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OpenDSA Data Structures and Algorithms Modules Collection

Chapter 5 Introduction to Pointers in Java

Show Source |    | About   «  5.1. Pointers Chapter Introduction   ::   Contents   ::   5.3. Basic References Part 2  »

5.2. Basic References Part 1

5.2.1. Pointers and References

5.2.1.1. What is a Pointer?

There's a lot of nice, tidy code you can write without knowing about pointers. But once you learn to use the power of pointers, you can never go back. There are too many things that can only be done with pointers. But with increased power comes increased responsibility. Pointers allow new and more ugly types of bugs, and pointer bugs can crash in random ways which makes them more difficult to debug. Nonetheless, even with their problems, pointers are an irresistibly powerful programming construct.

Pointers solve two common software problems. First, pointers allow different sections of code to share information easily. You can get the same effect by copying information back and forth, but pointers solve the problem better. Second, pointers enable complex linked data structures like linked lists and binary trees.

5.2.1.2. What is a Reference?

Java actually uses a restricted version of the pointer concept, which is called a reference. While they mean roughly the same thing, the term "pointer" tends to be used in discussions that are not specific to any particular language or implementation. The word "pointers" connotes the common C/C++ implementation of pointers as addresses or locations in memory. A reference only "points to" an object. This means that programmers are given more limited access with a reference. While this limits what they can do, the Java philosophy is that this is more than made up for by a greater chance of the code working correctly. Java programmers may only assign to a reference and compare two references for equality. Other uses of a reference are done implicitly with no control from the programmer. These restrictions reduce the chance for bugs.

5.2.2. Data Types in Java

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(By the way, there is no commonly used word for the concept of a pointee—pointee is just the word that we used in these explanations.)

Going back to simple things like int and float variables that just store a value in a box: In Java, these are referred to as primitive data types. In Java, Objects and Arrays are non-primitive data types, and they are always accessed by references. Java automatically uses references behind the scenes for such complex types, and there is no reference-specific syntax (like there is in C/C++). You just need to realize that assignment operations like a = b will automatically be implemented with references if a and b are arrays or objects, which is different from the behavior that you get if a and b are primitive objects like int. Assignments and parameters with arrays and objects are intrinsically shallow or shared—, which is discussed in the Shallow vs. Deep Copying section below.

5.2.3. Referencing and Dereferencing

Dereferencing means to follow a reference to get the value of its pointee. Dereferencing empRef in the figure above gives back its pointee, the Employee object. So, "dereference" just means to access the value of the pointee. Visually, the result of a dereference is the object pointed to by the arrow. In Java, this most often is done with the "dot" operator to access a field or method of an object. For example:

String myName = empRef.name()

This will dereference empRef to call the name method for that object.

The key restriction is that the reference must have a pointee to access. A lot of bugs in reference code involve violating that one restriction, which results in the ever-popular NullPointerException. A reference must be assigned a pointee before dereference operations will work.

The constant null is a special reference value that encodes the idea of "points to nothing". It turns out to be convenient to have a well-defined reference value to represent the idea that a reference does not have a pointee. It is a runtime error to try to get the pointee of a null reference. In drawings, the value null is often drawn as a diagonal line between the corners of the reference variable's box.

5.2.4. changePointeeDataDirect

5.2.5. The Employee Class

We are going to use the Employee object for a lot of our examples, so let's make a formal introduction now. Meet the Employee class.

/**
 * Employee is a class used in this tutorial to explain various pointer concepts
 */
class Employee {
  String name;
  int salary;

  /**
   * class constructor to initialize name and salary fields
   * @param name: employee name
   * @param salary: employee salary
   */
  public Employee(String name, int salary)
  {
    this.name = name;
    this.salary = salary;
  }

  /**
   * getter method for the name field
   * @return the value of name field
   */
  public String getName()
  {
    return name;
  }

  /**
   * setter method for the name field
   * @param newName the value to be assigned to name field
   */
  public void setName(String newName)
  {
    name = newName;
  }

  /**
   * getter method for the salary field
   * @return the value of salary field
   */
  public int getSalary()
  {
    return salary;
  }

  /**
   * setter method for the salary field
   * @param newSalary the value to be assigned to salary field
   */
  public void setSalary(int newSalary)
  {
    salary = newSalary;
  }
}
/**
 * Employee is a class used in this tutorial to explain various pointer concepts
 */
class Employee {
  String name;
  int salary;

  /**
   * class constructor to initialize name and salary fields
   * @param name: employee name
   * @param salary: employee salary
   */
  public Employee(String name, int salary)
  {
    this.name = name;
    this.salary = salary;
  }

  /**
   * getter method for the name field
   * @return the value of name field
   */
  public String getName()
  {
    return name;
  }

  /**
   * setter method for the name field
   * @param newName the value to be assigned to name field
   */
  public void setName(String newName)
  {
    name = newName;
  }

  /**
   * getter method for the salary field
   * @return the value of salary field
   */
  public int getSalary()
  {
    return salary;
  }

  /**
   * setter method for the salary field
   * @param newSalary the value to be assigned to salary field
   */
  public void setSalary(int newSalary)
  {
    salary = newSalary;
  }
}

5.2.6. Reference Assignments

An assignment (=) of one reference to another makes them point to the same pointee. It's a simple rule for a potentially complex situation, so it is worth repeating: assigning one reference to another makes them point to the same thing. The example below adds a second reference, named second, assigned with the statement:

second = empRef;

The result is that second points to the same pointee as empRef. In the drawing, this means that the second and empRef boxes both contain arrows pointing to the Employee object. Assignment between references does not change or even touch the pointees. It just changes which pointee a reference refers to.

After the assignment, testing for (second == empRef) would return true.

The assignment operation also works with the null value. An assignment operation with a null reference copies the null value from one reference to another.

Memory drawings are key to thinking about reference code. When you are looking at code, think about how it will use memory at run time, then make a quick drawing to work out your ideas. This tutorial uses a lot of drawings to show how references work. You should too.

5.2.7. circularList1

   «  5.1. Pointers Chapter Introduction   ::   Contents   ::   5.3. Basic References Part 2  »

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