This week's book giveaway is in the OCPJP forum. We're giving away four copies of OCA/OCP Java SE 7 Programmer I & II Study Guide and have Kathy Sierra & Bert Bates on-line! See this thread for details.
Volatile variables share the visibility features of synchronized, but none of the atomicity features. This means that threads will automatically see the most up-to-date value for volatile variables. They can be used to provide thread safety, but only in a very restricted set of cases: those that do not impose constraints between multiple variables or between a variable's current value and its future values. So volatile alone is not strong enough to implement a counter, a mutex, or any class that has invariants that relate multiple variables (such as "start <=end").
You might prefer to use volatile variables instead of locks for one of two principal reasons: simplicity or scalability. Some idioms are easier to code and read when they use volatile variables instead of locks. In addition, volatile variables (unlike locks) cannot cause a thread to block, so they are less likely to cause scalability problems. In situations where reads greatly outnumber writes, volatile variables may also provide a performance advantage over locking.
Source: Java theory and practice: Managing volatility
How come a write to a volatile variable's value be not dependent on its current value?
From the same article:
The first condition disqualifies volatile variables from being used as thread-safe counters. While the increment operation (x++) may look like a single operation, it is really a compound read-modify-write sequence of operations that must execute atomically -- and volatile does not provide the necessary atomicity. Correct operation would require that the value of x stay unchanged for the duration of the operation, which cannot be achieved using volatile variables.