A Preprocessor for Java

Discover how to build multiple targets from a single Java codebase using the new preprocessor from the Manifold project. In this article Scott McKinney explains how the preprocessor plugs directly into Java’s compiler to provide seamless conditional compilation using familiar directives.


Here’s a quick preview to give you a taste of Manifold’s preprocessor.

We’ll dive into what’s going on here later in the article.


There is an undeniable stigma associated with preprocessors, mostly rooted in the C/C++ community. Indeed anyone who has transitioned from the C++ world to the Java world has their favorite horror story involving the preprocessor. The antagonist in the story is invariably The Macro. This character is a demonic trickster luring programmers with the notion that smaller equals simpler and, therefore, better. But The Macro’s ultimate goal is obfuscation and he’s remarkably good at achieving that goal. Every other C++ library in use is a testament to this, but I digress. So without further ado I’ll conclude with pointing out the decision to keep The Macro out of Java’s screenplay proved salutary and productive. The End.

Oh wait. What about conditional compilation? You know, the other half of the preprocessor. Did Java’s designers throw the baby out with the bathwater by altogether avoiding the preprocessor? Most Java “historians” will cite Java’s platform independence as the designers’ rationale, after all most usage of #ifdef in C/C++ libraries relates to the many platforms they target. True, however there are a multitude of other dimensions by which a build target may be determined. For example:

While you can model your architecture around these dimensions, for example using dependency injection, sometimes that’s a bridge too far, especially when new target dimensions arise with a pre-existing architecture. And sometimes it’s not an either/or proposition – given the option, some of your architecture can be reasonably refactored, while other parts may be better off using a preprocessor. In any case having a preprocessor to fall back on is a nice convenience and deserves a spot in the Java tool chest. This is the rationale behind the new preprocessor from the Manifold project.

Note Java does offer a very limited version of conditional compilation via compile-time constant conditions where unreachable branches of code are excluded from bytecode. But this type of conditional compilation is restricted to method bodies, can only reference static final variables, and requires all code to compile regardless of the conditions, far from a complete solution.


First things first, the preprocessor is a javac plugin which means it plugs directly into your Java compiler and runs as part of javac – you don’t have to add intermediate build steps, manage source generation targets, or any of that. It also means it’s effing fast and allows you to easily build multiple targets from a single codebase.

Next, the preprocessor is exclusively designed for conditional compilation, No Macros! You can still #define a symbol, but you can’t assign a value to it – a #define symbol is always boolean and its value is always true, unless of course the symbol is not defined or is undefined with #undef.

As you may have surmised the preprocessor doesn’t try to reinvent anything; the directives are taken straight from the C-family of preprocessors. These include:

I’ve hyperlinked Manifold’s documentation for these guys.

An extremely useful feature involves the symbols you can reference from #if. Not only can you reference symbols you’ve defined with #define, you can also define and use symbols from a host of other sources that are visible to all your project’s files. These include build.properties files, which you can place in parent directories starting with the source root, and javac’s -Akey[=value] compiler arguments. Additionally, the preprocessor provides builtin symbols reflecting environment settings such as JAVA_9_OR_LATER and JPMS_NAMED.

Note unlike with #define symbols, you can define symbols with string values using build.properties and -Akey[=value] compiler arguments. In this case you can use equality expressions == and != to test the value:

#if FOO_VERSION == "1.2.0"
  public void foo(Bar bar) {...}



The environment settings symbols can be extra useful if you target multiple Java versions:

public class MyClass implements
  #error "Unexpected Java source version"

A Simple Example

Let’s dive into the screencast from the preview earlier in the article.

Here the screencast demonstrates the preprocessor via IntelliJ IDEA using the Manifold plugin. The example uses #define to define the MY_API_X symbol where valid values for X are 1 and 2. Note in real life we would define this symbol in a build.properties file so other files can access it, but here we use #define to simplify the demo.

The #if statements use the symbol to conditionally include or exclude code from compilation. As the value of the symbol changes you can see the code enabling/disabling to reflect the value. Note you can turn this feature off from the IntelliJ Settings view in the Manifold section, in this mode only the directives are shaded. In either case the command line compiler always respects the symbol values.

Notice you can place preprocessor directives anywhere in the class: around import statements, classes, methods, fields, pretty much anywhere. This feature is one of many that distinguishes the preprocessor from Java’s compile-time constant based conditional compilation.

Another cool capability you won’t find in conventional preprocessors is the use of multiple directives in a single line. You can see this in action in the implements clause.

You can also comment out directives, a feature that is not well supported in many preprocessors.

If you have a C++ background, you might be wondering where #ifdef and #if defined went. They’re simply not needed because with this preprocessor a symbol evaluates to either true or false, depending on whether or not the symbol is defined. Only if you use the == or != operator can you access a symbol’s string value, which as stated earlier can only be defined with build.properties or -Akey[=value] compiler arguments. Thus, #if covers all the bases. Read more about this is the docs.

Also of note is the #elif directive. This is not a new concept, but if you don’t have a C++ background, it may seem odd. The simple explanation is there’s no concise way to say else if as you would in Java:

#if FOO
  #if BAR
    #if BAZ

It’s easier on the eye to use #elif:

#if FOO
#elif BAR
#elif BAZ

Finally notice the use of #error to respond to an invalid state regarding MY_API_X. This directive produces a compile-time error at the location of its use. It’s perfect for detecting and reporting a misconfigured build at compile-time.


Manifold reimagines the time-tested C/C++ preprocessor as a more effective means to meet today’s conditional compilation demands. It directly integrates with your Java compiler so you can quickly and easily build multiple targets from a single codebase. You can define and use symbols from a variety of sources including properties files and environment settings to conditionally compile every aspect of your source code. Using plugin support for IntelliJ IDEA you can visualize exactly how your code reacts to the preprocessor directives and symbols you use. Check it out.

Check out the Manifold project for more Java goodness.