Thursday, March 09, 2006

Shall we go JDK 1.5?

Alex Karasulu of Apache Directory project recently floated this question in their development mailing lists. The ensuing discussion was open and interesting with many of the critical questions raised quickly and clearly. Certain users were concerned about JDK 1.5 support in Websphere, or lack thereof.
Notwithstanding my personal reservations about generics, JDK 1.5 introduces truly useful language features. The enhanced loop feature makes it much easier to write algorithmic code riddles with various loops. Covariant return types allow for more meaningful factory methods, opening the door for powerful class structures. Type safe enums, varargs and static imports can lead to more elegant code. Even the more controversial generics are not hard to use.

Probably any developer who cares about the design of his (or her) API will want to take advantage of the new JDK 1.5 language features. However, recent reports claim that only 20% of users have switched to JDK 1.5, with 20% still using JDK 1.3, and the remaining 60% JDK 1.4.

During the discussion someone mentioned retroweaver as a way to bridge the language gap. Retroweaver allows classes files compiled with JDK 1.5 to be retrofitted to run under JDK 1.4. The techniques used in bringing about this miracle are nicely described in the tool documentation. As Trustin Lee observed, retrofitting JDK 1.5 language features has no bearing to methods or classes new in JDK 1.5.

Adopting JDK 1.5 language features but not new classes or methods will force the developer to manually check for the use of disallowed methods/classes. We tried a similar approach in log4j with mixed results. Although some developers paid attention to JDK compatibility rules, others did not.

In a nutshell, aiming for JDK 1.4 compatibility while still using JDK 1.5 language features is likely to be messy, especially if the development team is composed of heterogeneous people. Besides, who could blame Apache Directory developers to want to migrate to JDK 1.5 when JDK 1.6 looms just behind the horizon?

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