Type Classes And Interfaces

What interface in Java is what trait in Scala. Types are not classes. Types are interfaces and they are abstract. As such,

  • A type is an abstract interface.
  • A class is an implementation of a type or interface.
  • An instance or object is the state a class holds at any point in time.

Say, I have a Driveable (interface / trait) for anything that can move forth and back. Next, classes Car and Bus implement Driveable. Each has similar and distinct properties but both can move forth and back. Finally, we C200, CX9 and Tata which are Car and Bus instances that hold the state for each class separately at any given time.

However, this article is not about trait, it is about the Type Class pattern which uses trait and implicit to achieve its objective.

Type Class Pattern

Type class is a pattern, an alternative to Strategy and Adapter patterns. It has its root in Haskell. Scala uses implicit and trait as shown here to implement type class pattern.

case class Alcohol(liters:Double)
case class Water(liters:Double)

case class Fire(heat:Double)
trait Flammable[A] {
  def burn(fuel:A): Fire

implicit object AlcoholIsFlammable extends Flammable[Alcohol] {
  def burn(fuel:Alcohol) = Fire(120.0)

def setFire[T](fuel:T)(implicit f:Flammable[T]) = f.burn(fuel)

setFire(Alcohol(1.0)) // ok
setFire(Water(1.0)) // FAIL

Using import creatively I could have have different Flammable without recompiling setFire.

There is a Java version which I mimicked the Scala version,

// AlcoholIsFlammable.java
public class AlcoholIsFlammable implements Flammable<Alcohol> {
    public Fire burn(Alcohol fuel) {
        return new Fire(120.0);

// Alcohol.java
public class Alcohol {
    public double liters;

    public Alcohol(double liters) {
        this.liters = liters;

// Fire.java 
public class Fire {
    public double heat;

    public Fire(double heat) {
        this.heat = heat;

/* Flammable.java */
public interface Flammable<A> {
    Fire burn(A fuel);

/** uncomment this to make water flammable :)
// WaterIsFlammable.java
public class WaterIsFlammable implements Flammable<Water> {
    public Fire burn(Water fuel) {
        return new Fire(60.0);

// Water.java
public class Water {
    public double liters;

    public Water(double liters) {
        this.liters = liters;

// RunMe.java
public class RunMe {
    public static void main(String[] args) {    
        System.out.println(setFire(new Alcohol(1.0), 
            new AlcoholIsFlammable()).heat);
        // compilation will fail if the next line is uncommented
        // System.out.println(setFire(new Water(1.0), 
        //    new AlcoholIsFlammable()).heat);          

    public static <T> Fire setFire(T fuel, Flammable<T> f) {
        return f.burn(fuel);

Without implicit it makes no sense in Java because all types and classes must be present during compilation unless dynamic class injection like Guice or Spring IoC is used. Therefore, IoC makes less sense in Scala.


This article is a summary from a few random resources including Wikipedia. Out of them, I find this paragraph,

A crucial distinction between type classes and interfaces is that for class A to be a “member” of an interface it must declare so at the site of its own definition. By contrast, any type can be added to a type class at any time, provided you can provide the required definitions, and so the members of a type class at any given time are dependent on the current scope. Therefore we don’t care if the creator of A anticipated the type class we want it to belong to; if not we can simply create our own definition showing that it does indeed belong, and then use it accordingly. So this not only provides a better solution than adapters, in some sense it obviates the whole problem adapters were meant to address.

and this,

Type classes define a set of contracts that the adaptee type needs to implement. Many people misinterpret type classes synonymously with interfaces in Java or other programming languages. With interfaces the focus is on subtype polymorphism, with type classes the focus changes to parametric polymorphism. You implement the contracts that the type class publishes across unrelated types.

stands out because it is clear and simple to understand


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