Monday, March 29, 2010

Why I Don't Like The Private Access Specifier

I like the concept of encapsulation. Really. I do. Hiding implementation details behind an interface is top-notch design work. I'm all for it. As long as it's done with "protected" and not "private".

The problem that I have with the private access specifier is that it discourages or prevents entirely code reuse in certain situations. Let me explain: as is often the case, I find myself coding with certain libraries or frameworks. Just as often they do not do everything exactly how I would like. Perhaps they are missing a feature, or maybe they have a small bug somewhere. No problem! They are coded with OOP principles, so if I want to add a feature, I'll just subclass it and do what I need to do, right? Wrong!

All too often the particular hook that I need to add my feature is marked private. And since it's marked private, at the discretion of the original author, I can't do what I need to do. Let me lay this out: I have access to the original source code in one form or another, I understand what the original source code is doing, I've identified exactly what I need to change, and yet I'm stuck. What are my options?

One is to change the original source code. However, this is not always possible. Take the .NET Framework for example. The framework comes in a "compiled" form, yet the source code is readable thanks to tools like Reflector. Even if I can change the source code, I don't always want to. Perhaps I want to be able to distribute my application without packaging my custom build of the library. In the case of Javascript, perhaps the library is coming from a CDN like Yahoo provides for YUI.

Another option is to use what hooks I do have available. For instance, if protected MemberA calls private MemberB, and I need to change MemberB, I can override MemberA, copying most of the code, and have it call my custom MemberC instead of the original MemberB. Sometimes this requires changing code many levels deep, and the final product is a copy/pasted mess of the original.

It seems to me that a balance could be struck between the concepts of encapsulation and the flexibility of OOP inheritance and code-reuse. This balance, I think, is called "protected". If somebody has the time and dedication to read and understand the implementation details of a class, I do not think they should be barred from subclassing and having full access to that implementation. I do not believe that it should be up to the original authors to decide what should and should not be changed; they do not have enough foresight. It is impossible to imagine every single feature that could potentially be added and create an extension point for each. Using protected means that normal users of the code still have encapsulation, and those that want or need to go the extra step have the flexibility to do so.

I don't recall a time when I ever thought to myself: "I sure am glad that member is private. That really saved me a lot of hassle." I know of numerous times when I've thought the opposite. Very dark thoughts indeed.

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