Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Custom adapter in color

I got a comment on this blog with relation to an old sin of mine, the custom adapter example program. That example was about custom views in a list adapter. The comment was innocent enough: is there a way to change the colors of that list? I thought it was a 5 minute task to answer that question, in the end I had to deal with a topic I never wanted to know about: themes.

Click here to download the example program.

It turned out that the color scheme used by ListView is eventually taken from the active theme. It is possible to change it programmatically but it is quite complicated to do so. Meanwhile, with themes, it is relatively easy. If you know the information source. The Android development guide is almost completely useless regarding themes, for example sample themes don't work. This blog entry from Brainflush is much more informative, at least its examples work. The source that helped me the most was the actual Android XML fileset that defines the themes. If you have access to the Android source tree, the Android system resources can be found under the platform\frameworks\base\core\res\res directory. The relevant files are styles.xml under the values subdirectory and the content of the drawable subdirectory.

If you check the styles.xml in the res/values directory in our example program, you will see that modifying the color scheme of the ListView is a quite complicated, multi-step process. First of all, in res/values/styles.xml, the ListView style is overridden with the android:listViewStyle property. The ListViewStyle (MyListView) in turn references a list selector (android:listSelector) that is stored in the res/drawable directory. That selector defines color schemes for all the possible state combination of the list row. To increase the fun, the resource compiler screwed up the image IDs in the R.java file if the weather icon image files were not at the beginning of the file name list, hence the bizarre names in the drawable subdirectory. Now what we need more is a transition that refers a 9-patch background image (block blue in our case) for the selected row and we are ready.

Don't say that it was not easy.

PS: I apologize for the hideous colors. :-)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Let's have something lighter than the application separation stuff was in the previous entry.

I got a mail from someone who wanted to embed raw files into the APK file so that they are available for the application when it is executing. I have never done such a thing but I remembered faintly something about the res/raw directory where such resources reside. They are still there but now there is a better thing: assets. The difference between a raw resource in res/raw directory and an asset is that assets behave like a file system, they can be listed, iterated over, discovered, just like files while for raw resources, you need the resource ID.

Click here to download the example program.

This simple application iterates over the files in the asset directory, reads their contents and sets three TextFields according to the content of these files. Assets go into the ./assets directory in the project root and can contain any files. The AssetManager class provides access to assets as InputStreams.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Controlling application separation

I thought I knew how application separation in Android works. Then I had a little project and I realized that there is more than meets the eye. Here are my experiences.

The basic - and very efficient - separation method in Android is the multiprocess capability of the Dalvik VM. Dalvik is able to fork many instances of itself and can run applications in different Linux processes. By default, each application (the application tag in AndroidManifest.xml) has its own process. There is however another, often overlooked separation mechanism inside each VM process that provides further separation. The good old ClassLoader separation - originally designed to separate applets, used heavily in multi-module frameworks like OSGi - is also at work. Inside each VM process, each task - acitivity or service - uses in its own ClassLoader. This means that object instances created in different tasks are not visible to each other. The standard setup for Android applications is such that the classes.dex in the application's APK package is on the path of the application's own classloader. The application's own classloader delegates the loading of system classes to the boot classloader instance which is common for all the tasks in one particular VM process.

Class loading implementation in Dalvik is tied heavily to DEX files. This has visible side effects. Classes loaded by different class loaders that don't delegate to each other should be completely separated. The implementation differentiates the "initiating" and "defining" classloader (the latter is the one that managed to call defineClass() for a particular class from a particular DEX file in a particular VM process). This differentiation does not work very well and results in a glitch: once a class from a particular DEX file is defined, its static fields are visible and shared from all the class loaders that access the DEX file, even if they don't delegate to each other. This means that tasks of the same application (usually packed into the same DEX file) see each other's static fields.

As if this was not enough, Android provides control of task-VM process mapping. As said previously, usually each application goes into its own VM process. It is possible to declare, however, that applications share a process. This works like the following:
  • First we declare that applications wishing to share the same VM process belong to the same user ID. This is done by adding the sharedUserId attribute to the manifest tag in AndroidManifest.xml file like the following: android:sharedUserId="aexp.share.sharedapp". The value of the attribute must be a unique string shared among the applications wishing to use the same VM process. This is a powerful mechanism, hence Android enforces strong check of the APKs containing the declaration. Only the first APK for a particular sharedUserId can be installed without limitation. The issuer of the digital signature of that APK is saved and further APKs with the same sharedUserId must have digital signature from the same issuer, else their installation is rejected.
  • We have to declare the alias of the process a certain task or the entire application goes into with the process attribute. This attribute can be added to application, activity or service tags in the AndroidManifest.xml file. For example: android:process="aexp.share.sharedappprocess". VM processes are proper Linux processes identified by PIDs but Android does an additional transformation: whenever a process is started which is tagged by the process alias, the Android framework saves the Linux PID and the process alias. If some other application refers to that process alias and the VM process is still running, that process will be used.
How can we exploit this mechanism? We can create ordinary, well-behaving Android applications and place them into the same process. Android IPC is such that the usual binder-based communication is much faster in this case. The other approach is that we exploit our knowledge about class loaders. If we place two applications into the same process, they not only have different class loaders but also come from different DEX files. This means that the Android class loading glitch about the static fields cannot be exploited (I don't recommend it anyway as it is a clear bug and I believe, it will be corrected soon). We know, however, that each class loader in the same VM process delegates the resolution of the system classes to the boot class loader. If we find a system class that allows us to store and retrieve data, we win.

Click here to download the example program.

Our two example programs demonstrate the techniques described below. SharedApp1 allows the user to enter a string and it shares that string in different ways. With its own popup, it shares the string by means of a static field of SharedApp1 activity class. SharedApp2 is another application, having its own APK file but is placed into the same process as SharedApp1. SharedApp1 and SharedApp2 communicate through the good old System.getProperty/setProperty mechanism. Observe, that this works only if the sharedUserId/process mechanism is properly used, if you remove e.g. the process attribute from the manifest file of any of the apps, the property set by SharedApp1 is not visible anymore to SharedApp2 because they run in different VM processes. Also note that I compiled these applications with the debug option which means that they are both signed with the debug key. That key is common for both applications therefore they can have the same sharedUserIds. If you use a proper signing key, take care of using the same key when you sign applications that depend on the sharedUserId mechanism.

And now for something completely different. I was one of the reviewers of Roy Osherove's book titled The Art of Unit Testing (Manning, about 27 USD). Even though the book uses .NET examples, it is easily readable for Java programmers too. Unit testing is one of the most useful techniques I am aware of in software engineering, if you feel that your knowledge is not up to date, you might as well read this book. :-)