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:
Object-Oriented Programming Concepts
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