Let's start with a loose definition of 'marker interface' (please correct me or dispute this if you disagree):

If applied to a type, a marker interface doesn't provide any contract of methods to implement for that type. A marker interface gives semantic meaning.

So, OK, that's fine. However giving something a meaning has to ultimately have a practical consumption or usage elsewhere to be of benefit, right? So we may have two types that are different, but that are (for example) types related to 'scheduled tasks' in a system, so we may 'decorate' them both with an 'IAmTask' interface.

OK, so how do we then put that to practical use? I've read that:

One of the benefits of a marker interface is to 'communicate a semantic constraint/guarantee that doesn't otherwise change the API'.

OK, well a marker interface isn't defining a contract for methods that must be present on the type, so what's a practical example in code of how a semantic constraint/guarantee can be ultimately be returned to the user and consumed in a way that tightens up the intended guarantee to the consumer, without enforcing methods on the API? There must be a way to do this, otherwise we're simply declaring an essentially useless meaning.

  • 2
    How about java.util.RandomAccess which guarantees that indexed access to a list is efficient? All lists support indexed access, but only the ones that implement RandomAccess support efficient indexed access. – user253751 Jul 7 '17 at 0:06
  • In C# I've mainly seen them used for generic type constraints. – Ben Aaronson Jul 7 '17 at 16:15
  • I suggest reading about the design of the C++ STL. Marker interfaces are not very useful in most other languages I have worked with. – Frank Hileman Jul 10 '17 at 23:04

Since marker interfaces provide semantic meaning, they can be used like annotations to decorate a type, and you can use reflection to make decisions based on the semantics. The marker interface doesn't provide any compiler-enforceable contract.

For example, you have an interface UserRepository, and you have two implementations InMemoryUserRepository that stores users in memory and DatabaseUserRepository that stores users in a database.

interface UserRepository { def storeUser(user) }
class InMemoryUserRepository implements UserRepository { ... }
class DatabaseUserRepository implements UserRepository { ... }

I could introduce a marker interface to describe the semantics of the implementations. For example if I wanted to dynamically find implementations of UserRepository that have local semantics, I could introduce LocalRepository marker interface and have InMemoryUserRepository implement LocalRepository

interface UserRepository { def storeUser(user) }
interface LocalRepository {}
class InMemoryUserRepository implements UserRepository, LocalRepository { ... }
class DatabaseUserRepository implements UserRepository { ... }

The usefulness is that I can now distinguish the two repository classes from each other and decide to use the one with local semantics via reflection.

Some other examples of usages of marker interfaces:

  • Big(O) complexity of implementation e.g. java.util.RandomAccess (from @immibis comment). Maybe you have a dozen different sort algorithms. You could introduce marker interfaces with worst case and best case complexities.
  • Local vs. Remote. This is useful for dynamically picking a configuration for your system for testing. You could configure your dependency injection system to prefer local marked implementations when testing.
  • Serialization format. I may have a couple different serializers for different file formats that all have the same interface. I could introduce a marker interface to distinguish Json serializers and XML serializers, and use runtime preferences to use the file format. Or use a marker interface to describe their size footprint and choose the best serializer for network transfer based on size.
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  • 1
    This is good for Java. For other languages, other things might be used for the same purpose. In .net, people use attributes. – Frank Hileman Jul 10 '17 at 23:05

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