Reference Data Types & Java Compiler – ‘javac’

Reference datatypes in java are those which contains reference/address of dynamically created objects. These are not predefined like primitive data types.


In Java Dereferencing happens with the . operator:

Object obj = new Object();
String text = obj.toString(); // 'obj' is dereferenced.

The Dereferencing follows the memory address stored in a reference, to the place in memory where the actual object resides. When an object has been found, the requested method is called (toString in this case).

When a reference has the value null, dereferencing results in a NullPointerException:

Object obj = null;
obj.toString(); // Throws a NullpointerException when this statement is executed.

null indicates the absence of a value, i.e. following the memory address leads nowhere. So there is no object on which the requested method can be called.

Instantiating a reference type

Object obj = new Object(); // Note the 'new' keyword


  • The object is a reference type.
  • obj is the variable in which to store the new reference.
  • Object() is the call to a constructor of Object.

What happens:

  • Space in memory is allocated for the object.
  • The constructor Object() is called to initialize that memory space.
  • The memory address is stored in obj so that it references the newly created object.

This is different from primitives:

int i = 10;

Where the actual value 10 is stored in i.

The ‘javac’ command – getting started

Simple example

Assuming that the “” contains the following Java source:

public class HelloWorld {
public static void main(String[] args) {
System.out.println("Hello world!");

(For an explanation of the above code, please refer to Getting started with Java Language .)

We can compile the above file using this command:

$ javac

This produces a file called “HelloWorld.class”, which we can then run as follows:

$ java HelloWorld
Hello world!

The key points to note from this example are:

  1. The source filename “” must match the class name in the source file … which is HelloWorld. If they don’t match, you will get a compilation error.
  2. The bytecode filename “HelloWorld.class” corresponds to the class name. If you were to rename the “HelloWorld.class”, you would get an error when you tried to run it.
  3. When running a Java application using java, you supply the class name NOT the bytecode filename.

Example with packages

Most practical Java code uses packages to organize the namespace for classes and reduce the risk of accidental class name collision.

If we wanted to declare the HelloWorld class in a package call com. example, the “” would contain the following Java source:

package com.example;
public class HelloWorld {
public static void main(String[] args) {
System.out.println("Hello world!");

The source code file needs to stored in a directory tree whose structure corresponds to the package naming.

. # the current directory (for this example)

We can compile the above file using this command:

$ javac com/example/

This produces a file called “com/example/HelloWorld.class”; i.e. after compilation, the file structure should look like this:

. # the current directory (for this example)

We can then run the application as follows:

$ java com.example.HelloWorld
Hello world!

Additional points to note from this example are:

  1. The directory structure must match the package name structure.
  2. When you run the class, the full class name must be supplied; i.e. “com.example.HelloWorld” not “HelloWorld”.
  3. You don’t have to compile and run Java code out of the current directory. We are just doing it here for illustration.
Compiling multiple files at once with 'javac'.

If your application consists of multiple source code files (and most do!) you can compile them one at a time. Alternatively, you can compile multiple files at the same time by listing the pathnames:

$ javac

or using your command shell’s filename wildcard functionality ….

$ javac .java $ javac com/example/.java
$ javac //.java #Only works on Zsh or with globstar enabled on your shell

This will compile all Java source files in the current directory, in the “com/example” directory, and recursively in child directories respectively. A third alternative is to supply a list of source filenames (and compiler options) as a file. For example:

$ javac @sourcefiles

where the sourcefiles file contains:

Note: compiling code like this is appropriate for small one-person projects, and for one-off programs. Beyond that, it is advisable to select and use a Java build tool. Alternatively, most programmers use a Java IDE (e.g. NetBeans, Eclipse, IntelliJ IDEA) which offers an embedded compiler and incremental building of “projects”.

Commonly used ‘javac’ options

Here are a few options for the javac command that are likely to be useful to you

  • The -d option sets a destination directory for writing the “.class” files.
  • The -source path option sets a source code search path.
  • The -cp or -classpath option sets the search path for finding external and previously compiled classes. For
  • more information on the classpath and how to specify it, refer to The Classpath Topic.
  • The -version option prints the compiler’s version information

Related Article: Java Data Types

Compiling for a different version of Java

The Java programming language (and its runtime) has undergone numerous changes since its release since its initial public release. These changes include:

  • Changes in the Java programming language syntax and semantics
  • Changes in the APIs provided by the Java standard class libraries.
  • Changes in the Java (bytecode) instruction set and classfile format.

With very few exceptions (for example the enum keyword, changes to some “internal” classes, etc), these changes are backwards compatible.

A Java program that was compiled using an older version of the Java toolchain will run on a newer version Java platform without recompilation.
A Java program that was written in an older version of Java will compile successfully with a new Java compiler.

Compiling old Java with a newer compiler

If you need to (re-)compile older Java code on a newer Java platform to run on the newer platform, you generally don’t need to give any special compilation flags. In a few cases (e.g. if you had used enum as an identifier) you could use the -source option to disable the new syntax. For example, given the following class:

public class OldSyntax {
private static int enum; // invalid in Java 5 or later

the following is required to compile the class using a Java 5 compiler (or later):

$ javac -source 1.4

Compiling for an older execution platform

If you need to compile Java to run on an older Java platform, the simplest approach is to install a JDK for the oldest version you need to support and use that JDK’s compiler in your builds.

You can also compile with a newer Java compiler, but there are complicated. First of all, there some important preconditions that must be satisfied:

  • The code you are compiling must not use Java language constructs that were not available in the version of Java that you are targeting.
  • The code must not depend on standard Java classes, fields, methods and so on that were not available in the older platforms.
  • Third party libraries that the code depends must also be built for the older platform and available at compiletime and run-time.

Given the preconditions are met, you can recompile code for an older platform using the -target option. For example,

$ javac -target 1.4

will compile the above class to produce bytecodes that are compatible with Java 1.4 or later JVM. (In fact, the – source option implies a compatible -target, so javac -source 1.4 … would have the same effect. The relationship between -source and -the target is described in the Oracle documentation.)

Having said that, if you simply use -target or -source, you will still be compiling against the standard class libraries provided by the compiler’s JDK. If you are not careful, you can end up with classes with the correct bytecode version, but with dependencies on APIs that are not available. The solution is to use the -boot classpath option. For

$ javac -target 1.4 --bootclasspath path/to/java1.4/rt.jar

will compile against an alternative set of runtime libraries. If the class being compiled has (accidental) dependencies on newer libraries, this will give you compilation errors.

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