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Kotlin: Like Java, But Better (Part 1)

Kotlin has quickly risen to popularity as an alternative language to Java. In this blog series, I will first provide a crash-course in Kotlin to examine some of the design differences between Kotlin and Java, and then add some Kotlin code to an existing Java Spring Boot microservice in part two.

Kotlin 101

Kotlin 101

Kotlin was introduced by JetBrains in 2011 as a new language for the JVM. It was designed to be fully interoperable with Java, and in several cases, has replaced it. In 2019, Google announced that Kotlin was now the official language for Android development. Tools such as Spring Boot and JHipster allow you to start from scratch with Kotlin, but you can also seamlessly add Kotlin to an existing Java codebase!

What Kotlin Does Differently

Variable Declaration

There are two keywords to declare a variable: var and val.

var is used to declare a variable that behaves just as you would expect an ordinary Java variable to act. The type of the variable is declared after the variable name, and declaring the type is optional if the variable is instantiated.

var num = 12
var name: String
name = "Jane Doe"

val is used to declare variables as read-only, similar to declaring a variable final in Java. Attempting to change the reference of a val will result in a compilation error.

val num = 12 
num = 13 //compilation error

You also may notice the lack of semicolons. Fear not -- I did not make a mistake! Semicolons are optional in Kotlin, and you shouldn't ever need them. The compiler will infer your statement endings.

Null Safety

One of the key design decisions that the Kotlin team made was to enforce null safety at compile-time. All variables must explicitly be declared as either nullable or non-nullable.

var foo: Int? // nullable Int variable
var bar: Int // non-nullable Int

bar = Null // compilation error

As a result of this feature, NullPointerExceptions will never be thrown in pure Kotlin code unless you explicitly throw one. They won't be missed! Kotlin also provides some additional syntax to enable working with these new null constraints.

Inline null-checks can be used to access methods or fields of an object that may or may not be null. If the object is null, then the expression is evaluated as null. If the object is not null, then the expression is evaluated as normal.

var name: String? = null
var length: Int? = name?.length()
// length is null

name = "Jane Doe"
length = name?.length()
// length is eight

My favorite null safety feature is the Elvis operator ?:. This operator has earned such a prestigious name because if you tilt your head sideways, it kind of looks like an emoticon of Elvis with his rock-star hair! It is the null-coalescing operator available in Kotlin and makes working with nullable variables even eaiser. The Elvis operator allows for you to return an alternative value if a statement is null.

var name: String? = null
var length: Int // length is a non-nullable Int
length = name?.length() ?: 0 
// length is zero

name = "Jane Doe"
length = name?.length() ?: 0
// length is eight

Data Classes

Kotlin provides the data class syntax to make declaring POJOs (Plain Old Java Objects) a one-line affair.

data class Person(var firstName: String, var lastName: String, var age: Int)

The data class syntax creates a new class with a default constructor, getters and setters, and commonly used methods such as equals(), toString(), hashCode(), and copy(). All of these defaults can be overridden if necessary, but are completely fine for most use cases.

Class Extensions

One of the coolest Kotlin features is the ability to extend existing classes by defining new methods for that class outside of the class definition. These extension functions are extremely useful when working with classes that are imported from a library or if you want to install some new logic onto a built-in class.

// MutableList is Kotlin's built-in version of ArrayList
fun MutableList<Int>.swap(index1: Int, index2: Int) {
    val tmp = this[index1]
    this[index1] = this[index2]
    this[index2] = tmp

val list = mutableListOf(1, 2, 3)
list.swap(0, 2) /// list is now [3, 2, 1]


Kotlin has introduced a robust coroutine system to support asynchronous programming. Coroutines are lightweight virtual threads that all run on the main thread.

fun main() {
    GlobalScope.launch { // launch a new coroutine in background and continue
        delay(1000L) // non-blocking delay for 1 second (default time unit is ms)
        println("World!") // print after delay
    println("Hello,") // main thread continues while coroutine is delayed
    Thread.sleep(2000L) // block main thread for 2 seconds to keep JVM alive

An in-depth look at all of what coroutines have to offer would probably turn this blog post into a short book, but they are one of the primary features that allow you to utilize more modern programming principles in your Kotlin code.

You may also notice that Kotlin has a println() method. This is another example of the quality of life improvements that Kotlin provides to make the syntax easier- no more System.out.println()!

How to Get Started

If you're ready to get started with Kotlin, there are tons of great resources to begin learning Kotlin.

JetBrains describes Kotlin as, "a modern but already mature programming language aimed to make developers happier," and I completely agree with this assessment. As someone with a Java background, Kotlin provides me with a similar coding experience to Java, but with changes that consistently improve the development experience and allow me to focus on problem solving instead.

Spend an hour or two going through the Kotlin Koans, and I guarantee you will begin to notice these small differences. Once you're ready to begin working with Kotlin, you can write projects from scratch in Kotlin, or utilize Kotlin's deep interoperability with Java. As long as you're working with Java 6 or newer, it's as simple as adding the Kotlin compiler to your project and beginning to write Kotlin classes.

Part of two of this blog will walk through converting an existing Spring Boot application from Java to Kotlin. Stay tuned!

Post by Davis Mohar
May 27, 2021