Kotlin Delegation by Inception

Delegating to delegates with a functional twist

Android Matryoshka Dolls

I think Kotlin delegates are underused; they are the best implementation of the “favor composition over inheritance” refrain.

A class that is also a list by virtue of it having a reference to one

In the above, the ListContainer is a List that can be iterated through by delegating to the backing List within itself. Delegates are so much more than that however; fundamentally a Delegate allows for a property to have its read and/or write semantics implemented by an arbitrary bit of code. One of the most underutilized, and therefore the least learned from in my opinion, is the map() Delegate.

A class whose properties delegate to and therefore mutate the backing map passed to it

In the above, read/writes to the User instance are delegated to the backing map; changes in the fields are reflected in the map immediately. Although a neat example, most Android apps don’t have data blobs marshaled in maps, they have it in Bundles. A more useful Delegate Android wise therefore would be:

A Delegate for reading/writing from and to an Android Bundle

This would let you write the following expressions to let you read/write from a Bundle without having to declare extra string constants all over the place, the key is simply the property name:

The above is nice, but not very flexible as it’s an extension on the Bundle type itself. The more interesting usages of Bundles in Android tend to be via proxy; Intent extras, Activity deep link params and Fragment arguments all internally delegate to a Bundle instance. What would be really nice is if we could write a Delegate that itself delegated to something else that provides a type we already know how to delegate to; or delegation by inception as I like to call it:

A Delegate whose implementation delegates to another Delegate via a mapper transform

With the above, we can compose Delegates to arbitrarily read and write to any type, provided the type has a reference to another type that has a ready to use Delegate. So for Intents, Activities and Fragments we can write:

Delegates for various Android types that use Bundles to marshal data

With this Bundles become so much more convenient to work with:

Examples of Android Delegates that all rely on a Bundle

With this, a full User edit flow using the new FragmentResult API may look something like this:

Example integration flow of Bundle delegates

In the above, the edited user has their name set to “Blake”, wile keeping the existing user’s last name and age. Also in UserEditFragment, the user data will survive process death since it is stored in the arguments bundle; all this with no bundle.getParcelable(“propertyKey”), or fragment.arguments.getParcelable(“userKey”) in sight.

We need to go deeper

Why stop there though? I wrote recently on how ViewBinding makes it really easy to express Views as a function of their State. In situations like that, it often is very helpful if the View could remember the last bit of state it was bound to; typically to memoize animations. Now all Android View instances let you save arbitrary bits of data in them via their setTag and getTag methods with unique integer resource ids. If this is making you start thinking of a map like Delegate for a View that took full advantage of this, you’re in luck:

A delegate for a View to store arbitrary types via its tags

Much like with Bundles above, if we have any class that has a reference to a View, we can write delegates for it that internally delegate to it:

Delegates for a View, ViewBinding and even a RecyclerView ViewHolder

Again, just like before with Intents, Activities and Fragments; any ViewBinding or RecyclerView.ViewHolder instance can have any arbitrary property. This is especially useful for:

  1. RecyclerView.ViewHolder instances, because it means you don’t ever need to subclass it again; just add private var properties that delegate to the type you want. This is the whole foundation for declarative RecyclerViews covered here.
Using a private delegate to strongly couple an ObjectAnimator with a TextView

The possibilities are quite endless. JSON deserialization is one of the most common things an app has to do and libraries often use reflection at runtime to help with it. With the right Delegate however, you could declare fields in a class and read the value from a common JSON type without the need for reflection.

In summary, Kotlin delegates are one of the best features of the language, and seem to be woefully underused. In your codebase there’s probably some utility function that does a transform that a Delegate is better suited for. Why not add replacing it with a custom Delegate to your New Year’s resolutions?

All the aforementioned Delegates are bundled (pun intended) in the following dependency, and more reading about how Kotlin Delegates under the hood can be found here.