First Contact With ‘var’ In Java 10

Java 10 will be released on March 20th 2018 and all features that want to be shipped with it must be merged into the main development line by December 14th. Of the few features that target Java 10 as of yet, local-variable type inference (JEP 286) is surely the most interesting one. It brings the var keyword to Java and gives you the option to cut variable declarations short:

And that’s it, thanks for reading!

Nah, I’m sure you’re interested to learn more. In this post I’ll discuss where var applies and where it doesn’t, how it impacts readability, and what happened to val.

Overview

This post is the first in a series about Java 10. I created a demo project for all features on GitHub, which also explains how to set up JDK 10. Check it out if you want to play with the new features yourself.

Replacing Type Declarations With var

As a Java developer we’re used to typing types twice, once for the variable declaration and once again for the following constructor:

We also often declare types for variables that are used just once and on the next line:

From Java 10 on developers can choose to let the compiler infer types by using var

This is not particularly terrible, but it is somewhat redundant. And while IDEs can help a lot with writing such code, readability suffers when variable names jump around a lot because their types have very different character counts or when developers avoid declaring intermediate variables because type declarations would eat up a lot of attention without adding much value.

From Java 10 on, developers have an alternative and can choose to let the compiler infer the type by using var:

The compiler uses the initializer’s type

When processing var, the compiler looks at the right hand side of the declaration, the so-called initializer, and uses its type for the variable. And not just for internal bookkeeping, it writes that type into the resulting bytecode.

As you can see, this saves a few characters when typing, but more importantly it deduplicates redundant information and neatly aligns the variable’s names, which eases reading them. The cost is obvious: Some variables’ types, of connection for example, are not immediately obvious. IDEs can of course show them on demand, but that doesn’t help in any other environment (think code reviews).

var is a reserved type name

By the way, in case you’re worried about clashes with methods and variables named var: don’t be. Technically, var is not a keyword, but a reserved type name, meaning it can only be used in places where the compiler expects a type name, but everywhere else it’s a valid identifier. That means that only classes called var will no longer work, but that shouldn’t happen particularly often.

Local-variable type inference looks like a straight-forward feature, but that’s deceptive. You might already have some questions:

  • bleh, is this Java or JavaScript?
  • where can I use this?
  • won’t var hurt readability?
  • why is there no val or let?

Let’s go through them one by one.

No, This Is Not JavaScript

This does not change Java’s commitment to static typing

I want to start by stressing that var does not change Java’s commitment to static typing by one iota. The compiler infers all involved types and puts them into the class files as if you typed them yourself.

Case in point, here’s the result of IntelliJ’s (actually Fernflower’s) decompilation of the class file with the URL example:

This is byte by byte the same result as if I had declared the types yourself. In fact, this feature only exists in the compiler and has no runtime component whatsoever, which also means there is no performance impact. So relax, this is not Javascript and nobody’s going to turn 0 into god.

If you’re still worried that lacking explicit types makes all code worse, I have a question for you: Have you ever written a lambda without defining its argument types?

Where To Use var (And Where Not To)

JEP 286’s title, “local-variable type inference”, kinda gives away where var can be used: for local variables. More precisely, for “local variable declarations with initializers”, so even the following won’t work:

It really has to be var foo = "Foo". Even then it doesn’t cover all cases as var won’t work with so called “poly expressions”, like lambdas and method references, whose type the compiler determines in relation to an expected type:

The only other eligible spot besides local variables are for loops:

That means fields, method signatures, and catch clauses still require manual type declaration.

Avoiding “Action At A Distance” Errors

That var can only be used locally is not a technical limitation, but a design decision. Sure, it would be nice to have it work like this:

The compiler could easily look at all assignments and infer the most concrete type that fits all of them, but it doesn’t. The JDK team wanted to avoid “action at a distance” errors, meaning changing code in some place should not lead to a seemingly unrelated error far away.

As an example look at the following:

So far, so… I don’t want to say “good”, but you know what I mean. I’m sure you’ve seen such code. Now we append this line:

What would happen? This is not a rhetorical question, think about it.

The answer is that the if-condition throws an error because id will no longer be an int and can thus not be compared with <. That error is at quite a distance from the change that caused it and on top of that it’s a surely unforeseen consequence of simply assigning a value to a variable.

From that perspective the decision to limit type inference to the immediate declaration makes sense.

Why Can’t Field And Method Types Be Inferred?

Fields and methods have a far larger scope than local variables and as such the distance between changes and errors increases considerably. In the worst case, changing a method parameter’s type can lead to binary incompatibilities and thus runtime errors. That’s a rather extreme consequence of having changed some implementation detail.

So because non-private fields and methods become part of a type’s contract and because that shouldn’t be changed accidentally, these types are not inferred. Sure, an exception could have been made for private fields or methods, but that would make the feature rather weirdly scoped.

The basic idea is that local variables are implementation details and can not be referenced from “far away” code, which reduces the need to strictly, explicitly, and verbosely define their type.

Focus on var

Background On var

Let’s have a look behind the scenes and find out why var was introduced, how its impact on readability was envisioned and why there is no val (or let) accompanying it. If you’re interested in even more detail have a look at the JEP 286 discussions, the var FAQ, or the Project Amber mailing list.

But why?!

Java’s overall tendency to be pretty verbose, particularly compared to younger languages, is one of the biggest pain points for developers and a common critique of the language by novice and experienced Java devs alike. Project Amber, under which var was developed, aims “to explore and incubate smaller, productivity-oriented Java language features” and has the goal to generally reduce the ceremony involved in writing and reading Java code.

Local-variable type inference is aligned with that goal. On the writing side, it obviously makes declaring variables much easier, although I’d guess that a good half of my declarations are generated by the IDE, either during a refactoring or because it’s just plain faster to write a constructor or method call and then create a variable for it.

Beyond making declarations easier it also makes them more amenable. What do I mean by that? Declarations can be quite ugly, particularly if enterprise-grade class names and generics are involved.

There’s a long-ass type name, which pushes the variable name most of the way to the end of the line and leaves you with either bumping line length to 150 chars or initializing the variable on a new line. Both options suck if you’re aiming for readability.

With var it is much less burdensome and easier on the eye to declare intermediate variables and we might end up doing that in places where we didn’t before. Think about nested or chained expressions where you decided against breaking them apart because the reduction in complexity got eaten by the increase in ceremony. Judicious use of var can make intermediate results more obvious and more easily accessible.

In short, var is about reducing verbosity and ceremony, not about saving characters.

And What About Readability?

Now let’s turn to readability. Surely it must get worse when types are missing, right? Generally speaking, yes. When trying to figure out how a piece of code works, types are an essential ingredient and even if IDEs would develop features that allow displaying all inferred types, it would still be more indirect than having them always present in the source.

So var starts at a readability disadvantage and has to make up for it. One way it does that is by aligning variable names:

Type names are important, but variable names can be better. Types describe a general concept in the context of the entire Java ecosystem (for JDK classes), a general use case (library or framework), or a business domain (application) and thus will always have general names. Variables on the other hand are defined in a specific and very small context, in which their name can be very precise.

With var, variable names become front and center and stand out in a way they didn’t before, particularly if code highlighters mark the keyword and thus make it easier to instinctively ignore it. For a while I spent an hour or two per day reading Kotlin and I immediately got used to this. It can considerably improve readability.

As pointed out above, the other improvement to readability can come from having more intermediate variables declared because it comes at a cheaper cost when writing and reading.

Finding A Style

It is of course easy to go overboard with var and have code with shitty variable names and no visible types. It is up to us, the community in the large and each team in the small, to come up with a style that suits our needs and strikes a balance between verbosity and clarity.

Brian Goetz, Java language architect at Oracle and in charge of Project Amber, gave a first heuristic:

Use the var construct when it makes the code clearer and more concise and you’re not loosing essential information.

In that line I hope IDEs will not generally warn if a type declaration can be replaced with var. This is not an all-the-way construct like lambdas.

Why Is There No val/let?

Many languages that have var also offer an additional keyword for immutable variables. It’s usually called val, sometimes let, but Java 10 has neither and we have to use final var instead. The rationale is:

  • while immutability is important, local variables are the least important place for it
  • since Java 8 we have the concept of effectively final, already pushing us into the direction of immutable local variables
  • where var was almost universally applauded (74% strongly, 12% mildly in favor) feedback on both var/ val and var/ let was very mixed

I agree with the first two points and have to accept the latter, but I still find the result a bit disappointing. Having val or let next to var would ease the tension between those developers putting final on everything and those appalled by the verbosity.

Well, maybe in the future… until then we have to use final var.

Reflection

When declaring local variables you can use var instead of a class or interface name to tell the compiler to infer the type. This only works if the variable is immediately initialized, for example as in var s = "". Indexes in for loops can also be declared with var. The type inferred by the compiler is put into the bytecode, so nothing changes at runtime – Java is still a statically typed language.

Beyond local variables, for example in fields and method signatures, var can not be applied. This was done to avoid “action at a distance” errors and to keep an inferred variable’s use site close to its declaration site, thus easing readability concerns.

While var can be used to make code worse, this is a chance for Java developers to write more readable code by finding a new balance between the noise of declarations and the complexity of nested/chained expressions.

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