May 15, 2001 spout

Object-Orientation is Over

Tuesday, 5/15/01

Java, and Java 2.0 (aka .NET), have brought with them the end of object-orientation. Of course, by that I mean that object-orientation is no longer a question — it’s just how we program. Even our scripting languages have classes and objects now. That fight is over, as are the advances in that area. Object-oriented programming, with inheritance, polymorphism and encapsulation, is just the way we do things now and Java and .NET represent the end of that line and the beginning of several others:

Generic Programming

Generic programming (aka generics”) provides the ability to write a partial type or function and let the compiler or runtime environment fill in the details based on client usage. Of course, C++ templates have provided generics via templates for a long time. Unfortunately, no modern object-oriented languages, i.e. Java and C#, have generics as yet, but they’re coming. My favorite research paper in this area describes how generics can be added to  .NET languages, using C# as an example, written by Microsoft’s own researchers, Andrew Kennedy and Don Syme.

Generics have been around for a long, long time, so if you aren’t already familiar with them, you’re behind. Only C++ programmers do this now, but very soon, everyone will be.

Component-based Programming

Components differ from objects in that they are binary objects, often callable from languages other than that in which they were written. COM, Java and .NET are popular modern component development environments, but even DLLs have provided component-like features since Windows. Components provide a degree of encapsulation that often exceeds that of source-based OO environments, often at the expense of ease of use (although both Java and .NET work real hard to make components look and feel like objects).

Aspect-Oriented Programming

Aspect-oriented programming (AOP) provides the ability to define a set of characteristics of an object or a component that are actually implemented by the hosting runtime. The benefit, of course, is that it’s much easier to declare the need for some feature, e.g. method tracing or the need for a component to be part of a transaction, than it is to write the code. To date, we’ve had pretty primitive support of AOP in the popular programming environments, but it’s been there, e.g.

  • COM+ catalog attributes that describe services provided by the COM+ runtime to components or groups of components (called applications”), e.g. transactions, object pooling or role-based security.
  • Keywords in Java, e.g. the transient keyword that signals to the serialization engine whether to serialize an object’s member variable or not.
  •  .NET attributes that extend a component’s metadata, which is available via .NET reflection to clients, some of which are built into the .NET runtime and some of which that are custom to your particular application.
  • And my personal favorite, as pointed out to me by Don Box, is the PE attribute that marks an EXE as a Win32 Console application. This is primitive, but this attribute tells the OS to set up a console window for routing of stdio.

The .NET attribute mechanism represents a giant step forward in AOP. It’s the first popular environment that provides a convenient, extensible mechanism for not only declaring attributes, but also implementing custom attribute provides, i.e. those bits of code that are activated when an attribute is encountered. Extensible .NET metadata is replacing the COM+ catalog and providing exactly what the Java serialization keywords provide and I expect most language to converge on the AOP style that .NET provides.

Generative Programming

Generative programming is the newest of these new programming styles. The term itself was boasted into popular usage by the book of the same name by Krzysztof Czarnecki and Ulrich Eisenecker. Generative programming is about representing your system’s design requirements in some computer-readable form, e.g. SQL schemas, XML, UML, etc, and feeding it to some kind of metaprogram that will generate your program. The main benefit of generative programming is that as the design requirements change, your programs can be regenerated, saving you from manually replicating design changes into the code. Likewise, as the implementation choices need to change, e.g. from Java to C# or from Linux to Windows, the metaprograms can change and your programs can be regenerated, saving you from doing the porting work.

Macro languages, e.g. the C preprocessor, are generative languages for generating code within files. ASP and PHP are both generative languages for building web pages. Of course, DevelopMentor’s own Gen<X>, was built from the ground up to be a generative programming tool (although we designed and built it long before we’d heard the term). Generative programming has a vast potential, I think (although I’m biased), because it encourages you to specify your design requirements and keep them up to date with the code, but also because of the potential for generating large parts of a system’s code, testing data and even documentation. In fact, in building Gen<X> itself, we find ourselves generating more and more of the next version using the previous version. We don’t use it for unique code, but we use it for the repetitive horizontal or hierarchical code as well as reference docs and test data. Highly recommended.

[new] Comment from Mickey Williams [], Mon 7/2/2001 10:54 AM:

I’d like to remind you that Eiffel has had generics longer than C++, and Eiffel’s generics work on .NET. So there.

Best regards from the Eiffel bigot,

That’s true, Mickey. I knew that Eiffel supported templates, but I didn’t know that Eiffel# (the .NET version of Eiffel) did, so that’s really cool.