The Object of Objects

The basic idea of object-oriented development is to view a complex system as the interaction of simpler objects. The word objects is being used here in a specific technical sense. Part of the challenge of OO programming is figuring out the vocabulary. You can think of an OO object as a sort of active data type that combines both data and operations. To put it simply, objects know stuff (they contain data), and they can do stuff (they have operations). Objects interact by sending each other messages. A message is simply a request for an object to perform one of its operations.

Consider a simple example. Suppose we want to develop a data processing system for a college or university. We will need to keep track of considerable information. For starters, we must keep records on the students who attend the school. Each student could be represented in the program as an object. A student object would contain certain data such as name, ID number, courses taken, campus address, home address, GPA, etc. Each student object would also be able to respond to certain requests. For example, to send out a mailing, we would need to print an address for each student. This task might be handled by a printCampusAddress operation. When a particular student object is sent the printCampusAddress message, it prints out its own address. To print out all the addresses, a program would loop through the collection of student objects and send each one in turn the printCampusAddress message.

Objects may refer to other objects. In our example, each course in the college might also be represented by an object. Course objects would know things such as who the instructor is, what students are in the course, what the prerequisites are, and when and where the course meets. One example operation might be addStudent, which causes a student to be enrolled in the course. The student being enrolled would be represented by the appropriate student object. Instructors would be another kind of object, as well as rooms, and even times. You can see how successive refinement of these ideas could lead to a rather sophisticated model of the information structure of the college.

As a beginning programmer, you're probably not yet ready to tackle a college information system. For now, we'll study objects in the context of some simple graphics programming.

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