What Is Inheritance?

Generally speaking, objects are defined in terms of classes. You know a lot about an object by knowing its class. Even if you don't know what a penny-farthing is, if I told you it was a bicycle, you would know that it had two wheels, handle bars, and pedals.

Object-oriented systems take this a step further and allow classes to be defined in terms of other classes. For example, mountain bikes, racing bikes, and tandems are all kinds of bicycles. In object-oriented terminology, mountain bikes, racing bikes, and tandems are all subclasses of the bicycle class. Similarly, the bicycle class is the superclass of mountain bikes, racing bikes, and tandems. This relationship is shown in Figure 36.

Figure 36. The hierarchy of bicycle classes.


Each subclass inherits state (in the form of variable declarations) from the superclass. Mountain bikes, racing bikes, and tandems share some states: cadence, speed, and the like. Also, each subclass inherits methods from the superclass. Mountain bikes, racing bikes, and tandems share some behaviors: braking and changing pedaling speed, for example.

However, subclasses are not limited to the state and behaviors provided to them by their superclass. Subclasses can add variables and methods to the ones they inherit from the superclass. Tandem bicycles have two seats and two sets of handle bars; some mountain bikes have an extra set of gears with a lower gear ratio.

Subclasses can also override inherited methods and provide specialized implementations for those methods. For example, if you had a mountain bike with an extra set of gears, you would override the "change gears" method so that the rider could use those new gears.

You are not limited to just one layer of inheritance. The inheritance tree, or class hierarchy, can be as deep as needed. Methods and variables are inherited down through the levels. In general, the farther down in the hierarchy a class appears, the more specialized its behavior.

The Object class is at the top of class hierarchy, and each class is its descendant (directly or indirectly). A variable of type Object can hold a reference to any object, such as an instance of a class or an array. Object provides behaviors that are required of all objects running in the Java Virtual Machine. For example, all classes inherit Object's toString method, which returns a string representation of the object. The section Managing Inheritance (page 204) covers the Object class in detail.

Inheritance offers the following benefits:

  • Subclasses provide specialized behaviors from the basis of common elements provided by the superclass. Through the use of inheritance, programmers can reuse the code in the superclass many times.
  • Programmers can implement superclasses called abstract classes that define "generic" behaviors. The abstract superclass defines and may partially implement the behavior, but much of the class is undefined and unimplemented. Other programmers fill in the details with specialized subclasses.

Getting Started

Object-Oriented Programming Concepts

Language Basics

Object Basics and Simple Data Objects

Classes and Inheritance

Interfaces and Packages

Handling Errors Using Exceptions

Threads: Doing Two or More Tasks at Once

I/O: Reading and Writing

User Interfaces That Swing

Appendix A. Common Problems and Their Solutions

Appendix B. Internet-Ready Applets

Appendix C. Collections

Appendix D. Deprecated Thread Methods

Appendix E. Reference

The Java Tutorial(c) A Short Course on the Basics
The Java Tutorial: A Short Course on the Basics, 4th Edition
ISBN: 0321334205
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 125

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