Objects and classes

OCaml is an object-oriented, imperative, functional programming language :-) It mixes all these paradigms and lets you use the most appropriate (or most familiar) programming paradigm for the task at hand. In this chapter I'm going to look at object-oriented programming in OCaml, but I'm also going to talk about why you might or might not want to write object-oriented programs.

The classic noddy example used in text books to demonstrate object-oriented programming is the stack class. This is a pretty terrible example in many ways, but I'm going to use it here to show the basics of writing object-oriented OCaml.

Here's some basic code to provide a stack of integers. The class is implemented using a linked list.

open List

class stack_of_ints =
  object (self)
    val mutable the_list = ( [] : int list )   (* instance variable *)
    method push x =                        (* push method *)
      the_list <- x :: the_list
    method pop =                           (* pop method *)
      let result = hd the_list in
      the_list <- tl the_list;
    method peek =                          (* peek method *)
      hd the_list
    method size =                          (* size method *)
      length the_list

The basic pattern class name = object (self) ... end defines a class called name.

The class has one instance variable, which is mutable (not constant), called the_list. This is the underlying linked list. We initialize this (each time a stack_of_ints object is created) using a bit of code that you may not be familiar with. The expression ( [] : int list ) means "an empty list, of type int list". Recall that the simple empty list [] has type 'a list, meaning a list of any type. However we want a stack of int, not anything else, and so in this case we want to tell the type inference engine that this list isn't the general "list of anything" but is in fact the narrower "list of int". The syntax ( expression : type ) means expression which is in fact of type type. This isn't a general type cast, because you can't use it to overrule the type inference engine, only to narrow a general type to make it more specific. So you can't write, for example, ( 1 : float ):

# (1 : float);;
This expression has type int but is here used with type float

Type safety is preserved. Back to the example ...

This class has four simple methods. push pushes an integer onto the stack. pop pops the top integer off the stack and returns it. Notice the <- assignment operator used for updating our mutable instance variable. It's the same <- assignment operator which is used for updating mutable fields in records.

peek returns the top of the stack (ie. head of the list) without affecting the stack, while size returns the number of elements in the stack (ie. the length of the list).

Let's write some code to test stacks of ints. First let's create a new object. We use the familiar new operator:

let s = new stack_of_ints;;

Now we'll push and pop some elements off the stack:

for i = 1 to 10 do
  s#push i
while s#size > 0 do
  Printf.printf "Popped %d off the stack.\n" s#pop

Notice the syntax. object#method means call method on object. This is the same as object.method or object->method that you will be familiar with in imperative languages.

The program prints:

$ ./stack
Popped 10 off the stack.
Popped 9 off the stack.
Popped 8 off the stack.
Popped 7 off the stack.
Popped 6 off the stack.
Popped 5 off the stack.
Popped 4 off the stack.
Popped 3 off the stack.
Popped 2 off the stack.
Popped 1 off the stack.

In the OCaml toplevel we can examine the types of objects and methods in more detail:

# let s = new stack_of_ints;;
val s : stack_of_ints = 
# s#push;;
- : int -> unit = 

s is an opaque object. The implementation (ie. the list) is hidden from callers.

Polymorphic classes

A stack of integers is good, but what about a stack that can store any type? (Not a single stack that can store a mixture of types, but multiple stacks each storing objects of any single type). As with 'a list, we can define 'a stack:

open List

class ['a] stack =
  object (self)
    val mutable list = ( [] : 'a list )    (* instance variable *)
    method push x =                        (* push method *)
      list <- x :: list
    method pop =                           (* pop method *)
      let result = hd list in
      list <- tl list;
    method peek =                          (* peek method *)
      hd list
    method size =                          (* size method *)
      length list

The class ['a] stack doesn't really define just one class, but a whole "class of classes", one for every possible type (ie. an infinitely large number of classes!) Let's try and use our 'a stack class. In this instance we create a stack and push a floating point number onto the stack. Notice the type of the stack:

# let s = new stack;;
val s : '_a stack = 
# s#push 1.0;;
- : unit = ()
# s;;
- : float stack = 

This stack is now a float stack, and only floating point numbers may be pushed and popped from this stack. (For an explanation of the '_a notation, see the OCaml expert FAQ ; link replaced by OCaml expert FAQ). Let's demonstrate the type-safety of our new float stack:

# s#push 3.0;;
- : unit = ()
# s#pop;;
- : float = 3.
# s#pop;;
- : float = 1.
# s#push "a string";;
This expression has type string but is here used with type float

We can define polymorphic functions which can operate on any type of stack. Our first attempt is this one:

# let drain_stack s =
  while s#size > 0 do
    ignore (s#pop)
val drain_stack : < pop : 'a; size : int; .. > -> unit = 

Notice the type of drain_stack. Cleverly - perhaps too cleverly - OCaml's type inference engine has worked out that drain_stack works on any object which has pop and size methods! So if we defined another, entirely separate class which happened to contain pop and size methods with suitable type signatures, then we might accidentally call drain_stack on objects of that other type.

We can force OCaml to be more specific and only allow drain_stack to be called on 'a stacks by narrowing the type of the s argument, like this:

# let drain_stack (s : 'a stack) =
  while s#size > 0 do
    ignore (s#pop)
val drain_stack : 'a stack -> unit = 

Inheritance, virtual classes, initializers

I've noticed programmers in Java tend to overuse inheritance, possibly because it's the only reasonable way of extending code in that language. A much better and more general way to extend code is usually to use hooks (cf. Apache's module API). Nevertheless in certain narrow areas inheritance can be useful, and the most important of these is in writing GUI widget libraries.

Let's consider an imaginary OCaml widget library similar to Java's Swing. We will define buttons and labels with the following class hierarchy:

widget  (superclass for all widgets)
  +----> container  (any widget that can contain other widgets)
  |        |
  |        +----> button
  +-------------> label

(Notice that a button is a container because it can contain either a label or an image, depending on what is displayed on the button).

widget is the virtual superclass for all widgets. I want every widget to have a name (just a string) which is constant over the life of that widget. This was my first attempt:

# class virtual widget name =
    object (self)
      method get_name =
      method virtual repaint : unit
Some type variables are unbound in this type:
  class virtual widget :
    'a -> object method get_name : 'a method virtual repaint : unit end
The method get_name has type 'a where 'a is unbound

Oops! I forgot that OCaml cannot infer the type of name so will assume that it is 'a. But that defines a polymorphic class, and I didn't declare the class as polymorphic (class ['a] widget). I need to narrow the type of name like this:

class virtual widget (name : string) =
  object (self)
    method get_name =
    method virtual repaint : unit

Now there are several new things going on in this code. Firstly the class contains an initializer. This is an argument to the class (name) which you can think of as exactly the equivalent of an argument to a constructor in, eg., Java:

public class Widget
  public Widget (String name)

In OCaml a constructor constructs the whole class, it's not just a specially named function, so we write the arguments as if they are arguments to the class:

class foo arg1 arg2 ... =

Secondly the class contains a virtual method, and thus the whole class is marked as virtual. The virtual method is our repaint method. We need to tell OCaml it's virtual (method virtual), and we need to tell OCaml the type of the method. Because the method doesn't contain any code, OCaml can't use type inference to automatically work out the type for you, so you need to tell it the type. In this case the method just returns unit. If your class contains any virtual methods (even just inherited ones) then you need to specify the whole class as virtual by using class virtual ....

As in C++ and Java, virtual classes cannot be directly instantiated using new:

# let w = new widget "my widget";;
One cannot create instances of the virtual class widget

Now my container class is more interesting. It must inherit from widget and have the mechanics for storing the list of contained widgets. Here is my simple implementation for container:

open List

class virtual container name =
  object (self)
    inherit widget name
    val mutable widgets = ( [] : widget list )
    method add w =
      widgets <- w :: widgets
    method get_widgets =
    method repaint =
      iter (fun w -> w#repaint) widgets


  1. The container class is marked as virtual. It doesn't contain any virtual methods, but in this case I just want to prevent people creating containers directly.
  2. The container class has a name argument which is passed directly up when constructing the widget.
  3. inherit widget name means that the container inherits from widget, and it passes the name argument to the constructor for widget.
  4. My container contains a mutable list of widgets and methods to add a widget to this list and get_widgets (return the list of widgets).
  5. The list of widgets returned by get_widgets cannot be modified by code outside the class. The reason for this is somewhat subtle, but basically comes down to the fact that OCaml's linked lists are immutable. Let's imagine that someone wrote this code:
let list = container#get_widgets in
x :: list

Would this modify the private internal representation of my container class, by prepending x to the list of widgets? No it wouldn't. The private variable widgets would be unaffected by this or any other change attempted by the outside code. This means, for example, that you could change the internal representation to use an array at some later date, and no code outside the class would need to be changed.

Last, but not least, we have implemented the previously virtual repaint function so that container#repaint will repaint all of the contained widgets. Notice I use List.iter to iterate over the list, and I also use a probably unfamiliar anonymous function expression:

(fun w -> w#repaint)

which defines an anonymous function with one argument w that just calls w#repaint (the repaint method on widget w).

In this instance our button class is simple (rather unrealistically simple in fact, but nevermind that):

type button_state = Released | Pressed;;

class button ?callback name =
  object (self)
    inherit container name as super
    val mutable state = Released
    method press =
      state <- Pressed;
      match callback with
        None -> ()
      | Some f -> f ()
    method release =
      state <- Released
    method repaint =
      print_endline ("Button being repainted, state is " ^
                     (match state with
                       Pressed -> "Pressed"
                     | Released -> "Released"))


  1. This function has an optional argument (see the previous chapter) which is used to pass in the optional callback function. The callback is called when the button is pressed.
  2. The expression inherit container name as super names the superclass super. I use this in the repaint method: super#repaint. This expressly calls the superclass method.
  3. Pressing the button (calling button#press in this rather simplistic code) sets the state of the button to Pressed and calls the callback function, if one was defined. Notice that the callback variable is either None or Some f, in other words it has type (unit -> unit) option. Reread the previous chapter if you are unsure about this.
  4. Notice a strange thing about the callback variable. It's defined as an argument to the class, but any method can see and use it. In other words, the variable is supplied when the object is constructed, but persists over the lifetime of the object.
  5. The repaint method has been implemented. It calls the superclass (to repaint the container), then repaints the button, displaying the current state of the button.

Before defining our label class, let's play with the button class in the OCaml toplevel:

# let b = new button ~callback:(fun () -> print_endline "Ouch!") "button";;
val b : button = 
# b#repaint;;
Button being repainted, state is Released
# b#press;;
# b#repaint;;
Button being repainted, state is Pressed
# b#release;;

Here's our comparatively trivial label class:

class label name text =
  object (self)
    inherit widget name
    method repaint =
      print_endline ("Label: " ^ text)

Let's create a label which says "Press me!" and add it to the button:

# let l = new label "label" "Press me!";;
val l : label = 
# b#add l;;
# b#repaint;;
Label: Press me!
Button being repainted, state is Released

A note about self

In all the examples above we defined classes using the general pattern:

class name =
  object (self)
    (* ... *)

I didn't explain the reference to self. In fact this names the object, allowing you to call methods in the same class or pass the object to functions outside the class. In other words, it's exactly the same as this in C++/Java and $self in Perl. You may completely omit the (self) part if you don't need to refer to yourself - indeed in all the examples above we could have done exactly that. However, I would advise you to leave it in there because you never know when you might modify the class and require the reference to self. There is no penalty for having it.

Inheritance and coercions

# let b = new button "button";;
val b : button = 
# let l = new label "label" "Press me!";;
val l : label = 
# [b; l];;
This expression has type label = < get_name : string; repaint : unit >
but is here used with type
  button =
    < add : widget -> unit; get_name : string; get_widgets : widget list;
      press : unit; release : unit; repaint : unit >
Only the second object type has a method add

I created a button b and a label l and I tried to create a list containing both, but I got an error. Yet b and l are both widgets, so why can't I put them into the same list? Perhaps OCaml can't guess that I want a widget list? Let's try telling it:

# let wl = ([] : widget list);;
val wl : widget list = []
# let wl = b :: wl;;
This expression has type widget list but is here used with type button list

It turns out that OCaml doesn't coerce subclasses to the type of the superclass by default, but you can tell it to by using the :> (coercion) operator:

# let wl = (b :> widget) :: wl;;
val wl : widget list = []
# let wl = (l :> widget) :: wl;;
val wl : widget list = [; ]

The expression (b :> widget) means "coerce the button b to have type widget". Type-safety is preserved because it is possible to tell completely at compile time whether the coercion will succeed.

Actually, coercions are somewhat more subtle than described above, and so I urge you to read the manual to find out the full details.

The container#add method defined above is actually incorrect, and fails if you try to add widgets of different types into a container. A coercion would fix this.

Is it possible to coerce from a superclass (eg. widget) to a subclass (eg. button)? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is NO! Coercing in this direction is unsafe. You might try to coerce a widget which is in fact a label, not a button.

The problem of coercing from a superclass to a subclass will be familiar to Java programmers. In Java the container types contain Objects, and when you extract an object from a container you must cast it back to its original type. This can cause runtime ClassCastExceptions. OCaml's strong type system has the specific goal of eliminating runtime type errors, and this is why this sort of coercion is not permitted.

Polymorphism and functional programming should remove most of the need to coerce from superclasses to subclasses. Java's container classes store Objects because Java (at time of writing) lacks generics ("templates" in C++ or polymorphism in OCaml). This is a fault in the Java language - a pretty fundamental fault in fact - which will hopefully be fixed in Java 1.5. In OCaml it's so simple to define polymorphic types like 'a list or 'a stack that Java-like programming just wouldn't be required. Having said that, if you do extensive OO programming in OCaml then I'm pretty sure you'll come up with a case where this type of coercion would actually be darned useful. Perhaps for this reason it's enough to say that you might try implementing solutions functionally first, and in an OO style only in the few problem domains where it really makes sense.

[Yamagata Yoriyuki writes that type-safe downcasts are possible. Advanced users should see: http://caml.inria.fr/pub/ml-archives/caml-list/2002/05/a6520926c4eac029206a31d6aa22f967.fr.html , that leads to hweak (old: http://caml.inria.fr/archives/200205/msg00397.html]

The Oo module and comparing objects

The Oo module contains a few useful functions for OO programming.

Oo.copy makes a shallow copy of an object. Oo.id object returns a unique identifying number for each object (a unique number across all classes).

= and <> can be used to compare objects for physical equality (an object and its copy are not physically identical). You can also use < etc. which provides an ordering of objects based apparently on their IDs.

Objects without class

Here we examine how to use objects pretty much like records, without necessarily using classes.

Immediate objects and object types

Objects can be used instead of records, and have some nice properties that can make them preferrable to records in some cases. We saw that the canonical way of creating objects is to first define a class, and use this class to create individual objects. This can be cumbersome in some situations since class definitions are more than a type definition and cannot be defined recursively with types. However, objects have a type that is very analog to a record type, and it can be used in type definitions. In addition, objects can be created without a class. They are called immediate objects. Here is the definition of an immediate object:

# let o =
      val mutable n = 0 
      method incr = n <- n + 1
      method get = n          
val o : < get : int; incr : unit > = 

This object has a type, which is defined by its public methods only. Values are not visible and neither are private methods (not shown). Unlike records, such a type does not need to be predefined explicitely, but doing so can make things clearer. We can do it like this:

type counter = < get : int; 
                 incr : unit >

Compare with an equivalent record type definition:

type counter_r = { get : unit -> int;
                   incr : unit -> unit }

The implementation of a record working like our object would be:

let r =
  let n = ref 0 in
  { get = (fun () -> !n);
    incr = (fun () -> incr n) }

In terms of functionality, both the object and the record are similar, but each solution has its own advantages:

Class types vs. just types

Beware of the confusion between class types and object types. A class type is not a data type, normally referred to as type in the OCaml jargon. An object type is a kind of data type, just like a record type or a tuple.

When a class is defined, both a class type and an object type of the same name are defined:

# class t =      
      val x = 0
      method get = x
class t : object val x : int method get : int end
                 this is a class type

In this example, t is also the type of objects that this class would create. Objects that derive from different classes or no class at all (immediate objects) can be mixed together as long as they have the same type:

# let x = object method get = 123 end;;
val x : < get : int > = 
# let l = [ new t; x ];;
val l : t list = [; ]

Mixing objects that share a common subtype can be done, but requires explicit type coercion using the :> operator:

# let x = object method get = 123 end;;
val x : < get : int > = 
# let y = object method get = 80 method special = "hello" end;;
val y : < get : int; special : string > = 
# let l = [ x; y ];;
This expression has type < get : int; special : string >
but is here used with type < get : int >
Only the first object type has a method special

# let l = [ x; (y :> t) ];;
val l : t list = [; ]

More objects

The OCaml manual, chapter 3, contains the canonical reference for objects and classes. Amongst the things which I have not covered here, but which are covered in the manual, are: