Tazjin's blog

Make Object <T> Again!

A few minutes ago I found myself debugging a strange Java issue related to Jackson, one of the most common Java JSON serialization libraries.

The gist of the issue was that a short wrapper using some types from Javaslang was causing unexpected problems:

public <T> Try<T> readValue(String json, TypeReference type) {
  return Try.of(() -> objectMapper.readValue(json, type));

The signature of this function was based on the original Jackson readValue type signature:

public <T> T readValue(String content, TypeReference valueTypeRef)

While happily using my wrapper function I suddenly got an unexpected error telling me that Object is incompatible with the type I was asking Jackson to de-serialize, which got me to re-evaluate the above type signature again.

Lets look for a second at some code that will happily compile if you are using Jackson's own readValue:

// This shouldn't compile!
Long l = objectMapper.readValue("\"foo\"", new TypeReference<String>(){});

As you can see there we ask Jackson to decode the JSON into a String as enclosed in the TypeReference, but assign the result to a Long. And it compiles. And it failes at runtime with java.lang.ClassCastException: java.lang.String cannot be cast to java.lang.Long. Huh?

Looking at the Jackson readValue implementation it becomes clear what's going on here:

@SuppressWarnings({ "unchecked", "rawtypes" })
public <T> T readValue(String content, TypeReference valueTypeRef)
    throws IOException, JsonParseException, JsonMappingException
    return (T) _readMapAndClose(/* whatever */);

The function is parameterised over the type T, however the only place where T occurs in the signature is in the parameter declaration and the function return type. Java will happily let you use generic functions and types without specifying type parameters:

// Compiles fine!
final List myList = List.of(1,2,3);

// Type is now myList : List<Object>

Meaning that those parameters default to Object. Now in the code above Jackson also explicitly casts the return value of its inner function call to T.

What ends up happening is that Java infers the expected return type from the context of the readValue and then happily uses the unchecked cast to fit that return type. If the type hints of the context aren't strong enough we simply get Object back.

So what's the fix for this? It's quite simple:

public <T> T readValue(String content, TypeReference<T> valueTypeRef)

By also making the parameter appear in the TypeReference we "bind" T to the type enclosed in the type reference. The cast can then also safely be removed.

The cherries on top of this are:

a) that @SuppressWarnings({ "rawtypes" }) explicitly disables a warning that would've caught this

b) that the readValue implementation using the less powerful Class class to carry the type parameter does this correctly: public <T> T readValue(String content, Class<T> valueType)

The big question I have about this is why does Jackson do it this way? Obviously the warning did not just appear there by chance, so somebody must have thought about this?

If anyone knows what the reason is, I'd be happy to hear from you.

PS: Shoutout to David & Lucia for helping me not lose my sanity over this.