TypeScript Generics

TypeScript supports parameterized types, also known as generics, which can be used in a variety of scenarios. For example, you can create a function that can take values of any type, but during its invocation, in a particular context, you can explicitly specify a concrete type.

Take another example: an array can hold objects of any type, but you can specify which particular object types (for example, instances of Person) are allowed in an array. If you were to try to add an object of a different type, the TypeScript compiler would generate an error.

Generics syntax

The following code snippet declares a Person class, creates two instances of it, and stores them in the workers array declared with the generic type. Generic types are denoted by placing them in the angle brackets (for example, ).

class Person {
    name: string;
}

class Employee extends Person{
    department: number;
}

class Animal {
    breed: string;
}

let workers: Array<Person> = [];

workers[0] = new Person();
workers[1] = new Employee();
workers[2] = new Animal();  // compile-time error

Here we declare the Person, Employee, and Animal classes and a workers array with the generic type. By doing this, we announce our plans to store only instances of the class Person or its descendants. An attempt to store an instance of an Animal in the same array will result in a compile-time error.

Nominal and Structural type systems

After using generics in Java for 10 years, I quickly noticed that the syntax is the same and was about to check off this syntax element as “got it”. But it was a little too soon. While Java, C++, or C# use nomimal type system, TypeScript uses the structural one. In the nominal system, types are checked against their names, but in a structural system by their structure.

With the nominal type system the following line would result in an error:

let person: Person = new Animal();

With a structural type system, as long as the structures of the type are similar, you may get away with assigning an object of one type to a variable of another. Let’s illustrate it by adding the property name to the class Animal as seen on the screenshot below.

Now the TypeScript compiler doesn’t complain about assigning an Animal object to the variable of type Person. The variable of type Person expects an object that has a property name, and the Animal object has it. This is not to say that Person and Animal represent the same types, but these types a compatible. Trying to assign the Person object to a variable of type Animal will result in the compilation error “Property breed is missing in type Person”:

let worker: Animal = new Person(); // compilation error

Can you use generic types with any object or a function? No. The creator of the object or function has to allow this feature. If you open TypeScript’s type definition file (lib.d.ts) on GitHub and search for “interface Array,” you’ll see the declaration of the Array, as shown below.

The <T> in line 1008 means TypeScript allows you to declare a type parameter with Array and the compiler will check for the specific type provided in your program. The next code listing specifies this generic <T> parameter as <Person>. But because generics aren’t supported in JavaScript, you won’t see them in the code generated by the transpiler. It’s just an additional safety net for developers at compile time.

You can see another T in line 1022 in figure B.7. When generic types are specified with function arguments, no angle brackets are needed. But there’s no actual T type in TypeScript. The T here means the push method lets you push objects of a specific type into an array, as in the following example:

workers.push(new Person());

Creating your own parameterized types

You can create your own classes or functions that support generics as well. In the next listing, we defined an interface Comparator that declares a method compareTo() expecting the concrete type to be provided during this method invocation.

interface Comparator {                   // 1
    compareTo(value: T): number;
}

class Rectangle implements Comparator {    // 2

    constructor(private width: number, private height: number){};

    compareTo(value: Rectangle): number{   // 3
        if (this.width*this.height &gt;= value.width*value.height){
            return 1;}
        else  {
            return -1;
        }
    }
}

let rect1:Rectangle = new Rectangle(2,5);  
let rect2: Rectangle = new Rectangle(2,3);

rect1.compareTo(rect2)===1? console.log("rect1 is bigger"): 
                            console.log("rect1 is smaller") ;   // 4


class Programmer implements Comparator {    // 5

    constructor(public name: string, private salary: number){};

    compareTo(value: Programmer): number{  // 6
        if (this.salary &gt;= value.salary){
            return 1;}
        else  {
            return -1;
        }
    }
}

let prog1:Programmer = new Programmer("John",20000);
let prog2: Programmer = new Programmer("Alex",30000);

prog1.compareTo(prog2)===1? console.log(${prog1.name} is richer):
                           console.log(${prog1.name} is poorer) ;  // 7

1. Declare an interface Comparator with a generic type

2. Create a class that implements Comparator specifying the concrete type Rectangle

3. Implement the method for comparing rectangles

4.Compare rectangles (the type T is erased and replaced with Rectangle)

5. Create a class that implement Comparator specifying the concrete type Programmer

6.Implement the method for comparing programmers

7. Compare programmers (the type T is erased and replaced with Programmer)

Even though generics are erased during the JavaScript code generation, use them to minimize the number of runtime errors. When you use libraries or frameworks written in TypeScript, you have no choice but use generics to use the API provided by these libraries.

If you live in New York, stop by at the Java SIG meetup on August 23, 2017 where I’ll be delivering a presentation “TypeScript for Java Developers”.

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