kotlin

Kotlin Anti-Patterns - Also this is Null

Likes to Android with the aim of making that million dollar app one day; retiring to a beach of his choice. For now writes blog posts to hopefully enlighten others & gain some feeling of self worth.

Kotlin is an awesome language, it has a succinct powerful syntax and takes many lessons from the past 20 years of programming paradigms and languages including Java to come up with a nice to use language. However Kotlin is the newcomer, and with that comes many untrodden paths and unknown gotchas. Let's explore one of these anti-patterns, for the sake of the article I've called it "Also this is null".

“Null, the billion dollar mistake", Tony Hoare explains how back in 1965 he introduced the null reference and how he wished he hadn’t. I think everyone soon learns how the null idiom can be a bane to your code, the authors of Kotlin were also wise to this, creating the language idioms so that you have to go out of your way to create variables that have the potential for being null, unfortunately, it is still possible.

As an example: You are wanting to act upon a variable, the nullability of the variable is under question, so you need to check before acting on it. In java you would:

if (foo != null) {
   foo.helloWorld();
}

Although this is a code smell of mutability (i.e. that variable foo has multiple states, null or not null). It is a legitimate code block and the explicitness here is stating it can be null and conditionally blocking on that.

In Kotlin we have some new constructs not known to Java.

The safe calls operator looks like this ?. it allows for a method to be called on a variable if the variable is not null, otherwise the statement returns null.

val b: String? = null
println(b?.length) // Prints “null”

The also block .also{}, calls the specified function block with this value as its argument and returns this value. Allowing you to operate on a variable repeatedly with less boilerplate.

repository.also { // it: Repository
  it.something()
  it.someElseOnRepository()
  it.perhapsAThird()
}

The anti-pattern we are exploring here is "Also this is null" and this is what it looks like in two forms, method referenced and parameter use:

foo?.also { //it: Foo
    it.helloWorld()
}
foo?.also { //it: Foo
    helloWorld(it)
}

I’ve seen this used in a few 'hand me down' projects as a way to avoid null checks, to allow access to the variable if it is not null, and do nothing if it is null.

I wanted to write a positive point for this small example above, using this coding style, however without changing the example to do a lot more inside of the also block, I cannot talk positively about it.

This is a null check in disguise. The code is checking the nullability of the variable under question and then acting on it. It's a null check through and through, and yet it doesn't have a similar resemblance (therefore you cannot at a glance fall back on your learnt knowledge). In my opinion, this is bad.

Another negative here is the variable name context switch, using the also block means your variable name internally is it (yes you can change the name, if you want, adding more code/effort). This name change is a micro-context switch, yes the scope is small but context switching like this, when it can be avoided is adding unnecessary cognitive load to reading the code.

With this code block not having a resemblance to past learnt code patterns, it is hiding the potential to spot it as a typical code smell. If it was recognised as the null check code smell, you start to think of potential combative measures such as preferring the positive or quick return statements.

Recommended ways to write a method referenced or parameter null object, if you have to:

foo?.helloWorld()

Allowing you to execute the method if the reference isn’t null, but not convoluting the approach with a block statement.

helloWorld(foo!!)

You can be very explicit about nulls, the above converts foo to a non-null type and throws an exception if the value is null.

Further, don't be scared of being explicit and highlighting the smell in the code, the below is slightly different to the use of !! in that !! will cause an exception and stop the code executing whereas the below stops a block executing and continues the rest of the program, thus the former doesn’t ever expect null where the latter does. This is still compiling Kotlin (highlighting nulls, until you refactor away that mutability of course):

if(foo != null) {
    helloWorld(foo)
}

In conclusion, avoid the also this is null pattern, call it out when you find it and either prefer immutability or refactor to an explicit null check. The aim of Kotlin is to avoid mutability and null objects, sometimes though they are a necessary evil.

The meta-learning here is to remember that a new possible way to do something is not always better, don’t do it just because you can and to lean on past experience (your own or others) whenever possible.

Enjoyed this article? There's more...

We send out a small, valuable newsletter with the best stories, app design & development resources every month.

No spam, no giving your data away, unsubscribe anytime.

About Novoda

We plan, design, and develop the world’s most desirable software products. Our team’s expertise helps brands like Sony, Motorola, Tesco, Channel4, BBC, and News Corp build fully customized Android devices or simply make their mobile experiences the best on the market. Since 2008, our full in-house teams work from London, Liverpool, Berlin, Barcelona, and NYC.

Let’s get in contact