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@JvmOverloads for Android Views

2019-02-22 • Márton Braun

The @JvmOverloads annotation is a convenience feature in Kotlin for interoperating with Java code, but there is one specific use case on Android where it shouldn’t be used carelessly.

Let’s first look at what this annotation does, and then get to the specific issue.

Kotlin’s function call conveniences

Kotlin supports default parameter values, which lets you define functions such as this one (not that I’d recommend these specific defaults for a real application):

fun register(
    username: String = "user", 
    password: String = "hunter2", 
    email: String = "foo@bar.com"

Client code written in Kotlin can call this function in several different ways. You may…

// provide all parameters explicitly, either positionally, or with named arguments
register("jim", "jimmy", "jim@dm.com")
register(username = "jim", password = "jimmy", email = "jim@d-m.com")

// omit all of them and rely solely on the default values

// specify any number of parameters (in any order!) using named arguments
register(email = "jim@d-m.com")
register(email = "jim@d-m.com", password = "1234567")

Since Java supports neither named arguments nor default values, all of these different ways of invoking this method won’t be available for Java clients. They can only call this method with all arguments explicitly provided, positionally:

register("jim", "12345", "jim@d-m.com");

Annotations to the rescue

This is what @JvmOverloads aims to improve: it generates additional overloads for the method to be used by Java clients.

fun register(
        username: String = "user",
        password: String = "hunter2",
        email: String = "foo@bar.com"

Now Java code may provide 0 until n arguments for the method, but still has to pass in these arguments positionally:

register("jim", "12345");
register("jim", "12345", "jim@d-m.com");

This means that whatever parameters you want to make use of default values for the most when calling from Java should be the very last ones in your parameter list.

How it works

Whenever a function with @JvmOverloads is called with less than the maximum number of arguments, that call is forwarded to a special synthetic method that fills in the missing arguments (in our example, this would likely be called register$default) and then calls the actual implementation of the method, which takes all of the arguments.

I encourage you to take a look at this mechanism by jumping into the generated bytecode, and decompiling it to Java! All of this is actually done in a very clever way, but we don’t need all those details for the purposes of this article.

Issues in the context of custom Views

Alright, with all that, let’s get into the Android context, and see how we could use this annotation when writing custom View implementations!

This is how you’d implement a custom View's constructors traditionally:

class CustomView : View {
    constructor(context: Context)
            : super(context)
    constructor(context: Context, attrs: AttributeSet?)
            : super(context, attrs)
    constructor(context: Context, attrs: AttributeSet?, defStyleAttr: Int)
            : super(context, attrs, defStyleAttr)
    constructor(context: Context, attrs: AttributeSet?, defStyleAttr: Int, defStyleRes: Int)
            : super(context, attrs, defStyleAttr, defStyleRes)

That is a lot of boilerplate to write for a Kotlin developer. This is how the same code could look like with @JvmOverloads, with just a single primary constructor that has default parameters:

class CustomView @JvmOverloads constructor(
        context: Context,
        attrs: AttributeSet? = null,
        defStyleAttr: Int = 0,
        defStyleRes: Int = 0
) : View(context, attrs, defStyleAttr, defStyleRes)

The overloads generated here will be found by the framework and called as expected, so this seems like a great shortcut to avoid having to write four separate constructors.

On first look, the two implementations above might seem equivalent, but there are some cases where they might produce different behaviour. Why?

  • The first implementation’s constructors all delegate to the respective View constructor which takes the same number of parameters as they did.

  • The second implementation, in contrast, will first delegate within the class to the primary constructor implementation that takes all four parameters, which then calls the four-parameter constructor of the View superclass. This means that this implementation always invokes the four-parameter constructor in the parent, and never any of the others.

The one, two, or three parameter constructors in whatever View you’re subclassing - this doesn’t have to be the base View class - might contain code other than just calling into their all-params constructor with default values. And even if they only do that, they might use default values other than the null, 0, and 0 you might have assumed!

Here’s all of this summed up visually, with the arrows marking the constructor delegation calls (click the image to view it full size).

Diagram of the constructor calls


Overall, you’re probably better off having the default View constructors ready for copy-pasting into any new custom Views you write. While it might not matter which implementation you go with most of the time, the one time it does, you’ll have a rather hard time tracking down what went wrong.

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