Design Principles : Favor object composition over class inheritance

Object composition and inheritance are two techniques for reusing functionality in object-oriented systems.

Class inheritance, or subclassing, allows a subclass' implementation to be defined in terms of the parent class' implementation. This type of reuse is often called white-box reuse. This term refers to the fact that with inheritance, the parent class implementation is often visible to the subclasses.

Object composition is a different method of reusing functionality. Objects are composed to achieve more complex functionality. This approach requires that the objects have well-defined interfaces since the internals of the objects are unknown. Because objects are treated only as "black boxes," this type of reuse is often called black-box reuse.

Comparing composition and inheritance So how exactly do composition and inheritance compare?

Here are several points of comparison:

  • It is easier to change the interface of a back-end class (composition) than a superclass (inheritance). A change to the interface of a back-end class necessitates a change to the front-end class implementation, but not necessarily the front-end interface. Code that depends only on the front-end interface still works, so long as the front-end interface remains the same. By contrast, a change to a superclass's interface can not only ripple down the inheritance hierarchy to subclasses, but can also ripple out to code that uses just the subclass's interface.

  • It is easier to change the interface of a front-end class (composition) than a subclass(inheritance). Just as superclasses can be fragile, subclasses can be rigid. You can't just change a subclass's interface without making sure the subclass's new interface is compatible with that of its supertypes. For example, you can't add to a subclass a method with the same signature but a different return type as a method inherited from a superclass. Composition, on the other hand, allows you to change the interface of a front-end class without affecting back-end classes.
  • Composition allows you to delay the creation of back-end objects until (and unless) they are needed, as well as changing the back-end objects dynamically throughout the lifetime of the front-end object. With inheritance, you get the image of the superclass in your subclass object image as soon as the subclass is created, and it remains part of the subclass object throughout the lifetime of the subclass.
  • It is easier to add new subclasses (inheritance) than it is to add new front-end classes (composition), because inheritance comes with polymorphism. If you have a bit of code that relies only on a superclass interface, that code can work with a new subclass without change. This is not true of composition, unless you use composition with interfaces. Used together, composition and interfaces make a very powerful design tool.

  • The explicit method-invocation forwarding (or delegation) approach of composition will often have a performance cost as compared to inheritance's single invocation of an inherited superclass method implementation. I say "often" here because the performance really depends on many factors, including how the JVM optimizes the program as it executes it.
  • With both composition and inheritance, changing the implementation (not the interface) of any class is easy. The ripple effect of implementation changes remain inside the same class.