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Versioning, Virtual, and Override
A Conversation with Anders Hejlsberg, Part IV
by Bill Venners with Bruce Eckel
September 15, 2003

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Summary
Anders Hejlsberg, the lead C# architect, talks with Bruce Eckel and Bill Venners about why C# instance methods are non-virtual by default and why programmers must explicitly indicate an override.

Anders Hejlsberg, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft, led the team that designed the C# (pronounced C Sharp) programming language. Hejlsberg first vaulted onto the software world stage in the early eighties by creating a Pascal compiler for MS-DOS and CP/M. A very young company called Borland soon hired Hejlsberg and bought his compiler, which was thereafter marketed as Turbo Pascal. At Borland, Hejlsberg continued to develop Turbo Pascal and eventually led the team that designed Turbo Pascal's replacement: Delphi. In 1996, after 13 years with Borland, Hejlsberg joined Microsoft, where he initially worked as an architect of Visual J++ and the Windows Foundation Classes (WFC). Subsequently, Hejlsberg was chief designer of C# and a key participant in the creation of the .NET framework. Currently, Anders Hejlsberg leads the continued development of the C# programming language.

On July 30, 2003, Bruce Eckel, author of Thinking in C++ and Thinking in Java, and Bill Venners, editor-in-chief of Artima.com, met with Anders Hejlsberg in his office at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. In this interview, which will be published in multiple installments on Artima.com and on an audio CD-ROM to be released this fall by Bruce Eckel, Anders Hejlsberg discusses many design choices of the C# language and the .NET framework.

Non-Virtual is the Default

Bill Venners: In Java, instance methods are virtual by default—they can be overridden in subclasses unless they are explicitly declared final. In C#, by contrast, instance methods are non-virtual by default. To make a method virtual, the programmer must explicitly declare it virtual. Why is non-virtual the default in C#?

Anders Hejlsberg: There are several reasons. One is performance. We can observe that as people write code in Java, they forget to mark their methods final. Therefore, those methods are virtual. Because they're virtual, they don't perform as well. There's just performance overhead associated with being a virtual method. That's one issue.

A more important issue is versioning. There are two schools of thought about virtual methods. The academic school of thought says, "Everything should be virtual, because I might want to override it someday." The pragmatic school of thought, which comes from building real applications that run in the real world, says, "We've got to be real careful about what we make virtual."

When we make something virtual in a platform, we're making an awful lot of promises about how it evolves in the future. For a non-virtual method, we promise that when you call this method, x and y will happen. When we publish a virtual method in an API, we not only promise that when you call this method, x and y will happen. We also promise that when you override this method, we will call it in this particular sequence with regard to these other ones and the state will be in this and that invariant.

Every time you say virtual in an API, you are creating a call back hook. As an OS or API framework designer, you've got to be real careful about that. You don't want users overriding and hooking at any arbitrary point in an API, because you cannot necessarily make those promises. And people may not fully understand the promises they are making when they make something virtual.

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