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Developing Java Beans

Developing Java Beans

By Robert Englander
1st Edition June 1997
1-56592-289-1, Order Number: 2891
316 pages, $29.95

Chapter 1.
Introduction

In this chapter:
The Component Model
The JavaBeans Architecture
JavaBeans Overview
Using Design Patterns
JavaBeans vs. ActiveX
Getting Started

As software developers, we are constantly being asked to build applications in less time and with less money. And, of course, these applications are expected to be better and faster than ever before. Object-oriented techniques and component software environments are in wide use now, in the hope that they can help us build applications more quickly. Development tools like Microsoft's Visual Basic have made it easier to build applications faster by taking a building-block approach to software development. Such tools provide a visual programming model that allows you to include software components rapidly in your applications.

The JavaBeans architecture brings the component development model to Java, and that's the subject of this book. But before we get started, I want to spend a little time describing the component model, and follow that with a general overview of JavaBeans. If you already have an understanding of these subjects, or you just want to get right into it, you can go directly to Chapter 2, Events. Otherwise, you'll probably find that the information in this chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book.

The Component Model

Components are self-contained elements of software that can be controlled dynamically and assembled to form applications. But that's not the end of it. These components must also interoperate according to a set of rules and guidelines. They must behave in ways that are expected. It's like a society of software citizens. The citizens (components) bring functionality, while the society (environment) brings structure and order.

JavaBeans is Java's component model. It allows users to construct applications by piecing components together either programmatically or visually (or both). Support of visual programming is paramount to the component model; it's what makes component-based software development truly powerful.

The model is made up of an architecture and an API (Application Programming Interface). Together, these elements provide a structure whereby components can be combined to create an application. This environment provides services and rules, the framework that allows components to participate properly. This means that components are provided with the tools necessary to work in the environment, and they exhibit certain behaviors that identify them as such. One very important aspect of this structure is containment. A container provides a context in which components can interact. A common example would be a panel that provides layout management or mediation of interactions for visual components. Of course, containers themselves can be components.

As mentioned previously, components are expected to exhibit certain behaviors and characteristics in order to participate in the component structure and to interact with the environment, as well as with other components. In other words, there are a number of elements that, when combined, define the component model. These are described in more detail in the following sections.

Discovery and Registration

Class and interface discovery is the mechanism used to locate a component at run-time and to determine its supported interfaces so that these interfaces can be used by others. The component model must also provide a registration process for a component to make itself and its interfaces known. The component, along with its supported interfaces, can then be discovered at run-time. Dynamic (or late) binding allows components and applications to be developed independently. The dependency is limited to the "contract" between each component and the applications that use it; this contract is defined by interfaces that the component supports. An application does not have to include a component during the development process in order to use it at run-time; it only needs to know what the component is capable of doing. Dynamic discovery also allows developers to update components without having to rebuild the applications that use them.

This discovery process can also be used in a design-time environment. In this case, a development tool may be able to locate a component and make it available for use by the designer. This is important for visual programming environments, which are discussed later.

Raising and Handling of Events

An event is something of importance that happens at a specific point in time. An event can take place due to a user action such as a mouse clickwhen the user clicks a mouse button, an event takes place. Events can also be initiated by other means. Imagine the heating system in your house. It contains a thermostat that sets the desired comfort temperature, keeps track of the current ambient temperature, and notifies the boiler when its services are required. If the thermostat is set to keep the room at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, it will notify the boiler to start producing heat if the temperature dips below that threshold. Components will send notifications to other objects when an event takes place in which those objects have expressed an interest.

Persistence

Generally, all components have state. The thermostat component has state that represents the comfort temperature. If the thermostat were a software component of a computer-based heating control system, we would want the value of the comfort temperature to be stored on a non-volatile storage medium (such as the hard disk). This way if we shut down the application and brought it back up again, the thermostat control would still be set to 70 degrees. The visual representation and position of the thermostat relative to other components in the application would be restored as well.

Components must be able to participate in their container's persistence mechanism so that all components in the application can provide application-wide persistence in a uniform way. If every component were to implement its own method of persistence, it would be impossible for an application container to use components in a general way. This wouldn't be an issue if reuse weren't the goal. If we were building a monolithic temperature control system we might create an application-specific mechanism for storing state. But we want to build the thermostat component so that it can be used again in another application, so we have to use a standard mechanism for persistence.

Visual Presentation

The component environment allows the individual components to control most of the aspects of their visual presentation. For example, imagine that our thermostat component includes a display of the current ambient temperature. We might want to display the temperature in different fonts or colors depending on whether we are above, below, or at the comfort temperature. The component is free to choose the characteristics of its own visual presentation. Many of these characteristics will be properties of the component (a topic that will be discussed later). Some of these visual properties will be persistent, meaning that they represent some state of the control that will be saved to, and restored from, persistent storage.

Layout is another important aspect of visual presentation. This concerns the way in which components are arranged on the screen, how they relate to one another, and the behavior they exhibit when the user interacts with them. The container object that holds an assembly of components usually provides some set of services related to the layout of the component. Let's consider the thermostat and heating control application again. This time, the user decides to change the size of the application window. The container will interact with the components in response to this action, possibly changing the size of some of the components. In turn, changing the size of the thermostat component may cause it to alter its font size.

As you can see, the container and the component work together to provide a single application that presents itself in a uniform fashion. The application appears to be working as one unit, even though with the component development model, the container and the components probably have been created separately by different developers.

Support of Visual Programming

Visual programming is a key part of the component model. Components are represented in toolboxes or palettes. The user can select a component from the toolbox and place it into a container, choosing its size and position. The properties of the component can then be edited in order to create the desired behavior. Our thermostat control might present some type of user interface to the application developer to set the initial comfort temperature. Likewise, the choice of font and color will be selectable in a similar way. None of these manipulations require a single line of code to be written by the application developer. In fact, the application development tool is probably writing the code for you. This is accomplished through a set of standard interfaces provided by the component environment that allow the components to publish, or expose, their properties. The development tool can also provide a means for the developer to manipulate the size and position of components in relation to each other. The container itself may be a component and allow its properties to be edited in order to alter its behavior.

The JavaBeans Architecture

JavaBeans is an architecture for both using and building components in Java. This architecture supports the features of software reuse, component models, and object orientation. One of the most important features of JavaBeans is that it does not alter the existing Java language. If you know how to write software in Java, you know how to use and create Beans. The strengths of Java are built upon and extended to create the JavaBeans component architecture.

Although Beans are intended to work in a visual application development tool, they don't necessarily have a visual representation at run-time (although many will). What this does mean is that Beans must allow their property values to be changed through some type of visual interface, and their methods and events should be exposed so that the development tool can write code capable of manipulating the component when the application is executed.

Creating a Bean doesn't require any advanced concepts. So before I go any further, here is some code that implements a simple Bean:

public class MyBean implements java.io.Serializable
{
   protected  int theValue;
 
   public MyBean()
   {
   }
 
   public void setMyValue(int newValue)
   {
      theValue = newValue;
   }
 
   public int getMyValue()
   {
      return theValue;
   }
}

This is a real Bean named MyBean that has state (the variable theValue) that will automatically be saved and restored by the JavaBeans persistence mechanism, and it has a property named MyValue that is usable by a visual programming environment. This Bean doesn't have any visual representation, but that isn't a requirement for a JavaBean component.

JavaSoft is using the slogan "Write once, use everywhere." Of course "everywhere" means everywhere the Java run-time environment is available. But this is very important. What it means is that the entire run-time environment required by JavaBeans is part of the Java platform. No special libraries or classes have to be distributed with your components. The JavaBeans class libraries provide a rich set of default behaviors for simple components (such as the one shown earlier). This means that you don't have to spend your time building a lot of support for the Beans environment into your code.

The design goals of JavaBeans are discussed in Sun's white paper, "Java Beans: A Component Architecture for Java." This paper can be found on the JavaSoft web site at http://splash.javasoft.com/beans/WhitePaper.html. It might be interesting to review these goals before we move on to the technology itself, to provide a little insight into why certain aspects of JavaBeans are the way they are.

Compact and Easy

JavaBeans components are simple to create and easy to use. This is an important goal of the JavaBeans architecture. It doesn't take very much to write a simple Bean, and such a Bean is lightweightit doesn't have to carry around a lot of inherited baggage just to support the Beans environment. If a Bean does not require the advanced features of the architecture, it doesn't get them, nor does it get the code that goes with them. This is an important concept. The JavaBeans architecture scales upward in complexity, not downward like other component models. This means it really is easy to create a simple Bean. (The previous example shows just how simple a Bean can be.)

Portable

Since JavaBeans components are built purely in Java, they are fully portable to any platform that supports the Java run-time environment. All platform specifics, as well as support for JavaBeans, are implemented by the Java virtual machine. You can be sure that when you develop a component using JavaBeans it will be usable on all of the platforms that support Java (version 1.1 and beyond). These range from workstation applications and web browsers to servers, and even to devices such as PDAs and set-top boxes.

Leverages the Strengths of the Java Platform

JavaBeans uses the existing Java class discovery mechanism. This means that there isn't some new complicated mechanism for registering components with the run-time system.

As shown in the earlier code example, Beans are lightweight components that are easy to understand. Building a Bean doesn't require the use of complex extensions to the environment. Many of the Java supporting classes are Beans, such as the windowing components found in java.awt.

The Java class libraries provide a rich set of default behaviors for components. Use of Java Object Serialization is one examplea component can support the persistence model by implementing the java.io.Serializable interface. By conforming to a simple set of design patterns (discussed later in this chapter), you can expose properties without doing anything more than coding them in a particular style.

Flexible Build-Time Component Editors

Developers are free to create their own custom property sheets and editors for use with their components if the defaults aren't appropriate for a particular component. It's possible to create elaborate property editors for changing the value of specific properties, as well as create sophisticated property sheets to house those editors.

Imagine that you have created a Sound class that is capable of playing various sound format files. You could create a custom property editor for this class that listed all of the known system sounds in a list. If you have created a specialized color type called PrimaryColor, you could create a color picker class to be used as the property editor for PrimaryColor that presented only primary colors as choices.

The JavaBeans architecture also allows you to associate a custom editor with your component. If the task of setting the property values and behaviors of your component is complicated, it may be useful to create a component wizard that guides the user through the steps. The size and complexity of your component editor is entirely up to you.

JavaBeans Overview

The JavaBeans white paper defines a Bean as follows:

A Java Bean is a reusable software component that can be manipulated visually in a builder tool.

Well, if you have to sum it up in one sentence, this is as good as any. But it's pretty difficult to sum up an entire component architecture in one sentence. Beans will range greatly in their features and capabilities. Some will be very simple and others complex; some will have a visual aspect and others won't. Therefore, it isn't easy to put all Beans into a single category. Let's take a look at some of the most important features and issues surrounding Beans. This should set the stage for the rest of the book, where we will examine the JavaBeans technology in depth.

Properties, Methods, and Events

Properties are attributes of a Bean that are referenced by name. These properties are usually read and written by calling methods on the Bean specifically created for that purpose. A property of the thermostat component mentioned earlier in the chapter could be the comfort temperature. A programmer would set or get the value of this property through method calls, while an application developer using a visual development tool would manipulate the value of this property using a visual property editor.

The methods of a Bean are just the Java methods exposed by the class that implements the Bean. These methods represent the interface used to access and manipulate the component. Usually, the set of public methods defined by the class will map directly to the supported methods for the Bean, although the Bean developer can choose to expose only a subset of the public methods.

Events are the mechanism used by one component to send notifications to another. One component can register its interest in the events generated by another. Whenever the event occurs, the interested component will be notified by having one of its methods invoked. The process of registering interest in an event is carried out simply by calling the appropriate method on the component that is the source of the event. In turn, when an event occurs a method will be invoked on the component that registered its interest. In most cases, more than one component can register for event notifications from a single source. The component that is interested in event notifications is said to be listening for the event.

Introspection

Introspection is the process of exposing the properties, methods, and events that a JavaBean component supports. This process is used at run-time, as well as by a visual development tool at design-time. The default behavior of this process allows for the automatic introspection of any Bean. A low-level reflection mechanism is used to analyze the Bean's class to determine its methods. Next it applies some simple design patterns to determine the properties and events that are supported. To take advantage of reflection, you only need to follow a coding style that matches the design pattern. This is an important feature of JavaBeans. It means that you don't have to do anything more than code your methods using a simple convention. If you do, your Beans will automatically support introspection without you having to write any extra code. Design patterns are explained in more detail later in the chapter.

This technique may not be sufficient or suitable for every Bean. Instead, you can choose to implement a BeanInfo class which provides descriptive information about its associated Bean explicitly. This is obviously more work than using the default behavior, but it might be necessary to describe a complex Bean properly. It is important to note that the BeanInfo class is separate from the Bean that it is describing. This is done so that it is not necessary to carry the baggage of the BeanInfo within the Bean itself.

If you're writing a development tool, an Introspector class is provided as part of the Beans class library. You don't have to write the code to accomplish the analysis, and every tool vendor uses the same technique to analyze a Bean. This is important to us as programmers because we want to be able to choose our development tools and know that the properties, methods, and events that are exposed for a given component will always be the same.

Customization

When you are using a visual development tool to assemble components into applications, you will be presented with some sort of user interface for customizing Bean attributes. These attributes may affect the way the Bean operates or the way it looks on the screen. The application tool you use will be able to determine the properties that a Bean supports and build a property sheet dynamically. This property sheet will contain editors for each of the properties supported by the Bean, which you can use to customize the Bean to your liking. The Beans class library comes with a number of property editors for common types such as float, boolean, and String. If you are using custom classes for properties, you will have to create custom property editors to associate with them.

In some cases the default property sheet that is created by the development tool will not be good enough. You may be working with a Bean that is just too complex to customize easily using the default sheet. Beans developers have the option of creating a customizer that can help the user to customize an instance of their Bean. You can even create smart wizards that guide the user through the customization process.

Customizers are also kept separate from the Bean class so that it is not a burden to the Bean when it is not being customized. This idea of separation is a common theme in the JavaBeans architecture. A Bean class only has to implement the functionality it was designed for; all other supporting features are implemented separately.

Persistence

It is necessary that Beans support a large variety of storage mechanisms. This way, Beans can participate in the largest number of applications. The simplest way to support persistence is to take advantage of Java Object Serialization. This is an automatic mechanism for saving and restoring the state of an object. Java Object Serialization is the best way to make sure that your Beans are fully portable, because you take advantage of a standard feature supported by the core Java platform. This, however, is not always desirable. There may be cases where you want your Bean to use other file formats or mechanisms to save and restore state. In the future, JavaBeans will support an alternative externalization mechanism that will allow the Bean to have complete control of its persistence mechanism.

Design-Time vs. Run-Time

JavaBeans components must be able to operate properly in a running application as well as inside an application development environment. At design-time the component must provide the design information necessary to edit its properties and customize its behavior. It also has to expose its methods and events so that the design tool can write code that interacts with the Bean at run-time. And, of course, the Bean must support the run-time environment.

Visibility

There is no requirement that a Bean be visible at run-time. It is perfectly reasonable for a Bean to perform some function that does not require it to present an interface to the user; the Bean may be controlling access to a specific device or data feed. However, it is still necessary for this type of component to support the visual application builder. The component can have properties, methods, and events, have persistent state, and interact with other Beans in a larger application. An "invisible" run-time Bean may be shown visually in the application development tool, and may provide custom property editors and customizers.

Multithreading

The issue of multithreading is no different in JavaBeans than it is in conventional Java programming. The JavaBeans architecture doesn't introduce any new language constructs or classes to deal with threading. You have to assume that your code will be used in a multithreaded application. It is your responsibility to make sure your Beans are thread-safe. Java makes this easier than in most languages, but it still requires some careful planning to get it right. Remember, thread-safe means that your Bean has anticipated its use by more than one thread at a time and has handled the situation properly.

Security

Beans are subjected to the same security model as standard Java programs. You should assume that your Bean is running in an untrusted applet. You shouldn't make any design decisions that require your Bean to be run in a trusted environment. Your Bean may be downloaded from the World Wide Web into your browser as part of someone else's applet. All of the security restrictions apply to Beans, such as denying access to the local file system, and limiting socket connections to the host system from which the applet was downloaded.

If your Bean is intended to run only in a Java application on a single computer, the Java security constraints do not apply. In this case you might allow your Bean to behave differently. Be careful, because the assumptions you make about security could render your Bean useless in a networked environment.

Using Design Patterns

The JavaBeans architecture makes use of patterns that represent standard conventions for names, and type signatures for collections of methods and interfaces. Using coding standards is always a good idea because it makes your code easier to understand, and therefore easier to maintain. It also makes it easier for another programmer to understand the purpose of the methods and interfaces used by your component. In the JavaBeans architecture, these patterns have even more significance. A set of simple patterns are used by the default introspection mechanism to analyze your Bean and determine the properties, methods, and events that are supported. These patterns allow the visual development tools to analyze your Bean and use it in the application being created. The following code fragment shows one such pattern:

public void setTemperatureColor(Color newColor)
{
   . . .
}
 
public Color getTemperatureColor()
{
   . . .
}

These two methods together use a pattern that signifies that the Bean contains a property named TemperatureColor of type Color. No extra development is required to expose the property. The various patterns that apply to Beans development will be pointed out and discussed throughout this book. I'll identify each pattern where the associated topic is being discussed.

NOTE: The use of the term "design pattern" here may be confusing to some readers. This term is commonly used to describe the practice of documenting a reusable design in object-oriented software. This is not entirely different than the application of patterns here. In this case, the design of the component adheres to a particular convention, and this convention is reused to solve a particular problem.

As mentioned earlier, this convention is not a requirement. You can implement a specific BeanInfo class that fully describes the properties, methods, and events supported by your Bean. In this case, you can name your methods anything you please.

JavaBeans vs. ActiveX

JavaBeans is certainly not the first component architecture to come along. Microsoft's ActiveX technology is based upon COM, their component object model. ActiveX offers an alternative component architecture for software targeted at the various Windows platforms. So how do you choose one of these technologies over the other? Organizational, cultural, and technical issues all come into play when making this decision. ActiveX and JavaBeans are not mutually exclusive of each otherMicrosoft has embraced Java technology with products like Internet Explorer and Visual J++, and Sun seems to have recognized that the desktop is dominated by Windows and has targeted Win32 as a strategic platform for Java. It is not in anyone's best interest to choose one technology to the exclusion of another. Both are powerful component technologies. I think we should choose a technology because it supports the work we are doing, and does so in a way that meets the needs of the customer.

The most important question is how Beans will be used by containers that are designed specifically to contain ActiveX controls. Certainly, all Beans will not also be ActiveX controls by default. To address the need to integrate Beans into the world of ActiveX, an ActiveX Bridge is available that maps the properties, methods, and events exposed by the Bean into the corresponding mechanisms in COM. This topic is covered in detail in Chapter 11, ActiveX.

Getting Started

If you plan to play along, you should make sure that you have installed the latest versions of the Java Development Kit (JDK) and the Beans Development Kit (BDK). Both of these can be downloaded from the JavaSoft web site at http://java.sun.com/.[1]

Remember that if you don't have a browser that supports JDK1.1, you will have to run your applets in the appletviewer program that is provided in the JDK. At the time of this writing, the only browser that supports JDK1.1 is HotJava.

The chapters in this book are arranged so that they build on concepts presented in preceding chapters. I suggest that you try to follow along in order. Of course, this is entirely up to you. If you are comfortable with the technology, you may find that you can jump around a bit.


1. Beans development requires JDK1.1; however, JDK1.1.1 is now available.

Back to: Developing Java Beans


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