Lovis Möller

On Software Development.

Kotlin Basics: Standard Extension Functions

Kotlin’s most powerful feature (compared to Java) are probably Extension Functions.
They allow you to add new functionality to an existing class, without using inheritance or reflection. You can define your own extension functions and Kotlin ships with a lot of pre-defined ones.
There are e.g. a lot extensions for collections, but also those that extend every class in your program. That’s right - every single class is extended by the functions in Standard.kt.
When I started with Kotlin, I found them quite confusing. With this post, I hope to un-confuse them a little bit.

Before we get to the details, some basics.

An Extension Function is a function that adds new functionality to an existing class. It’s functionally equivalent to a static utility function in Java, but we can call it from the object itself.

In Java, you might have something like this:

class Util {
  public static final boolean isNumeric(String receiver) {
     return reveiver.matches("\\d+");
  }
}
...

String myString = ...;

if(Util.isNumeric(myString)) ...

By using an extension function, Kotlin allows us to call the isNumeric method directly on the receiving object:

fun String.isNumeric(): Boolean {
  return this.matches("\\d+".toRegex())
}
...

val myString = ...

if(myString.isNumeric()) ...

Pretty cool, right? You might agree that using extension functions increases the code’s readability.

The example shows how an extension function is defined. We use the fun keyword, followed by the type we want to extend (in this case String). Then a . and the name of the function. That’s it!
The extension function will always receive an implicit parameter this, which is the object we called the extension function on (in this case, myString).

Let’s take a look at Kotlin’s standard extension functions.

run
public inline fun <T, R> T.run(block: T.() -> R): R = block()

This looks a bit messy in the beginning. But it’s actually quite simple. run is a generic extension function on any type T, that executes another extension function on this type (extension functions as parameters are symbolized as T.()) and returns the result of that function.

Consider this example:

val generator = PasswordGenerator()
generator.seed = "someString"
generator.hash = {s -> someHash(s)}
generator.hashRepititions = 1000

val password: Password = generator.generate()

Someone didn’t quite think through the design of this password generator class. Its constructor does nothing, but it needs a lot of initialization. To use this class, I need to introduce a variable generator, set all necessary parameters and use generate to generate the actual password. This is cool if I want to generate multiple passwords with the same generator, but if I throwaway the generator variable anyway, I can save some typing by using run:

val password: Password = PasswordGenerator().run {
       seed = "someString"
       hash = {s -> someHash(s)}
       hashRepetitions = 1000

       generate()
   }

Lambdas in Kotlin implicitly return the result of the last line. That’s why I can omit the temporary variable and store the password directly. Because an extension function is passed to run I can also access the password generator’s properties like seed or hash directly.
This way “the things that belong together” stay together. It’s one line more, I give you that. But it’s still less code with less redundancy I had to write.

apply
public inline fun <T> T.apply(block: T.() -> Unit): T { block(); return this }

This function looks almost like run, but there is a slight difference. apply will always return this, which is the receiver of the extension function.
That means that we can use apply for builder-style initialization, even if the designer of the class didn’t implement it with a builder in mind.
If we stick to the password generator example:

val generator = PasswordGenerator().apply {
       seed = "someString"
       hash = {s -> someHash(s)}
       hashRepetitions = 1000
   }

val password = generator.generate()

This is particularly useful if you need an object with the same settings more than once.
It can also be used to avoid init{} blocks during the initialization of a class.
Instead of:

class Message(message: String, signature: String) {
  val body = MessageBody()
  
  init {
    body.text = message + "\n" + signature
  }
}

You can write:

class Message(message: String, signature: String) {
  val body = MessageBody().apply {
    text = message + "\n" + signature
  }
}
let
public inline fun <T, R> T.let(block: (T) -> R): R = block(this)

let is particularly useful to use it instead of a null check:

val fruitBasket = ...

val result = apple?.let {
  fruitBasket.add(it)
}

The apple (it) will only be added to the basket if it’s not null.
Notice that let will return the result of the last line in the lambda (which is the result of add).
Just like run, let also helps to keep the scope of your variables small. Instead of this you have to use it or a custom variable name to reference it:

val fruitBasket = ...

appleTree.pick()?.let {
  fruitBasket.add(it)
}
also
public inline fun <T> T.also(block: (T) -> Unit): T { block(this); return this }

Kotlin 1.1 introduced this new extension function called also. It fills the gap between let and apply.
Just like apply, it will always return its receiver. But instead of an extension function it takes a normal function as an argument.

class FruitBasket {
    private var weight = 0

    fun addFrom(appleTree: AppleTree) {
        val apple = appleTree.pick().also { apple ->
            this.weight += apple.weight
            add(apple)
        }
        ...
    }
    ...
    fun add(fruit: Fruit) = ...
}

I renamed the implicit it to an explicit apple this time. Assuming the function appleTree.pick() returns an apple, the weight of the whole basket increases.
Notice that both the apple and the basket have a weight property. If I had used apply, it would not be possible* to access the basket’s weight. Since apply takes an extension function, this would refer to the apple and not the basket. With also this is possible.

takeIf and takeUnless
public inline fun <T> T.takeIf(predicate: (T) -> Boolean): T? = if (predicate(this)) this else null

public inline fun <T> T.takeUnless(predicate: (T) -> Boolean): T? = if (!predicate(this)) this else null

The last two functions I want to mention have also been added to Kotlin with 1.1.

takeIf does exactly that - it takes the receiver if it satisfies a condition.
takeUnless inverts the condition and takes this only if the condition is not satisfied.

For example:

val redApple = apple.takeIf { it.color != RED }
val otherApple = apple.takeUnless { it.color == RED }

Those two methods are the functional equivalent to the filter function to collections, but they operate on a single variable.

Summary

All extension functions can be used to avoid temporary variables/Re-scope a variable (or the result of a function). Many of the extension functions in Standard.kt can be used interchangeable. Pick the ones that match your style and that offer the best readability in your context. The table below shows a common usage for each of the presented functions.

Function Argument Returns Usage examples
run this any result make an object a builder for another object
apply this this make an object its own builder
let it any result null checks
also it this You need apply but don’t want to shadow this
takeIf it it or null shorthand for if(predicate(it)) it else null
takeUnless it it or null shorthand for if(!predicate(it)) it else null

* You still can by using this@FruitBasket, but do you want to do this?