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James Gosling on Java, May 2001
A Conversation with Java's Creator, James Gosling
by Bill Venners
First Published in JavaWorld, June 2001

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When to use and why

Bill Venners: How about immutables? When should I use immutables versus non-immutables?

James Gosling: I would use an immutable whenever I can.

Bill Venners: Whenever you can, why?

James Gosling: From a strategic point of view, they tend to more often be trouble free. And there are usually things you can do with immutables that you can't do with mutable things, such as cache the result. If you pass a string to a file open method, or if you pass a string to a constructor for a label in a user interface, in some APIs (like in lots of the Windows APIs) you pass in an array of characters. The receiver of that object really has to copy it, because they don't know anything about the storage lifetime of it. And they don't know what's happening to the object, whether it is being changed under their feet.

You end up getting almost forced to replicate the object because you don't know whether or not you get to own it. And one of the nice things about immutable objects is that the answer is, "Yeah, of course you do." Because the question of ownership, who has the right to change it, doesn't exist.

One of the things that forced Strings to be immutable was security. You have a file open method. You pass a String to it. And then it's doing all kind of authentication checks before it gets around to doing the OS call. If you manage to do something that effectively mutated the String, after the security check and before the OS call, then boom, you're in. But Strings are immutable, so that kind of attack doesn't work. That precise example is what really demanded that Strings be immutable.

Bill Venners: How about the wrapper types? I was asked a couple of weeks ago, "Why are wrapper types immutable?" I wasn't exactly sure what to say.

James Gosling: Same answer.

Bill Venners: Because you can, and it helps with caching?

James Gosling: Yes.

Bill Venners: Okay. The tradeoff seems to be that sometimes I may end up creating a lot more little objects.

James Gosling: You may. One of the proposals that keeps surfacing -- I actually wrote up a proposal for this four or five years ago. It's something that happened after Java got released, and so it gets really hard. And this one has really resurfaced with a vengeance lately: this notion of strengthening the support for immutables.

Another thing about immutable objects: if you have a class that's final and whose fields are final, except for one nasty problem, the optimizers can do really cool things with them, because they don't necessarily have to allocate them in the heap. They can have pure stack lifetime. You can copy them at will. You can replicate them at will, which is what happens with primitives.

That's one of the reasons that primitives are not objects, because it is so nice to be able to just replicate them. When you pass an integer to a method, you don't have to pass the pointer to that integer. You can just replicate that integer and push it on the stack. So, it's a different integer. The same value, but a different integer and you can't actually tell. And if you look at a complex number class in C++ versus complex numbers in Fortran. In Fortran, they do all kinds of goofy things allocating complex numbers to registers, which really doesn't work in C++. And that mostly has to do with the fact that in C++, they are still objects and they have an identity. It's this whole platonic thing about identity. The nit that causes problems with optimizers and immutable objects is that as soon as you have a notion of identity that is independent of the value, then various things get really hard.

Wrapper types versus primitive types

Bill Venners: Why are there primitive types in Java? Why wasn't everything just an object?

James Gosling: Totally an efficiency thing. There are all kinds of people who have built systems where ints and that are all objects. There are a variety of ways to do that, and all of them have some pretty serious problems. Some of them are just slow, because they allocate memory for everything. Some of them try to do objects where sometimes they are objects, sometimes they are not (which is what the standard LISP system did), and then things get really weird. It kind of works, but it's strange.

Just making it such that there are primitive and objects, and they're just different. You solve a whole lot of problems.

Platonic Identity

Bill Venners: Earlier you said "the whole platonic thing about identity." What does Plato have to do with identity?

James Gosling: The notion of identity is something that the philosophers have argued about for a gazillion years. One of Plato's things, I don't remember the names, but the basic story is you have Bob the fisherman. He's out there fishing. His boat springs a leak. He goes to see his friend Fred, who fixes boats. Fred pulls a plank off of Bob's boat and puts a new plank in. Bob's now happy and he goes away. His fishing boat is now fine.

A month later, the same thing happens again. He goes to his friend and after several years of doing this, every last plank in Bob's boat has been replaced by Fred. And so, now you have a whole new boat. Is this still the same boat? Then the trick to it is, unbeknownst to Bob, Fred has been saving all the little bits of wood that he has taken off of Bob's boat. And he's put them back together again.

Bill Venners: And he wants to swap.

James Gosling: So, which is Bob's boat? That with different names is one of Plato's things.

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