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What’s the Deal with Interfaces?

, 19 Apr 2010 CPOL
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Many beginners struggle with the concept of an Interface. Over on the ASP.NET forums, where I moderate, the question is asked a surprising number of times. I'm going to try to describe and explain the concept of an Interface…simply and concisely.

This post is for beginners.

Many beginners struggle with the concept of an Interface. Over on the ASP.NET forums, where I moderate, the question is asked a surprising number of times. I'm going to try to describe and explain the concept of an Interface…simply and concisely.

Let's say we are going to program a game and the game needs a random number generator.

We want to try different random number generators because all random number generators are not created equal. To make it easy to switch number generators, we will use an Interface.

The Interface

So, here is the (simple as possible) Interface for our Random Number Generator:

public interface IRandomNumberGen
{
    int GetNextNumber(); // note: public is not needed
}

Notes

The public keyword is not needed (or even allowed) on the GetNextNumber() method. An interface declares access methods so by default they must be public. A private method in an interface makes no sense...and causes an error.

An Interface cannot contain fields. Doing so causes an error.

Hmmm, it seems an Interface is a collection of empty functions that are implicitly public.

Derive some Classes from the Interface

Here are two Random Number Generators each inheriting from our Interface.

class RandomNumberCoinFlip : IRandomNumberGen
{
    public int GetNextNumber()
    {
        // flip a coin for each bit of the number
        return 1;
    }
    private String CoinType; // penny, nickel, etc.
}

class RandomNumberOuija  : IRandomNumberGen
{
    public int GetNextNumber()
    {
        // Use a Ouija board to get a number
        return 2;
    }
}

Notes

Both classes implement the GetNextNumber() function. One class has an additional field…but that's OK; it doesn't matter:

As long as a class implements the functions in the Interface, it can do anything else it pleases. But a class derived from an Interface must implement the functions in the Interface.

So big deal, what have we accomplished?

Here are the Classes in Use

protected void Button1_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    IRandomNumberGen Generator;

    Generator = new RandomNumberCoinFlip();
    Response.Write(Generator.GetNextNumber() + "<br />");

    Generator = new RandomNumberOuija();
    Response.Write(Generator.GetNextNumber() + "<br />");
}

Notes

The Generator reference can be assigned to any object created from a class derived from the IRandomNumberGen Interface and it can call the GetNextNumber() method. It doesn't know or care about any part of the class except the methods it expects to be there.

Here’s Another Usage Example

public void MakeAMove(IRandomNumberGen NumberGenerator)
{
    int Number = NumberGenerator.GetNextNumber();
    // do something with Random Number
}

protected void Button1_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    MakeAMove(new RandomNumberCoinFlip());
    MakeAMove(new RandomNumberOuija());
}

Notes

This shows a function that takes an Interface as a parameter. Any object derived from the Interface can be passed to the function.

That's cool but the same thing could be accomplished with an abstract base class and virtual functions. So what's the deal with Interfaces?

Multiple-Inheritance is not Supported in .NET… Except for Interfaces!

Here is one more class that implements the Interface. In addition to IRandomNumberGen, it implements IDisposable.

class RandomNumberDeckOfCards :  IRandomNumberGen, IDisposable
{
    public int GetNextNumber()
    {
        // Shuffle deck, pick a card
        return 3;
    }
    public void Dispose()
    {
        // free up deck
    }
}

And here it is being used:

protected void Button1_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    IRandomNumberGen Generator;

    Generator = new RandomNumberDeckOfCards();
    Response.Write(Generator.GetNextNumber() + "<br />");

    IDisposable Disposer = Generator as IDisposable;
    Disposer.Dispose();
}

Notes

As before, an IRandomNumberGen reference can be assigned to the object and the GetNextNumber() method called.

In addition, an IDisposable reference can be assigned (with a cast) to the object since it implements IDisposable and the Dispose() method can be called.

In the above code, the two Interface references, Generator and Disposer, both point to the same object. They have different 'views' of the same object. And that, is the deal with interfaces.

Finale

I know there are thousands of articles around explaining this concept which is odd because once understood, the concept is trivial. But sometimes one explanation "fits the brain" better than another explanation. I hope this explanation fits someone's brain.

Update

Many have asked for clarification between abstract classes and interfaces. In addition to "multiple inheritance" which abstract classes do not support, there is another key difference: Interface classes may NOT contain fields. If you need fields or properties in the base class, you cannot use interfaces.

Update 2

Strike part of the last update.  You can have properties in an interface but not fields. Thanks to Wallism for pointing this out.

public interface MyInterface
{
    int LastResult { get; set; }
}

public class MyClass : MyInterface
{
    public int LastResult { get; set; }
}

Steve Wellens

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Steve Wellens
EndWell Software, Inc.
United States United States
I am an independent contractor/consultant working in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. I work in .Net, Asp.Net, C#, C++, XML, SQL, Windows Forms, HTML, CSS, etc., etc., etc.

Comments and Discussions

 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmembernikhil _singh12-Sep-12 0:50 
GeneralMy vote of 4 PinmemberAlluvialDeposit19-Jul-12 8:59 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmembernikhil _singh6-May-12 23:02 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmemberjim lahey22-Mar-12 5:51 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmemberdasunnavoda29-Jan-12 16:14 
GeneralMy vote of 4 PinmemberSChristmas12-Jul-11 1:26 
GeneralQuestion for other developers about interfaces PinmemberMember 321295226-Apr-10 23:37 
GeneralRe: Question for other developers about interfaces PinmemberSteve Wellens27-Apr-10 2:36 
GeneralRe: Question for other developers about interfaces PinmemberZeEv 127-Apr-10 20:44 
GeneralThe way I understand Interfaces Pinmemberchuckdawit26-Apr-10 19:06 
GeneralRe: The way I understand Interfaces PinmemberSteve Wellens27-Apr-10 2:34 
GeneralAs a begginer, I liked it PinmemberQubeIt26-Apr-10 16:15 
Generalinherit an interface.. PinmemberAndrei Rinea23-Apr-10 0:08 
GeneralRe: inherit an interface.. PinmemberSteve Wellens23-Apr-10 1:58 
GeneralWish you added some more Pinmemberlarry11820-Apr-10 11:23 
Generalproperties Pinmemberwallism19-Apr-10 12:47 
GeneralRe: properties PinmemberSteve Wellens19-Apr-10 14:47 
Wow, thanks for pointing that out. I tried it and it works although it somehow seems wrong Smile | :)
 
public interface MyInterface
{
    int LastResult { get; set; }
}
 
public class MyClass : MyInterface
{
    public int LastResult { get; set; }
}
 
Now I have to update the article Frown | :(
Steve Wellens

Generala "touchy" subject. PinmemberDiamonddrake13-Apr-10 12:37 
GeneralRe: a "touchy" subject. PinmemberSteve Wellens13-Apr-10 12:48 
GeneralMy vote of 1 PinmemberRoms4-Feb-10 6:31 
GeneralRe: My vote of 1 Pinmemberjim lahey22-Mar-12 5:50 
GeneralIt fits my brain Pinmemberbaiyuxiong9-Dec-09 2:59 
GeneralRe: It fits my brain PinmemberWesMcGJr20-Apr-10 4:13 
GeneralRe: It fits my brain PinmemberHezek1ah27-Apr-10 5:46 
GeneralCould help some... PinmemberCurtainDog21-Jul-09 2:37 

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