Optional Class

Exam Objectives

Develop code that uses the Optional class.

The problem with null

Most programming languages have a data type to represent the absence of a value, and it is known by many names:

NULL, nil, None, Nothing

The null type was introduced in ALGOL W by Tony Hoare in 1965, and it's considered one of the worst mistakes of computer science. In Tony Hoare's own words:

I call it my billion-dollar mistake. It was the invention of the null reference in 1965. At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object-oriented language ((ALGOL W)). My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler. But I couldn't resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty years.
– Tony Hoare

Still, some may be wondering, what is the problem with null?

Well, if you're a little worried by the problems this code might cause, you know the answer already:

String summary = 

The problem with that code is that if any of those methods returns a null reference (for example, if the book doesn't have a tenth chapter), a NullPointerException (the most common exception in Java) will be thrown at runtime stopping the program.

What can we do to avoid this exception?

Perhaps, the easiest way is to check for null. Here's one way to it:

String summary = "";
if(book != null) {
    Chapter chapter = book.getChapter(10);
    if(chapter != null) {
        if(chapter.getSummary() != null) {
          summary = chapter.getSummary()

You don't know if any object in this hierarchy can be null, so you check every object for this value. Obviously, this is not the best solution; it's not very practical and damage readability.

There may be another issue. Is checking for null really desirable? I mean, what if those objects should never be null? By checking for null, we will be hiding the error and not be dealing with it.

Of course, this is also a design issue. For example, if a chapter has no summary yet, what would be better to use as a default value? An empty string or null?

To address this problem, Java 8 introduced the class java.util.Optional<T>.

The Optional class

The job of this class is to ENCAPSULATE an optional value, an object that can be null.

Using the previous example, if we know that not all chapters have a summary, instead of modeling the class like this:

class Chapter {
    private String summary;
    // Other attributes and methods

We can use the Optional class:

class Chapter {
    private Optional<String> summary;
    // Other attributes and methods

So if there's a value, the Optional class just wraps it. Otherwise, an empty value is represented by the method Optional.empty(), that returns a singleton instance of Optional.

By using this class instead of null, first, we explicitly declare that the summary attribute is optional. Then, we can avoid NullPointerExceptions while having at our disposal the useful methods of Optional that we'll review up next.

First, let's see how to create an instance of this class.

To get an empty Optional object, use:

Optional<String> summary = Optional.empty();

If you are sure that an object is not null, you can wrap it in an Optional object this way:

Optional<String> summary = Optional.of("A summary");

A NullPointerException will be thrown if the object is null. However, you can use:

Optional<String> summary = Optional.ofNullable("A summary");

That returns an Optional instance with the specified value if it is non-null. Otherwise, it returns an empty Optional.

If you want to know if an Optional contains a value, you can do it like this:

if( summary.isPresent() ) {
    // Do something

Or in a more functional style:

summary.ifPresent(s -> System.out.println(s));
// Or summary.ifPresent(System.out::println);

The ifPresent() method takes a Consumer<T> as an argument that is executed only if the Optional contains a value.

To get the value of an Optional use:

String s = summary.get();

However, this method will throw a java.util.NoSuchElementException if the Optional doesn't contain a value, so it's better to use the ifPresent() method.

Alternatively, if we want to return something when the Optional doesn't contain a value, there are three other methods we can use:

String summaryOrDefault = summary.orElse("Default summary");

The orElse() method returns the argument (that must be of type T, in this case a String) when the Optional is empty. Otherwise, it returns the encapsulated value.

String summaryOrDefault =
        summary.orElseGet( () -> "Default summary" );

The orElseGet() method takes a Supplier<? extends T> as an argument that returns a value when the Optional is empty. Otherwise, it returns the encapsulated value.

String summaryOrException =
        summary.orElseThrow( () -> new Exception() );

The orElseThrow() method takes a Supplier<? extends X>, where X is the type of the exception to throw when the Optional is empty. Otherwise, it returns the encapsulated value.

Like streams, there are versions of the Optional class to work with primitives, OptionalInt, OptionalLong, and OptionalDouble, so you can use OptionalInt instead of Optional<Integer>:

OptionalInt optionalInt = OptionalInt.of(1);
int i = optionalInt.getAsInt();

However, the use of these primitive versions are not encouraged, especially because they lack three useful methods of Optional: filter(), map(), and flatMap(). And since Optional just contains one value, the overhead of boxing/unboxing a primitive is not significant.

The filter() method returns the Optional if a value is present and matches the given predicated. Otherwise, an empty Optional is returned.

String summaryStr =
    summary.filter(s -> s.length() > 10).orElse("Short summary");

The map() method is generally used to transform from one type to another. If the value is present, it applies the provided Function< ? super T, ? extends U > to it. For example:

int summaryLength = -> s.length()).orElse(0);

The flapMap() method is similar to map(), but it takes an argument of type Function<? super T, Optional<U>> and if the value is present, it returns the Optional that results from applying the provided function. Otherwise, it returns an empty Optional.

In Chapter 17, we'll review in more detail the methods map() and flatMap() and how they are used with streams.

Key Points

Self Test

1. Given:

public class Question_14_1 {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        Optional opt = Optional.of("1");
        String s = opt.orElseGet(
            () -> new RuntimeException()

What is the result?
A. 1
B. Nothing is printed
C. Compilation fails
D. An exception occurs at runtime

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. The method Optional.isPresent() takes a Consumer<T> as an argument that is executed only if the Optional contains a value.
B. The method Optional.of() can create an empty Optional.
C. The method Optional.of() can throw a NullPointerException.
D. The method Optional.ifPresent() takes a Function<T,U> as an argument.

3. Given:

public class Question_14_3 {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
    private static Optional<Integer> ToInt(String s) {
        try {
            return Optional.of(Integer.parseInt(s));
        } catch(Exception e) {
            return Optional.empty();

What is the result?
A. a
B. Optional.empty
C. Compilation fails
D. An exception occurs at runtime

4. Given:

public class Question_14_4 {
    public static void main(String[] args) {

What is the result?
A. 0
B. 1
C. Compilation fails
D. An exception occurs at runtime