Understand Interface and Abstract Class in Java

Interface and abstract class are similar that I was sometimes confused about their differences, or didn’t know when I should use each. There are a lot of posts about their differences in terms of usage details, but many of them do not cover differences in design. I looked up on the internet and summarized some key points I learned.

Java Interfaces vs. Abstract Classes, by Jakob Jenkov


Design Aspect

First, we should explore why language designers have created these two things (understand their purposes). In essence, actions are abstracted by interfaces, while roots of classes are abstracted by abstract classes. By saying roots of classes, they refer to the essence or origin of those classes.

For example, in terms of eating, we can define an interface IEat that abstracts all kinds of eat actions (eat by forks, eat by hands). It is reasonable that a class can implement multiple interfaces, say a man can have multiple ways of eating. As for abstract classes, Man and Woman classes can be abstracted by a Human abstract class. We cannot instantiate a Human class since it is abstract, but we can do that for its concrete subclasses. A class inherits from only one abstract class. We don’t allow a Man subclassing from a Human class and an Animal class at the same time, which is irrational.

Second, we see how they are applied in Java class design.

List Hierarchy

Iterable, Collection, List are interfaces. From this illustration, we can say that:

  • Idea #1: Interfaces represent levels of abstraction.
  • Idea #2: Abstract classes are used to put publicly shared logic.
  • Idea #3: Abstraction levels: Interface > Abstract Class > Implementation Class

Then, let’s have a look at the more complex illustration in CS 61B lecture notes.

The Whole Shebang, CS 61B

In fact, ArrayList, AbstractList, AbstractCollection all implement List interface. I temporarily don’t know why it is designed that way.

The takeaway of this part is to understand the three ideas above, understanding that the major role of interfaces is to define levels of abstraction.

Usage Aspect


  1. Both of them cannot be instantiated. Only their concrete subclasses can be done in this way.
  2. In an interface, default modifiers for methods are public, abstract.
  3. Both require implementations of all abstract methods. In a subclass inheriting from an abstract class, if abstract methods are not implemented, the subclass should also be defined as an abstract class. Also, all abstract methods cannot be static and private.


  1. A class can implement multiple interfaces, while it can only inherit from one abstract class.
  2. An interface only allows method declaration, while an abstract class allows both declaration and implementation. So, we can say that interfaces are for design and abstract classes are for refactoring. Marked
  3. An abstract class can have no abstract methods. weird
  4. An interface allows static final member variables (constants), but instance variables. An abstract class can have instance variables.
  5. An interface doesn’t have any constructor, while an abstract class have a default constructor and it is called whenever the concrete subclass is instantiated.

Default Method in Java 8

In Java 8, an interface has default methods in which we can write implementation logic. The purpose of adding this new feature is that adding new methods does not require us to modify the code in the class that implements this interface (no re-compilation).

For example, in Java SE 7, there is no sort() in List; and in Java SE 8, sort() is added in List. If we had a class MyList implements List in the pass and sort() in Java SE 8 is not a default method, we need to implement sort() in MyList and re-compile the source file. With the help of default methods, the default implementation is provided. MyList won’t be changed.

Also, we notice that although we have default methods in Java 8, they cannot replace abstract classes because they don’t have states (instance variables).