prerequisites: The post Enum types in Elm, Elixir, and Kotlin

“All for one and one for all,
united we stand divided we fall.”
Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers

1. Introduction

The goal of this blog post is to define the concept of product types and compare the implementation of product types in three different functional programming languages: Kotlin, Elixir, and Elm.

The post is structured as follows. In Section 2, we define the concept of product types. Then, in Sections 3, 4, and 5 we look at concrete implementations of product types in Kotlin, Elixir, and Elm, respectively. The post is concluded in Section 6.

2. Product types

In this section, we define the concept of product types.

A product type is a composite data type that compounds two or more types in a fixed order; we call these compounded types the fields of the product type. A common example of a product type is the point type, which compounds two float types, corresponding to an x- and a y-coordinate, into a new type. We can express this point type in our ML-like syntax as:

datatype point
    = float * float (* x and y *)

where we declare point as a datatype consisting of two float values, the x- and y-coordinate, separated by a * (not be confused with the multiplication operator). Any instance of the point type is then a tuple of two floats, e.g. (3, 2). We can access the fields of such a tuple using pattern matching - sometimes also called destructuring:

val p = (3, 2)
val (x, y) = p
x + y
(* ==> 5 *)

Here, we construct a point named p as the tuple (3, 2), then assign its fields to x and y, by pattern matching on the structure of the tuple, and finally add them together. Product types defined in terms of tuples may also be called tuple types.

Unfortunately, defining products as tuples has the downside that it is not clear from the actual definition of a type what is the semantic meaning behind each of its fields, e.g. without the comment in the definition of the point type above, it is not clear which float corresponds to x and which one corresponds to y. However, we can improve the situation by requiring that each field of a product type has to be assigned a name, which gives us the following new definition of the point type:

datatype point
    = x of float * y of float

Any instance of the point type is now a tuple with named fields, e.g. (x = 3, y = 2). Product types defined in terms of named fields are also called record types or structs.

Accessing the named fields of a product type, without having to pattern match on its whole structure, is straightforward, as seen in the following example, where we compute the Euclidean distance between two points, p and q:

fun euclidean_distance p q =
    sqrt(pow(q.x - p.x, 2) + pow(q.y - p.y, 2))

Here, we access an individual field using the common <var>.<field> expression.

In each of the following sections, we return to the shape example from our previous post, and implement product type versions of each of the different shapes: rectangle, circle, and triangle. Specifically, we define each of the shapes in terms of their corresponding mathematical definition, i.e. a rectangle has a height and width, a circle has a radius, and a triangle has a base and a height. In our ML-like syntax, we express this as follows:

datatype rectangle
    = height of float * width of float

datatype circle
    = radius of float

datatype triangle
    = base of float * height of float

For our example function, we want to compute the area of each of these three different shapes, so we have to implement corresponding area functions:

fun rectangle_area (height, width) =
    height * width

fun circle_area (radius) =
    pi * radius * radius

fun triangle_area (base, height) =
    0.5 * base * height

Note that in our reference implementation above, we use destructuring on each of the different types directly in the header of their corresponding area function, in order to make the definitions more concise. Alternatively, we could have chosen to access the fields of the product types without destructuring, e.g.

fun rectangle_area rectangle =
    rectangle.height * rectangle.width

In the next section, we implement the rectangle, circle, and triangle product types along with their corresponding area example functions in Kotlin.

3. Product types in Kotlin

In this section, we implement the rectangle, circle, and triangle product types along with their area functions in Kotlin.

As discussed in the previous post, Kotlin is heavily influenced by Java which means that all non-primitive data types are defined in terms of classes, and product types are no exception. Likewise, we also discussed that we prefer to separate data and logic, and thus would like to avoid defining our product types as plain old classes, e.g.

class Rectangle(val height: Float, val width: Float)

Instead, we would like to signal to the Kotlin compiler - and other developers - that we are defining product types, which should not do much beyond store some data. Fortunately, Kotlin introduces the concept of data class, which does exactly this while also automatically deriving reasonable implementations of equals, toString, and copy. Defining our product types, Rectangle, Circle, and Triangle, as data classes is now straightforward, as we just need to add the data keyword before the class keyword:

data class Rectangle(val height: Float, val width: Float)
data class Circle(val radius: Float)
data class Triangle(val base: Float, val height: Float)

Note also the conciseness Kotlin brings when specifying a class, Rectangle, and its fields, height and width, compared to a traditional Java class.

Implementing our three area functions is also rather straightforward, as each function takes an argument of their expected shape type and returns the calculated area of that type:

fun rectangle_area(rectangle: Rectangle): Float {
    return rectangle.height * rectangle.width

fun circle_area(circle: Circle): Float {
    return Math.PI * circle.radius * circle.radius

fun triangle_area(triangle: Triangle): Float {
    return 0.5 * triangle.base * triangle.height

If we wanted to pattern match on the fields of each of the types, as demonstrated in the previous section, we could instead use Kotlin’s destructuring declarations to do just that:

fun rectangle_area(rectangle: Rectangle): Float {
    val (height, width) = rectangle
    return height * width

However, in the case of our area functions, it would not do much in terms of making the code more elegant.

Finally, in order to test our code, we implement the main function which instantiates a variable of type Rectangle and prints the result of calling rectangle_area on it:

fun main(args: Array<String>) {
    val rectangle = Rectangle(4.4, 5.8)
    println("Rectangle area: ${rectangle_area(rectangle)}!")
    // ==> "Rectangle area: 25.52!"

Having implemented our product types, rectangle, circle, and triangle, along with their area functions in Kotlin, we move on to repeat the exercise in Elixir.

4. Product types in Elixir

In this section, we implement the rectangle, circle, and triangle product types along with their area functions in Elixir.

In order to define our different shape types in Elixir, we take a slightly different approach than in the case of the enum type, by encapsulating each of our types in a module named after the corresponding type:

defmodule Rectangle do
  @type t :: %__MODULE__{height: float, width: float}
  defstruct [height: 0.0, width: 0.0]

Breaking down the above definition, we first look at the @type declaration of t, where __MODULE__ refers to the name of the enclosing module, Rectangle, and the %<name>{<property_name>: <property_type>, ...} construct declares a struct type called <name> and with a set of <property_name>: <property_type> pairs. While the @type directive declares the Rectangle.t type, the defstruct keyword defines the actual data structure of a Rectangle, by taking a list of [<property_name>: <default_value>] as its arguments, corresponding to the properties declared in our type declaration. In this case, we define the type Rectangle to have two properties, height and width, both of type float and both with default value 0.0.

We define Circle and Triangle in a similar manner:

defmodule Circle do
  @type t :: %__MODULE__{radius: float}
  defstruct [radius: 0.0]

defmodule Triangle do
  @type t :: %__MODULE__{base: float, height: float}
  defstruct [base: 0.0, height: 0.0]

We can now refer to the three product types as Rectangle.t, Circle.t, and Triangle.t respectively, allowing us to define our three area functions, which given an argument of the corresponding shape type, returns the computed area of that shape:

@spec rectangle_area(Rectangle.t) :: float
def rectangle_area(%Rectangle{height: h, width: w}) do
  h * w

@spec circle_area(Circle.t) :: float
def circle_area(%Circle{radius: r}) do
  :math.pi * r * r

@spec triangle_area(Triangle.t) :: float
def triangle_area(%Triangle{base: b, height: h}) do
  0.5 * b * h

Note, that Elixir allows us to pattern match not just on the type but also directly on its fields at the same time, making them readily available in the body of the function declaration.

We test the code by instantiating a value of type Rectangle.t and pass it to its area function:

rectangle = %Rectangle{height: 4.4, width: 5.8}
IO.puts("Rectangle area: #{rectangle_area(rectangle)}!")
# ==> "Rectangle area: 25.52!"

While the Kotlin and Elixir implementations are quite similar in many ways, it is noteworthy that the concept of pattern matching on the structure of types is a more natural feature of the Elixir language compared to Kotlin.

Having implemented our rectangle, circle, and triangle product types in Kotlin, we move on to our final language example, Elm.

5. Product types in Elm

In this section, we implement the rectangle, circle, and triangle product types along with their area functions in Elm.

In order to implement our product types, rectangle, circle, and triangle, in Elm, we can use a syntax similar to what we saw in Section 2. We specify a product type using the type alias keywords followed by listing each of the fields of the type, e.g. height and width, separated by , and encapsulated by {...}:

type alias Rectangle
    = { height : Float, width : Float }

type alias Circle
    = { radius : Float }

type alias Triangle
    = { base : Float, height : Float }

As in the Elixir case, we can pattern match (or destructure) our product type arguments directly in the header of our function declarations:

rectangleArea : Rectangle -> Float
rectangleArea { height, width } =
    height * width

circleArea : Circle -> Float
circleArea { radius } =
    pi * radius * radius

triangleArea : Triangle -> Float
triangleArea { base, height } =
    0.5 * base * height

thus making our code more concise. Besides a few syntactic differences, there is not much difference between the ML-like reference example and our actual Elm implementation.

Once again, we implement the main function, in which we instantiate a value of type Rectangle, pass it to the rectangleArea function, and print it as a text DOM element:

main =
    rectangle = { height = 4.4, width = 5.8 }
  text <|
    "Rectangle area: " ++
    (String.fromFloat <| rectangleArea <| rectangle) ++
-- ==> "Rectangle area: 25.52!"

Having implemented our rectangle, circle, and triangle product types in Elm, we are ready to conclude this post in the next section.

6. Conclusion

In this blog post, we have defined the concept of product types, and compared the implementation of product types in the three different programming languages: Kotlin, Elixir, and Elm.

While all three languages support product types on a language level, we note that pattern matching on the structure of types in general is a fundamental part of programming in Elixir, and thus it shines a bit brighter here than the other languages.