Interface vs Base class


When should I use an interface and when should I use a base class?

Should it always be an interface if I don't want to actually define a base implementation of the methods?

If I have a Dog and Cat class. Why would I want to implement IPet instead of PetBase? I can understand having interfaces for ISheds or IBarks (IMakesNoise?), because those can be placed on a pet by pet basis, but I don't understand which to use for a generic Pet.

3/6/2016 9:25:15 PM

Accepted Answer

Let's take your example of a Dog and a Cat class, and let's illustrate using C#:

Both a dog and a cat are animals, specifically, quadruped mammals (animals are waaay too general). Let us assume that you have an abstract class Mammal, for both of them:

public abstract class Mammal

This base class will probably have default methods such as:

  • Feed
  • Mate

All of which are behavior that have more or less the same implementation between either species. To define this you will have:

public class Dog : Mammal
public class Cat : Mammal

Now let's suppose there are other mammals, which we will usually see in a zoo:

public class Giraffe : Mammal
public class Rhinoceros : Mammal
public class Hippopotamus : Mammal

This will still be valid because at the core of the functionality Feed() and Mate() will still be the same.

However, giraffes, rhinoceros, and hippos are not exactly animals that you can make pets out of. That's where an interface will be useful:

public interface IPettable
    IList<Trick> Tricks{get; set;}
    void Bathe();
    void Train(Trick t);

The implementation for the above contract will not be the same between a cat and dog; putting their implementations in an abstract class to inherit will be a bad idea.

Your Dog and Cat definitions should now look like:

public class Dog : Mammal, IPettable
public class Cat : Mammal, IPettable

Theoretically you can override them from a higher base class, but essentially an interface allows you to add on only the things you need into a class without the need for inheritance.

Consequently, because you can usually only inherit from one abstract class (in most statically typed OO languages that is... exceptions include C++) but be able to implement multiple interfaces, it allows you to construct objects in a strictly as required basis.

11/4/2016 3:56:27 PM

Well, Josh Bloch said himself in Effective Java 2d:

Prefer interfaces over abstract classes

Some main points:

  • Existing classes can be easily retrofitted to implement a new interface. All you have to do is add the required methods if they don’t yet exist and add an implements clause to the class declaration.

  • Interfaces are ideal for defining mixins. Loosely speaking, a mixin is a type that a class can implement in addition to its “primary type” to declare that it provides some optional behavior. For example, Comparable is a mixin interface that allows a class to declare that its instances are ordered with respect to other mutually comparable objects.

  • Interfaces allow the construction of nonhierarchical type frameworks. Type hierarchies are great for organizing some things, but other things don’t fall neatly into a rigid hierarchy.

  • Interfaces enable safe, powerful functionality enhancements via the wrap- per class idiom. If you use abstract classes to define types, you leave the programmer who wants to add functionality with no alternative but to use inheritance.

Moreover, you can combine the virtues of interfaces and abstract classes by providing an abstract skeletal implementation class to go with each nontrivial interface that you export.

On the other hand, interfaces are very hard to evolve. If you add a method to an interface it'll break all of it's implementations.

PS.: Buy the book. It's a lot more detailed.


Interfaces and base classes represent two different forms of relationships.

Inheritance (base classes) represent an "is-a" relationship. E.g. a dog or a cat "is-a" pet. This relationship always represents the (single) purpose of the class (in conjunction with the "single responsibility principle").

Interfaces, on the other hand, represent additional features of a class. I'd call it an "is" relationship, like in "Foo is disposable", hence the IDisposable interface in C#.


Modern style is to define IPet and PetBase.

The advantage of the interface is that other code can use it without any ties whatsoever to other executable code. Completely "clean." Also interfaces can be mixed.

But base classes are useful for simple implementations and common utilities. So provide an abstract base class as well to save time and code.



  • Defines the contract between 2 modules. Cannot have any implementation.
  • Most languages allow you to implement multiple interfaces
  • Modifying an interface is a breaking change. All implementations need to be recompiled/modified.
  • All members are public. Implementations have to implement all members.
  • Interfaces help in Decoupling. You can use mock frameworks to mock out anything behind an interface
  • Interfaces normally indicate a kind of behavior
  • Interface implementations are decoupled / isolated from each other

Base classes

  • Allows you to add some default implementation that you get for free by derivation
  • Except C++, you can only derive from one class. Even if could from multiple classes, it is usually a bad idea.
  • Changing the base class is relatively easy. Derivations do not need to do anything special
  • Base classes can declare protected and public functions that can be accessed by derivations
  • Abstract Base classes can't be mocked easily like interfaces
  • Base classes normally indicate type hierarchy (IS A)
  • Class derivations may come to depend on some base behavior (have intricate knowledge of parent implementation). Things can be messy if you make a change to the base implementation for one guy and break the others.

In general, you should favor interfaces over abstract classes. One reason to use an abstract class is if you have common implementation among concrete classes. Of course, you should still declare an interface (IPet) and have an abstract class (PetBase) implement that interface.Using small, distinct interfaces, you can use multiples to further improve flexibility. Interfaces allow the maximum amount of flexibility and portability of types across boundaries. When passing references across boundaries, always pass the interface and not the concrete type. This allows the receiving end to determine concrete implementation and provides maximum flexibility. This is absolutely true when programming in a TDD/BDD fashion.

The Gang of Four stated in their book "Because inheritance exposes a subclass to details of its parent's implementation, it's often said that 'inheritance breaks encapsulation". I believe this to be true.


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