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.NET Generics for VB Programmers

  • July 20, 2005
  • By Paul Kimmel
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Defining a Generic Class

Generic classes are defined in the same instances that regular classes are defined, with one difference. A regular class is defined when you have data and more then one method that work as a cohesive unit or solution. Generic classes are defined when methods and data work as a cohesive unit and it is possible to abstract the data in such a way that multiple data types could be supported with the same code. For example, queues, lists, and stacks do not care what they store, just how they store it. If you use a queue, stack, or list of objects, then you have to perform messy type conversions all over your code. If you use a generic queue, stack, or list, then the type conversion occurs internally to the class. That is to say, the locus for the messy type conversions converge to an internal point in the class, and the class consumer can rely on compiler-checked types and isn't required to perform if-conditional checks and type conversions.


Defining a generic class is like defining multiple generic methods, with one addition: the (Of T) construct is used in the class header too. To demonstrate, you have a defined a generic strongly typed collection (see Listing 3) derived from System.Collections.CollectionBase. You can use this one class for any data type, as if you had defined a custom typed collection for all types:

Listing 3: A Generic Strongly Typed Collection

Module Module1
    Sub Main()
      Dim BrokenBones As TypedCollection(Of OrthoInjury) = _
        New TypedCollection(Of OrthoInjury)

      BrokenBones.Add(New OrthoInjury(True, _
        "Broken Right Clavicle", "Vicodin; Heals n 8 to 12 weeks"))
      BrokenBones.Add(New OrthoInjury(True, _
        "Fractured Posterior Rib #5", "Heals in 6 to 8 weeks"))

      BrokenBones.Add(New OrthoInjury(True, _
        "Fractured Posterior Rib #1", "Heals in 6 to 8 weeks"))

      Dim injury As OrthoInjury
      For Each injury In BrokenBones
        Console.WriteLine("Description: " & injury.Description)
    End Sub

End Module

Public Class TypedCollection(Of T)
  Inherits System.Collections.CollectionBase

  Default Public Property Item(ByVal Index As Integer) As T
      Return CType(List(Index), T)
    End Get
    Set(ByVal value As T)
      List(Index) = value
    End Set
  End Property

  Public Function Add(ByVal value As T) As Integer
    Return List.Add(value)
  End Function

End Class

Public Class OrthoInjury
  Private FHasXray As Boolean
  Private FDescription As String
  Private FPrognosis As String

  Public Sub New(ByVal HasXray As Boolean, _
    ByVal Description As String, ByVal Prognosis As String)

    FHasXray = HasXray
    FDescription = Description
    FPrognosis = Prognosis
  End Sub

  Public Property HasXray() As Boolean
      Return FHasXray
    End Get
    Set(ByVal value As Boolean)
      FHasXray = value
    End Set
  End Property

  Public Property Description() As String
      Return FDescription
    End Get
    Set(ByVal value As String)
      FDescription = value
    End Set
  End Property

  Public Property Prognosis() As String
      Return FPrognosis
    End Get
    Set(ByVal value As String)
      FPrognosis = value
    End Set
  End Property
End Class


If you have read previous articles on typed collections, then you will see that the generic typed collection (in bold in Listing 3) is basically a strongly typed collection with the data type parameterized.

Using Predefined Generic Classes

Fortunately, you are not required to define generic classes from scratch. The System.Collections.Generic namespace defines many of the classic data structures, such as List, Queue, and Stack, as generics already. You simply have to import that namespace and declare an instance of the type you want. For example, the following code adequately replaces your custom typed collection with the .NET 2.0 generic List typed collection:


      Dim BrokenBones As System.Collections.Generic.List(Of OrthoInjury) = _

        New System.Collections.Generic.List(Of OrthoInjury)


As a general rule, if you want to store more than one type (heterogeneous types), use the older style classes like Queue and Stack. If you want to use just one type (homogeneous types), use the newer generic classes in the System.Collections.Generic namespace. Generally, you'll want the newer generic classes.

The Choice to Learn

Fewer and fewer things are separating traditionally complex languages like C++ from traditionally simpler languages like VB. At first glance, this fact can be frustrating because it implies VB is now harder to learn—like C++ is. In reality, the core language (VB) is pretty much the same, and just like C++, you always have the choice of learning more advanced idioms like generics if and when you need them. Now you aren't handicapped by absence of choice.


Also keep in mind that you always have the option of learning any programming idiom as a consumer first—use what's there like generic Lists—and then as a producer, learning how to create your own. Trying to master everything at once can be overwhelming and just isn't necessary.

About the Author

Paul Kimmel has written several books on object-oriented programming and .NET. Check out his upcoming book UML DeMystified from McGraw-Hill/Osborne (Spring 2005). Paul is also the founder and chief architect for Software Conceptions, Inc, founded 1990. He is available to help design and build software worldwide. You may contact him for consulting opportunities or technology questions at pkimmel@softconcepts.com.


If you are interested in joining, sponsoring a meeting, or posting a job then checkout www.glugnet.org, the Web page of the Greater Lansing area Users Group for .NET.

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