In Java, whats the difference between public, default, protected, and private?

Are there clear rules on when to use each of these when making classes and interfaces and dealing with inheritance?


Like you'd think, only the class in which it is declared can see it.

Package Private

Can only be seen and used by the package in which it was declared. This is the default in Java (which some see as a mistake).


Package Private + can be seen by subclasses or package member.


Everyone can see it.

Visible outside the code I control. (While not Java syntax, it is important for this discussion).

When should you use what? The whole idea is encapsulation to hide information. As much as possible you want to hide the detail of how something is done from your users. Why? Because then you can change them later and not break anybody's code. This lets you optimize, refactor, redesign and fix bugs without worry that someone was using that code you just overhauled.

So, rule of thumb is to make things only as visible as they have to be. Start with private and only add more visibility as needed. Only make public that which is absolutely necessary for the user to know, every detail you make public cramps your ability to redesign the system.

If you want users to be able to customize behaviors, rather than making internals public so they can override them, it's often a better idea to shove those guts into an object and make that interface public. That way they can simply plug in a new object. For example, if you were writing a CD player and wanted the "go find info about this CD" bit customizable, rather than make those methods public you'd put all that functionality into its own object and make just your object getter/setter public. In this way being stingy about exposing your guts encourages good composition and separation of concerns

Personally, I stick with just "private" and "public". Many OO languages just have that. "Protected" can be handy, but it's really a cheat. Once an interface is more than private it's outside of your control and you have to go looking in other people's code to find uses.

This is where the idea of "published" comes in. Changing an interface (refactoring it) requires that you find all the code which is using it and change that, too. If the interface is private, well no problem. If it's protected you have to go find all your subclasses. If it's public you have to go find all the code which uses your code. Sometimes this is possible, for example if you're working on corporate code that's for internal use only it doesn't matter if an interface is public. You can grab all the code out of the corporate repository. But if an interface is "published", if there is code using it outside your control, then you're hosed. You must support that interface or risk breaking code. Even protected interfaces can be considered published (which is why I don't bother with protected).

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