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4.7 Object Serialization

Object serialization is one of the major new features of Java 1.1. It refers to the ability to write the complete state of an object (including any objects it refers to) to an output stream, and then recreate that object at some later time by reading its serialized state from an input stream. You can serialize an object simply by passing it to the writeObject() method of an ObjectOutputStream. Similarly, you can create an object from a serialized object stream by calling the readObject() method of an ObjectInputStream. Both of these new object stream types are part of the java.io package.

Typically, object serialization is as simple as calling writeObject() and readObject(). There are a few additional twists, however, that are worth mentioning here. First, only objects that subclass the Serializable (or Externalizable) interface can be serialized. The Serializable interface does not define any methods, but merely acts as a marker that indicates whether serialization is allowed on a given object. Second, fields of a class declared transient are not serialized as part of an object's state. The transient modifier was legal in Java 1.0, but had no defined behavior. Third, some objects may need to implement custom serialization or de-serialization behavior. They can do this by implementing special readObject() and writeObject() methods. Chapter 9, Object Serialization describes all of these aspects of object serialization in more detail.

Despite the fact that only a few classes and interfaces are part of the Object Serialization API, serialization is a very important technology and is used in several places in Java 1.1. It is used as the basis for transferring objects via cut-and-paste. It is used to transfer objects between a client and a server for remote method invocation. It is used by the JavaBeans API--beans are often provided as pre-initialized, serialized objects, rather than merely as class files. Java 1.1 also adds the capability for applets to be loaded into an applet viewer or browser as serialized objects. One common use we are likely to see for object serialization is as a way to save user preferences and other application states--a serialized object is an instant file format that works for any application. Another use that should be popular with GUI builder tools is saving the complete Component hierarchy of an application's GUI as a serialized object, and then later loading in that object in order to automatically recreate the GUI.


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