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Javascript Prototype: Inner workings of Objects

aparna_joshi_ profile image Aparna Joshi ・5 min read

Javascript Prototype: First detailed look into objects

Prototype is an attribute every object contains in javascript (unless the object is created using Object.create(null)), however, its inner workings are known to very few. Understanding how the prototype attribute gets assigned is an important concept, using which inheritance can be applied in javascript. Before understanding the prototype, you must know some basic principles and usage of objects. If you aren't familiar with objects, please read my article Basics of javascript objects. In this article, we will deep dive into how prototypes are assigned during object creation, and why this is important.

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What is the prototype property and what does it contain?

Every javascript constructor function, created using any of the methods available, contains a property. This is the prototype property. It is important to note that, the prototype property is an object in itself.

  1. The prototype property of the constructor function can be used to access/modify the methods, and other properties present in the prototype object which was assigned during its creation.
  2. Every prototype object has a property called constructor. This property points to the Constructor Function itself.

Lets see an example to understand this better:

function Name(firstName, lastName) {
    this.firstName = firstName;
    this.lastName = lastName;
    this.fullName = firstName + " " + lastName
}

var jensen = new Name("Jensen", "Ackles");
console.log(jensen);

If I try to access this console.log, which contains all the properties of the object jensen, we get the following result.

screen1

This is how things have worked so far:

  1. Name is a constructor function. It contains the prototype property.
  2. This prototype property has an attribute called constructor which points to Name constructor function itself. Any further attributes can be added to this property.
  3. When the new object jensen was created using the Name constructor, this object got access to all of the properties belonging to Name function, including its prototype.
  4. The prototype of the Name constructor function can be accessed from the new object jensen using __proto__ object.
  5. Since prototype itself is an object, it also contains a prototype attribute. This is how the prototype chain is created.

Several browsers have added support to accessing the constructor function's prototype through the __proto__ object. Even though it's not recommended in javascript programming(This feature is non-standard and might not work as expected in all the browsers), it can be used to check the workings of the prototype chain quickly during development.

Another alternative to __proto__ include Object.getPrototypeOf() or objectInstance.constructor.prototype. If you consider the above example, it can be used in the following ways to access the same prototype property:

Object.getPrototypeOf(jensen);
jensen.constructor.prototype;

screen3

Prototype chain

When an object is created, it is usually created from some constructor function. If none of the user-defined constructors were used, it means that the object was created using the javascript's Object Constructor. This implies that any object created is ultimately inherited from the javascript's Object constructor.

Let's look at the following object created, and see what their __proto__ object contains.

function Fruit() {
    this.value = 10;
    this.quantity = 35;
}

function Apple(name, color) {
    this.name = name;
    this.color = color
}

Apple.prototype = new Fruit();

var apple1 = new Apple("Apple", "Red");
console.log(apple1);

If we inspect the inner properties of the object apple1, we can observe the following:

  1. The object apple1 contains two main properties - name and color. These properties have the same value which was assigned to them during its creation.
  2. The __proto__ property of the object apple1 points to the instance of the Fruit object. This, in turn, contains two more properties value and quantity.

screen2

  1. If we inspect the __proto__ property of the Fruit instance, we see that it ultimately points to the prototype of the javascript's Object.
  2. When a property is not present directly on an object, javascript moves up the prototype chain to find the property in its immediate prototype. Much like the javascript's scope chain, the prototype chain also goes up the ladder until Object.prototype is reached.

Uses of Prototype: Inheritance and Built-in methods

The Prototype is widely used in javascript to implement inheritance. Traditionally javascript was used only for scripting, and it had no requirement to provide object-oriented programming features like other languages. However, the concept of the prototype can be used to inherit methods and properties from one constructor function to another.

Consider the following example:

function Fruit() {
    this.value = 10;
    this.quantity = 35;
}

Fruit.prototype.setValue = function(value) {
    this.value = value;
}

function Apple(name, color) {
    this.name = name;
    this.color = color
}

Apple.prototype = new Fruit();

var apple1 = new Apple("Apple", "Red");
apple1.setValue(20);

console.log(apple1.name); // Apple
console.log(apple1.value); // 20
console.log(apple1.quantity); // 35

In the above example, even though the new object apple1 doesn't have the properties value and quantity, we are still able to access them. Point to be noted that the setValue method added on the prototype property of Fruit constructor is also accessible through the object apple1. This is how inheritance is implemented in javascript.

When objects are created using any constructor, it comes along with certain inbuilt methods that can be applied to the object. hasOwnProperty (), isPrototypeOf (), propertyIsEnumerable (), toLocaleString (), toString (), and valueOf (). are some of the built-in methods which are readily available to all the objects. This is because all objects in JavaScript inherit properties and methods from Object.prototype.

All built-in Constructors such as Array(), Number(), String(), etc were all created from javascript's Object constructor, and their prototype is also assigned to Object.prototype. I

Problems with prototypes

Prototypes in javascript have a lot of uses, it is used for inheriting the methods of parent functions, it can be also used to abstract the data layer and expose only the getter and setter methods to manipulate values belonging to various Objects. However, prototypes have its drawbacks. All the properties added on the prototype object is common to every instance of the object that is created using its constructor Function. Any change in one of the properties will be reflected in all the objects.

Consider the following example:

function Apple(name, color) {
    this.name = name;
    this.color = color
}

Apple.prototype.value = 20;

var apple1 = new Apple("Apple", "Red");
var apple2 = new Apple("Apple2", "Wheatish Red");

console.log(apple1.name); // Apple
console.log(apple1.value); // 20
console.log(apple2.value); // 20

Apple.prototype.value = 40;
console.log(apple1.value); // 40
console.log(apple2.value); // 40

apple1.value = 30;
console.log(apple1.value); // 30
console.log(apple2.value); // 40

In the above example, changes made directly on the constructor's prototype was reflected in all its objects, however, when the property value inside the object apple1 is changed, it doesn't reflect in the other objects. This is because apple1 has now created its own property value, and from this instance onwards apple1.value will always be referenced to its own property value and not the inherited property.

To mitigate this issue, a combination of Constructor - Prototype pattern can be implemented. The data values belonging to the object can be kept private and unique using the Constructor function. The common methods which can be shared among all the objects to manipulate data can be added to the Prototype object.

I hope this article was able to provide a detailed overview of the prototype property and its uses. If you have any questions regarding the concepts described in the article please feel free to reach out to me.


Originally published at https://aparnajoshi.netlify.app.

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Aparna Joshi

@aparna_joshi_

CODER | BLOGGER | ARTIST | GHOST 👻

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