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Learn to Use the New Annotation Feature of Java 5.0

Developers have always struggled to find ways of adding semantic data to their Java code. They had to: Java didn't have a native metadata facility. But that's all changed with version 5.0 of Java, which allows annotations as a typed part of the language.

he new Java 2 Platform Standard Edition 5.0 (the developer version number is 1.5 and the code name is "Tiger") provides many new features, among them is the ability to annotate Java program elements and to create custom annotation types. Development and deployment tools can then read annotated data (also known as metadata) and process it in some fashion.

Previous versions of Java provided a limited and ad-hoc mechanism for annotating code through JavaDoc comments and keyword modifiers. Tools such as XDoclet provide a slightly more sophisticated, yet non-standard annotation syntax, which piggybacks on top of JavaDoc. But now, with Java 1.5, annotations are a typed part of the Java language and allow for both runtime and compile-time processing of annotation data.

What Are Annotations?
In short, annotations are metadata or data about data. Annotations are said to annotate a Java element. An annotation indicates that the declared element should be processed in some special way by a compiler, development tool, deployment tool, or during runtime.

Older versions of Java have rough-and-ready annotation functionality. A good example is the @deprecated JavaDoc tag. The @deprecated tag is used for more than sheer documentation purposes. This tag has no effect on the code it describes, but causes the compiler to produce warnings if any other code references the tagged element. JavaDoc does not seem to be the proper place for this type of metadata, but there was no other annotation facility in previous versions of Java. With Java 1.5, finally, annotations are a typed part of the language and the version even comes with some with pre-built annotations, one of which can be used to mark a class as deprecated (I'll cover this later).

The code below shows how you can declare a method that uses an annotation. It is one of Java 1.5's built-in annotation types:

class Child extends Parent {
    public void doWork() {
        //do something      
In the code above, note that the annotation starts with an "at" (@) sign. This annotation takes no parameters and is merely used to mark a method for some purpose. It is therefore called a marker annotation. There are also normal annotations and single member annotations (more on these later).

Annotations types are blueprints for annotations, similar to how a class is the blueprint for an object. You can create your own custom annotations by defining annotation types.

The code below shows the declaration of a normal annotation type:

public @interface MyAnnotationType {
    int someValue();
    String someOtherValue();
Annotations can be analyzed statically before and during compile time. Annotations will likely be used before compile time mainly to generate supporting classes or configuration files. For example, a code generator (XDoclet, for example) can use annotation data in an EJB implementation class to generate EJB interfaces and deployment descriptors for you, reducing both your effort and the error rate. The average developer will probably not be writing code-generation tools, so these annotation types are likely to be used out-of-the-box rather than authored anew.

Author's Note:

Annotations will also be used for compile-time checking such as to produce warnings and errors for different failure scenarios. An example of an annotation that is used at compile time is the new @Deprecated annotation, which acts the same as the old @deprecated JavaDoc tag. Of course, a compiler has to know how to interpret annotation data that is meant to produce compile-time warnings, so again, annotations that do things at compile time will likely be used frequently, but rarely written by average developers.

Annotations can be useful at runtime as well. Using annotations you could mark code to behave in a particular way whenever it is called. For example, you could mark some methods with a @prelog annotation. Then at runtime, you could analyze the methods that you're calling and print a particular log message before you begin executing code for that method. One way to achieve this would be through the use of the updated Java 1.5 reflection API. The reflection API now provides access to runtime-accessible annotation data.

< Another way to use annotations at runtime is to use Aspect-Oriented Programming (AOP). AOP uses pointcuts—sets of points configured to executed aspects. You could define a pointcut that will execute an aspect for an annotated method. My guess is that developers would be more likely to write their own runtime annotation types than they would annotation types used for code generation and compile-time checking. Still, writing and understanding the code that accesses the annotations (the annotation consumer) at runtime is fairly advanced.

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