/ DESIGN, API, EXTENSION FUNCTION

Extension functions for more consistent APIs

Kotlin’s extension functions are a great way to add behavior to a type sitting outside one’s control - the JDK or a third-party library.

For example, the JDK’s String class offers the toLowerCase() and toUpperCase() methods but nothing to capitalize the string. In Kotlin, this can be helped by adding the desired behavior to the String class through an extension function:

fun String.capitalize() = when {
    length < 2 -> toUpperCase()
    else -> Character.toUpperCase(toCharArray()[0]) + substring(1).toLowerCase()
}

println("hello".capitalize())

Extension functions usage is not limited to external types, though. It can also improve one’s own codebase, to handle null values more elegantly.

This is a way one would define a class and a function in Kotlin:

class Foo {
    fun foo() = println("foo")
}

Then, it can be used on respectively non-nullable and nullable types like that:

val foo1 = Foo()
val foo2: Foo? = Foo()
foo1.foo()
foo2?.foo()

Notice the compiler enforces the usage of the null-safe ?. operator on the nullable type instance to prevent NullPointerException.

Instead of defining the foo() method directly on the type, let’s define it as an extension function, but with a twist. Let’s make the ?. operator part of the function definition:

class Foo

fun Foo?.safeFoo() = println("null-safe foo")

Usage is now slightly modified:

val foo1 = Foo()
val foo2: Foo? = Foo()
val foo3: Foo? = null
foo1.safeFoo()
foo2.safeFoo()
foo3.safeFoo()

Whether the type is non-nullable or not, the calling syntax is consistent. Interestingly enough, the output is the following:

null-safe foo
null-safe foo
null-safe foo

Yes, it’s possible to call a method on a null instances! Now, let’s update the Foo class slightly:

class Foo {
    val foo = 1
}

What if the foo() extension function should print the foo property instead of a constant string?

fun Foo?.safeFoo() = println(foo)

The compiler complains:

Only safe (?.) or non-null asserted (!!.) calls are allowed on a nullable receiver of type Foo?

The extension function needs to be modified according to the compiler’s error:

fun Foo?.safeFoo() = println(this?.foo)

The output becomes:

1
1
null

Extension functions are a great way to make API more consistent and to handle null elegantly instead of dropping the burden on caller code.

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel is a Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Currently working for Exoscale. Also double as a teacher in universities and higher education schools, a trainer and triples as a book author.

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