
  public void keyReleased(KeyEvent)
Add Listener Method:
  public void addKeyListener(KeyListener)
Remove Listener Method:
  public void removeKeyListener(KeyListener)
====================
Listener type:
  ActionListener
Listener method:
  actionPerformed
Method descriptor:
  public void actionPerformed(ActionEvent)
Add Listener Method:
  public void addActionListener(ActionListener)
Remove Listener Method:
  public void removeActionListener(ActionListener)
====================

This reveals most of what the Introspector sees as it produces a BeanInfo object from your Bean. You can see that the type of the property and its name are independent. Notice the lowercasing of the property name. (The only time this doesn’t occur is when the property name begins with more than one capital letter in a row.) And remember that the method names you’re seeing here (such as the read and write methods) are actually produced from a Method object that can be used to invoke the associated method on the object.

The public method list includes the methods that are not associated with a property or event, such as croak( ), as well as those that are. These are all the methods that you can call programmatically for a Bean, and the application builder tool can choose to list all of these while you’re making method calls, to ease your task.

Finally, you can see that the events are fully parsed out into the listener, its methods, and the add- and remove-listener methods. Basically, once you have the BeanInfo, you can find out everything of importance for the Bean. You can also call the methods for that Bean, even though you don’t have any other information except the object (again, a feature of reflection).

A more sophisticated Bean

This next example is slightly more sophisticated, albeit frivolous. It’s a canvas that draws a little circle around the mouse whenever the mouse is moved. When you press the mouse, the word “Bang!” appears in the middle of the screen, and an action listener is fired.

The properties you can change are the size of the circle as well as the color, size, and text of the word that is displayed when you press the mouse. A BangBean also has its own addActionListener( ) and removeActionListener( ) so you can attach your own listener that will be fired when the user clicks on the BangBean. You should be able to recognize the property and event support:

//: BangBean.java
// A graphical Bean
package bangbean;
import java.awt.*;
import java.awt.event.*;
import java.io.*;
import java.util.*;
 
public class BangBean extends Canvas
     implements Serializable {
  protected int xm, ym;
  protected int cSize = 20; // Circle size
  protected String text = "Bang!";
  protected int fontSize = 48;
  protected Color tColor = Color.red;
  protected ActionListener actionListener;
  public BangBean() {
    addMouseListener(new ML());
    addMouseMotionListener(new MML());
  }
  public int getCircleSize() { return cSize; }
  public void setCircleSize(int newSize) {
    cSize = newSize;
  }
  public String getBangText() { return text; }
  public void setBangText(String newText) {
    text = newText;
  }
  public int getFontSize() { return fontSize; }
  public void setFontSize(int newSize) {
    fontSize = newSize;
  }
  public Color getTextColor() { return tColor; }
  public void setTextColor(Color newColor) {
    tColor = newColor;
  }
  public void paint(Graphics g) {
    g.setColor(Color.black);
    g.drawOval(xm - cSize/2, ym - cSize/2, 
      cSize, cSize);
  }
  // This is a unicast listener, which is
  // the simplest form of listener management:
  public void addActionListener (
      ActionListener l) 
        throws TooManyListenersException {
    if(actionListener != null)
      throw new TooManyListenersException();
    actionListener = l;
  }
  public void removeActionListener(
      ActionListener l) {
    actionListener = null;
  }
  class ML extends MouseAdapter {
    public void mousePressed(MouseEvent e) {
      Graphics g = getGraphics();
      g.setColor(tColor);
      g.setFont(
        new Font(
          "TimesRoman", Font.BOLD, fontSize));
      int width = 
        g.getFontMetrics().stringWidth(text);
      g.drawString(text, 
        (getSize().width - width) /2,
        getSize().height/2);
      g.dispose();
      // Call the listener's method:
      if(actionListener != null)
        actionListener.actionPerformed(
          new ActionEvent(BangBean.this,
            ActionEvent.ACTION_PERFORMED, null));
    }
  }
  class MML extends MouseMotionAdapter {
    public void mouseMoved(MouseEvent e) {
      xm = e.getX();
      ym = e.getY();
      repaint();
    }
  }
  public Dimension getPreferredSize() {
    return new Dimension(200, 200);
  }
  // Testing the BangBean:
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    BangBean bb = new BangBean();
    try {
      bb.addActionListener(new BBL());
    } catch(TooManyListenersException e) {}
    Frame aFrame = new Frame("BangBean Test");
    aFrame.addWindowListener(
      new WindowAdapter() {
        public void windowClosing(WindowEvent e) {
          System.exit(0);
        }
      });
    aFrame.add(bb, BorderLayout.CENTER);
    aFrame.setSize(300,300);
    aFrame.setVisible(true);
  }
  // During testing, send action information
  // to the console:
  static class BBL implements ActionListener {
    public void actionPerformed(ActionEvent e) {
      System.out.println("BangBean action");
    }
  }
} ///:~ 

The first thing you’ll notice is that BangBean implements the Serializable interface. This means that the application builder tool can “pickle” all the information for the BangBean using serialization after the program designer has adjusted the values of the properties. When the Bean is created as part of the running application, these “pickled” properties are restored so that you get exactly what you designed.

You can see that all the fields are private, which is what you’ll usually do with a Bean – allow access only through methods, usually using the “property” scheme.

When you look at the signature for addActionListener( ), you’ll see that it can throw a TooManyListenersException. This indicates that it is unicast, which means it notifies only one listener when the event occurs. Ordinarily, you’ll use multicast events so that many listeners can be notified of an event. However, that runs into issues that you won’t be ready for until the next chapter, so it will be revisited there (under the heading “Java Beans revisited”). A unicast event sidesteps the problem.

When you press the mouse, the text is put in the middle of the BangBean, and if the actionListener field is not null, its actionPerformed( ) is called, creating a new ActionEvent object in the process. Whenever the mouse is moved, its new coordinates are captured and the canvas is repainted (erasing any text that’s on the canvas, as you’ll see).

The main( ) is added to allow you to test the program from the command line. When a Bean is in a development environment, main( ) will not be used, but it’s helpful to have a main( ) in each of your Beans because it provides for rapid testing. main( ) creates a Frame and places a BangBean within it, attaching a simple ActionListener to the BangBean to print to the console whenever an ActionEvent occurs. Usually, of course, the application builder tool would create most of the code that uses the Bean.

When you run the BangBean through BeanDumper or put the BangBean inside a Bean-enabled development environment, you’ll notice that there are many more properties and actions than are evident from the above code. That’s because BangBean is inherited from Canvas, and Canvas is a Bean, so you’re seeing its properties and events as well.

Packaging a Bean

Before you can bring a Bean into a Bean-enabled visual builder tool, it must be put into the standard Bean container, which is a JAR (Java ARchive) file that includes all the Bean classes as well as a “manifest” file that says “This is a Bean.” A manifest file is simply a text file that follows a particular form. For the BangBean, the manifest file looks like this:

Manifest-Version: 1.0
 
Name: bangbean/BangBean.class
Java-Bean: True

The first line indicates the version of the manifest scheme, which until further notice from Sun is 1.0. The second line (empty lines are ignored) names the BangBean.class file, and the third says, “It’s a Bean.” Without the third line, the program builder tool will not recognize the class as a Bean.

The only tricky part is that you must make sure that you get the proper path in the “Name:” field. If you look back at BangBean.java, you’ll see it’s in package bangbean (and thus in a subdirectory called “bangbean” that’s off of the classpath), and the name in the manifest file must include this package information. In addition, you must place the manifest file in the directory above the root of your package path, which in this case means placing the file in the directory above the “bangbean” subdirectory. Then you must invoke jar from the same directory as the manifest file, as follows:

jar cfm BangBean.jar BangBean.mf bangbean

This assumes that you want the resulting JAR file to be named BangBean.jar and that you’ve put the manifest in a file called BangBean.mf.

You might wonder “What about all the other classes that were generated when I compiled BangBean.java?” Well, they all ended up inside the bangbean subdirectory, and you’ll see that the last argument for the above jar command line is the bangbean subdirectory. When you give jar the name of a subdirectory, it packages that entire subdirectory into the jar file (including, in this case, the original BangBean.java source-code file – you might not choose to include the source with your own Beans). In addition, if you turn around and unpack the JAR file you’ve just created, you’ll discover that your manifest file isn’t inside, but that jar has created its own manifest file (based partly on yours) called MANIFEST.MF and placed it inside the subdirectory META-INF (for “meta-information”). If you open this manifest file you’ll also notice that digital signature information has been added by jar for each file, of the form:

Digest-Algorithms: SHA MD5 
SHA-Digest: pDpEAG9NaeCx8aFtqPI4udSX/O0=
MD5-Digest: O4NcS1hE3Smnzlp2hj6qeg==

In general, you don’t need to worry about any of this, and if you make changes you can just modify your original manifest file and re-invoke jar to create a new JAR file for your Bean. You can also add other Beans to the JAR file simply by adding their information to your manifest.

One thing to notice is that you’ll probably want to put each Bean in its own subdirectory, since when you create a JAR file you hand the jar utility the name of a subdirectory and it puts everything in that subdirectory into the JAR file. You can see that both Frog and BangBean are in their own subdirectories.

Once you have your Bean properly inside a JAR file you can bring it into a Beans-enabled program-builder environment. The way you do this varies from one tool to the next, but Sun provides a freely-available test bed for Java Beans in their “Beans Development Kit” (BDK) called the “beanbox.” (Download the BDK from www.javasoft.com.) To place your Bean in the beanbox, copy the JAR file into the BDK’s “jars” subdirectory before you start up the beanbox.

More complex Bean support

You can see how remarkably simple it is to make a Bean. But you aren’t limited to what you’ve seen here. The Java Bean design provides a simple point of entry but can also scale to more complex situations. These situations are beyond the scope of this book but they will be briefly introduced here. You can find more details at http://java.sun.com/beans.

One place where you can add sophistication is with properties. The examples above have shown only single properties, but it’s also possible to represent multiple properties in an array. This is called an indexed property . You simply provide the appropriate methods (again following a naming convention for the method names) and the Introspector recognizes an indexed property so your application builder tool can respond appropriately.

Properties can be bound, which means that they will notify other objects via a PropertyChangeEvent. The other objects can then choose to change themselves based on the change to the Bean.

Properties can be constrained, which means that other objects can veto a change to that property if it is unacceptable. The other objects are notified using a PropertyChangeEvent, and they can throw a ProptertyVetoException to prevent the change from happening and to restore the old values.

You can also change the way your Bean is represented at design time:

  1. You can provide a custom property sheet for your particular Bean. The ordinary property sheet will be used for all other Beans, but yours is automatically invoked when your Bean is selected.
  2. You can create a custom editor for a particular property, so the ordinary property sheet is used, but when your special property is being edited, your editor will automatically be invoked.
  3. You can provide a custom BeanInfo class for your Bean that produces information that’s different from the default created by the Introspector.
  4. It’s also possible to turn “expert” mode on and off in all FeatureDescriptors to distinguish between basic features and more complicated ones.

More to Beans

There’s another issue that couldn’t be addressed here. Whenever you create a Bean, you should expect that it will be run in a multithreaded environment. This means that you must understand the issues of threading, which will be introduced in the next chapter. You’ll find a section there called “Java Beans revisited” that will look at the problem and its solution.

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