An alternative to explicit template specialization: explicit versioning

Jonathan C. Ross Jonathan.Ross at
Thu Oct 30 16:43:24 UTC 2014

Hi all,

Regarding the discussion on explicit template specialization, I find myself to be in the all-or-nothing camp: either we introduce the general mechanism, or we don’t expose any explicit form to the end user.

Assuming that the project is not aiming to redo generics and introduce language support for specializing templates for arbitrary types, I find myself wondering whether there are in fact any compelling usecases for exposing template specialization to java programmers, and not to do our upmost best to keep it hidden?  The only reason I can come up with (and the example discussed in the state of the specialization document) is the usual one: preserving backwards compatibility. Assuming that the motivation is indeed primarily the preservation of backwards compatibility, has anyone explored any other mechanisms for doing that?

One possibility mechanism might be a beefed-up, explicit deprecation mechanism that couples the visibility of methods to the class file version of the client code.  (Dr. Deprecation - Stuart Marks - might like this. It could be used as a mechanism for actually removing code that was marked deprecated in previous versions of the JVM.)  So, taking the example from the state of the specialization document:

    interface ListLike<T> {
        @Removed(“1.9”) // pay no attention to exact syntax
        void remove(int i);
        void remove(T t);

        @New(1.9") // maybe implied by overloading the previous declaration?
        void remove(T t);
        void removeByIndex();

The methods annotated @Removed(“1.9”), would only be visible to classes with class version 34 or lower, the methods annotated with @New(“1.9”) only from 35 and up.  (Please don’t pay any attention to syntax, or indeed whether we will get this shipped with 1.9...) This mechanism should be easy enough to extend to classes and member variables too.  It would also be applicable to any other project where one would rather redesign the API.  From my perspective as a developer, it would be more intuitive than the template specialization alternative presented in the ‘state of the specialization’ document.

The mechanism would allow library developers to ship class files that would support different multiple versions of the JVM at once, or they could focus on just a single JVM if they wanted.  If I want to implement ListLike<T> for just 1.9 and up in the example above, I only have to implement two methods from the interface; same if I want to stick to 1.8 and below.  IDEs could help a hand by (optionally) only showing available API’s, in particular when offering autocomplete suggestions.

I am no byte code or class file layout expert, but I am sure it would be possible to implement this idea using attributes that mirror the Removed/New annotations. Perhaps having multiple versions of methods/fields/classes with exactly the same signature, differing only by the supported class file versions (like in the example above) would be a tougher nut to crack, but I would imagine that it would be a usable mechanism even with the constraint in place that one cannot replace a method/class/field with exactly the same signature.

As an ‘end user’, I would find it more appealing and intuitive to work with versioned API’s than with the - for any given JDK version - much larger API that would be required to retrofit API’s to work for <any T>.  As a stakeholder in the further development of the Java programming language, I would be excited by a mechanism that would allow JDK engineers to throw out the old, and be able to innovate without worrying about breaking existing code.


     Jonathan Ross


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