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Implicit Functions in Scala

In the previous post, we looked at implicit parameters; parameters that will be automatically passed values annotated as implicit. In this post, we’ll take a look at implicit functions and how they can be useful to convert things of one type to things of another.

Implicit Functions

Implicit functions will be called automatically if the compiler thinks it’s a good idea to do so. What that means is that if your code doesn’t compile but would, if a call was made to an implicit function, Scala will call that function to make it compile. They’re typically used to create implicit conversion functions; single argument functions to automatically convert from one type to another.

For example, the following function allows you to convert a Scala function into a instance of the Java 8 Consumer single argument method but still use Scala’s concise syntax.

implicit def toConsumer[A](function: A => Unit): Consumer[A] = new Consumer[A]() {
  override def accept(arg: A): Unit = function.apply(arg)

You can avoid having to write clunky anonymous class instantiation when interfacing with Java and so mimic Java’s lambda syntax. So rather than having to use the longhand version like this.

def exampleUsingJavaForEach() {
  javaCollection.forEach(new Consumer[Element]() {
    override def accept(element: Element): Unit = observer.update

You can write this, where we just pass a Scala function to Java’s forEach method.

def exampleUsingImplicitConversion() {
  javaCollection.forEach((element: Element) => observer.update)

The argument to forEach is actually a function of type Element => Unit. Scala recognises that the toConsumer method could convert this into a Consumer[Element] and does so implicitly.

def exampleUsingImplicitConversion() {
  val function: ObserverS => Unit = (observer) => observer.update

Which is basically short-hand for this.

def exampleUsingImplicitConversion() {
  val function: ObserverS => Unit = (observer) => observer.update(this, status)

Another Example

If we have a button on we web page that we’d like to find using Web Driver, we’d normally write something like the following, using a “locator” to locate it by id attribute.

  val button: WebElement = driver.findElement("save-button")

It doesn’t take into account that the element might not be there when we call it (for example, when our UI uses ajax and adds the button asynchronously) and it’s also a bit verbose. We can use an implicit function to address both of these issues.

The fragment below uses the WebDriverWait class to wait for a UI element to appear on the screen (using findElement to check and retrying if necessary) and so smooths out the asynchronous issues.

implicit def waitForElement(locator: By): WebElement = {
  val predicate: WebDriver => WebElement = _.findElement(locator)
  new WebDriverWait(driver, 30).withMessage(s"waiting for element '$locator' on page '${driver.getCurrentUrl}'").until(predicate)

It’s also an implicit function designed to convert a By locator into a WebElement. It means we can write something like the following where button is no longer a WebElement, but a By.

  val button ="save-button")

Without the implicit waitForElement function, the code wouldn’t compile; By doesn’t have a click method on it. With the implicit function in scope however, the compiler works out that calling it (and passing in create as the argument), would return something that does have the click method and would compile.

Single Arguments Only Please

Now there’s one little bit I’ve brushed over here; namely how the WebDriver driver instance is made available. The example above assumes it’s available but it’d be nicer to pass it into the function along with locator. However, there’s a restriction of passing only a single argument into an implicit function. The answer is to use a second argument (using Scala’s built in currying support). By combining implicit parameters the we saw in the previous post, we can maintain the elegant API.

implicit def waitForElement(locator: By)(implicit driver: WebDriver: WebElement = {
  val predicate: WebDriver => WebElement = _.findElement(locator)
  new WebDriverWait(driver, 30).withMessage(s"waiting for element '$locator' on page '${driver.getCurrentUrl}'").until(predicate)

So the full example would look like this; making driver an implicit val means we can avoid a call to

class ExampleWebDriverTest extends mutable.Specification {

  implicit val driver: WebDriver = Browser.create.driver

  "The 'save' button writes to the database" >> {
    val button ="save")

    // scala calls the implicit def to convert the button into a WebElement
    // ...


You can see from the examples above that implicit functions (and often combining them with implicit values) can make for succinct and more readable APIs. Next we’ll look at implicit classes.

If you’re interested in more Java bridge implicits like toConsumer, check out this gist.

More in the Scala Implicits Series

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