The Java import directive

A recent blog post on a site I came across showed me that some users who are using Java in Matlab take the unnecessary precaution of always using the fully-qualified class-name (FQCN) of the Java classes, and are not familiar with the import directive in Matlab. Today I’ll show how to use import to simplify Java usage in Matlab.

Basically, the import function enables Matlab users to declare that a specific class name belongs to a particular Java namespace, without having to specifically state the full namespace in each use. In this regard, Matlab’s import closely mimics Java’s import, and not surprisingly also has similar syntax:

% Alternative 1 - using explicit namespaces
jFrame = javax.swing.JFrame;
jDim = java.awt.Dimension(50,120);
jPanel.add(jButton, java.awt.GridBagConstraints(0, 0, 1, 1, 1.0, 1.0, ...
                    java.awt.GridBagConstraints.NORTHWEST, ...
                    java.awt.GridBagConstraints.NONE, ...
                    java.awt.Insets(6, 12, 6, 6), 1, 1));
% Alternative 2 - using import
import javax.swing.*
import java.awt.*
jFrame = JFrame;
jDim = Dimension(50,120);
jPanel.add(jButton, GridBagConstraints(0, 0, 1, 1, 1.0, 1.0, ...
                    GridBagConstraints.NORTHWEST, ...
                    GridBagConstraints.NONE, ...
                    Insets(6, 12, 6, 6), 1, 1));

Note how much cleaner Alternative #2 looks compared to Alternative #1. However, as with Java’s import, there is a tradeoff here: by removing the namespaces from the code, it could become confusing as to which namespace a particular object belongs. For example, by specifying java.awt.Insets, we immediately know that it’s an AWT insets object, rather than, say, a book’s insets. There is no clear-cut answer to this dilemma, and in fact there are many Java developers who prefer one way or the other. As in Java, the choice is yours to make also in Matlab.

Perhaps a good compromise, one which I often use, is to stay away from the import something.* format and directly specify the imported classes. In the example above, I would have written:

% Alternative 3 - using explicit import
import javax.swing.JFrame;
import java.awt.Dimension;
import java.awt.GridBagConstraints;
import java.awt.Insets;
jFrame = JFrame;
jDim = Dimension(50,120);
jPanel.add(jButton, GridBagConstraints(0, 0, 1, 1, 1.0, 1.0, ...
                    GridBagConstraints.NORTHWEST, ...
                    GridBagConstraints.NONE, ...
                    Insets(6, 12, 6, 6), 1, 1));

This alternative has the benefit that it is immediately clear that Insets belongs to the AWT package, without having to explicitly use the java.awt prefix everywhere. Obviously, if the list of imported classes becomes too large, we could always revert to the import java.awt.* format.

Interestingly, we can also use the functional form of import:

% Alternative #1
import java.lang.String;
% Alternative #2
% Alternative #3
classname = 'java.lang.String';

Using the third alternative format, that of dynamic import, enables us to decide in run-time(!) whether to use a class C from package PA or PB. This is a cool feature but must be used with care, since it could lead to very difficult-to-diagnose errors. For example, if the code later invokes a method that exists only in PA.C but not in PB.C. The correct way to do this would probably be to define a class hierarchy where PA.C and PB.C both inherit from the same superclass. But in some cases this is simply not feasible (for example, when you have 2 JARs from different vendors, which use the same classname) and dynamic importing can help.

It is possible to specify multiple input parameters to import in the same directive. However, note that Matlab 7.5 R2007b and older releases crash (at least on WinXP) when one of the imported parameters is any MathWorks-derived (com.mathworks...) package/class. This bug was fixed in Matlab 7.6 R2008a, but to support earlier releases simply separate such imports into different lines:

% This crashes Matlab 7.5 R2007b and earlier;  OK on Matlab 7.6 R2008a and later
import javax.swing.* com.mathworks.mwswing.*
% This is ok in all Matlab releases
import javax.swing.*
import com.mathworks.mwswing.*

import does NOT load the Java class into memory – it just declares its namespace for the JVM. This mechanism is sometimes called lazy loading (compare to the lazy copying mechanism that I described a couple of weeks ago). To force-load a class into memory, either use it directly (for example, by declaring an object of it, or by using one of its methods), or use a classloader to load it. The issue of JVM classloaders in Matlab is non-trivial (there are several non-identical alternatives), and will be covered in a future article.

A few additional notes:

  • Although not strictly mandatory, it is good practice to place all the import directives at the top of the function, for visibility and code maintainability reasons
  • There is no need to end the import declaration with a semicolon (;). It’s really a matter of style consistency. I usually omit it because I find that it is a bit intrusive when placed after a *
  • import by itself, without any input arguments (class/package names) returns the current list of imported classes/packages
  • Imported classes and packages can be un-imported using the clear import directive from the Command Window
  • It has been reported that in some cases using import in deployed (compiled) application fails – the solution is to use the FQCN in such cases

Note: This topic is covered and extended in Chapter 1 of my Matlab-Java programming book

Categories: Java, Low risk of breaking in future versions, Memory

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