Abstraction is the concept of exposing only the required essential characteristics and behavior with respect to a context.
Yesterday I saw Mariyaan, a Tamil movie. My wife is a diehard fan of Dhanush, the hero of the film. In his inner self Dhanush is a complex and intense actor. But what you get to see is a neighborhood boy, you get a feel that you know him well for long. It is because of his acting skills, he abstracts his complex self and exposes the apt quantity required for the moment. This is abstraction :-)
When we see a nice car on the road as a casual onlooker, we get to see the whole picture. The car as a one single unit, a vehicle. We do not see the underlying complex mechanical engineering.
Now consider we are going to a showroom to buy a car. What do we see now? We see four wheels, powerful engine, power steering etc. We see the car at high level components. But, there is so much inside it which gives the completeness to the car.
Now consider a mechanic, who is going to service the car. He will see one more level deeper with more level of information.
When we design software, we take the context. In the above example, we ask the question whether we are designing the software for a causal on looker or a buyer or a mechanic? Levels of abstraction is applied on the design accordingly.
Abstraction in OOP
In general computer software, when we talk about abstraction the software language itself is an example for the concept of abstraction. When we write a statement as,
a = b + c;
we are adding two values stored in two locations and then storing the result in a new location. We just describe it in an easily human understandable form. What happens beneath? There are registers, instruction sets, program counters, storage units, etc involved. There is PUSH, POP happening. High level language we use abstracts those complex details.
When we say abstraction in Java, we are talking about abstraction in object oriented programming (OOP) and how it is done in Java. Concept of abstraction in OOP, starts right at the moment when a class is getting conceived. I will not say, using Java access modifiers to restrict the properties of an object alone is abstraction. There is lot more to it. Abstraction is applied everywhere in software and OOP.
Abstraction and Encapsulation
When a class is conceptualized, what are the properties we can have in it given the context. If we are designing a class Animal in the context of a zoo, it is important that we have an attribute as animalType to describe domestic or wild. This attribute may not make sense when we design the class in a different context.
Similarly, what are the behaviors we are going to have in the class? Abstraction is also applied here. What is necessary to have here and what will be an overdose? Then we cut off some information from the class. This process is applying abstraction.
When we ask for difference between encapsulation and abstraction, I would say, encapsulation uses abstraction as a concept. So then, is it only encapsulation. No, abstraction is even a concept applied as part of inheritance and polymorphism.
We got to look at abstraction at a level higher among the other OOP concepts encapsulation, inheritance and polymorphism.
Abstraction and Inheritance
Let us take inheritance also in this discussion. When we design the hierarchy of classes, we apply abstraction and create multiple layers between each hierarchy. For example, lets have a first level class Cell, next level be LivingBeing and next level be Animal. The hierarchy we create like this based on the context for which we are programming is itself uses abstraction. Then for each levels what are the properties and behaviors we are going to have, again abstraction plays an important role here in deciding that.
What are some common properties that can be exposed and elevated to a higher level, so that lower level classes can inherit it. Some properties need not be kept at higher level. These decision making process is nothing but applying abstraction to come up with different layers of hierarchy. So abstraction is one key aspect in OOP as a concept.
Abstraction in Java
Having read the above section, you might have now come to an idea of how abstraction is done in Java.
- When we conceptualize a class
- When we write an ‘interface’
- When we write an ‘abstract’ class, method
- When we write ‘extends’
- When we apply modifiers like ‘private’, …
in all these areas, we use abstraction as a concept. I think example Java code for all the above is very trivial. If you find it difficult to understand abstraction, pour your question in the comments section, I will be more than happy to answer it.
This Core Java tutorial was added on 22/07/2013.