Android Application Launch explained: from Zygote to your Activity.onCreate()

This article explains how Android launches your application when a user clicks an app icon. The Android system does a lot of heavy lifting behind the curtains to make your launch activity visible to a user. This article covers this process in detail by highlighting the important phases and call sequences.

Android applications are unique in two ways:

  1. Multiple Entry points: Android apps are composed of different components and they can invoke the components owned by other apps. These components roughly correspond to multiple entry points for any application. Hence, they differ from traditional applications which have a single entry point like main() method.
  2. Own Little World: Every Android application lives in its own world, it runs in a separate process, it has its own Dalvik VM instance and is assigned a unique user ID.

When does Android process start?

An Android process is started whenever it is required.

Any time a user or some other system component requests a component (could be a service, an activity or an intent receiver) that belongs to your application be executed, the Android system spins off a new process for your app if it’s not already running. Generally processes keep running until killed by the system. Application processes are created on demand and a lot of things happen before you see your application’s launch activity up and running.

Every app runs in its own process: By default, every Android app runs in its own Android process which is nothing but a Linux process which gets one execution thread to start with. For example, when you click on a hyper-link in your e-mail, a web page opens in a browser window. Your mail client and the browser are two separate apps and they run in their two separate individual processes. The click event causes Android platform to launch a new process so that it can instantiate the browser activity in the context of its own process. The same holds good for any other component in an application.

Zygote : Spawning new life, new process

Let’s step back for a moment and have a quick look on system start-up process. Like the most Linux based systems, at startup, the boot loader loads the kernel and starts the init process. The init then spawns the low level Linux processes called “daemons” e.g. android debug daemon, USB daemon etc. These daemons typically handle the low level hardware interfaces including radio interface.

Init process then starts a very interesting process called ‘Zygote’.

As the name implies it’s the very beginning for the rest of the Android application. This is the process which initializes a very first instance of Dalvik virtual machine. It also pre-loads all common classes used by Android application framework and various apps installed on a system. It thus prepares itself to be replicated. It stats listening on a socket interface for future requests to spawn off new virtual machines (VM)for managing new application processes. On receiving a new request, it forks itself to create a new process which gets a pre-initialized VM instance.

After zygote, init starts the runtime process.

The zygote then forks to start a well managed process called system server. System server starts all core platform services e.g activity manager service and hardware services in its own context.

At this point the full stack is ready to launch the first app process — Home app which displays the home screen also known as Launcher application.

When a user clicks an app icon in Launcher …

The click event gets translated into startActivity(intent) and it is routed to ActivityManagerService via Binder IPC. The ActvityManagerService performs multiple steps

  1. The first step is to collect information about the target of the intent object. This is done by using resolveIntent() method on PackageManager object. PackageManager.MATCH_DEFAULT_ONLY and PackageManager.GET_SHARED_LIBRARY_FILES flags are used by default.
  2. The target information is saved back into the intent object to avoid re-doing this step.
  3. Next important step is to check if user has enough privileges to invoke the target component of the intent. This is done by calling grantUriPermissionLocked() method.
  4. If user has enough permissions, ActivityManagerService checks if the target activity requires to be launched in a new task. The task creation depends on Intent flags such as FLAG_ACTIVITY_NEW_TASK and other flags such as FLAG_ACTIVITY_CLEAR_TOP.
  5. Now, it’s the time to check if the ProcessRecord already exists for the process.If the ProcessRecord is null, the ActivityManager has to create a new process to instantiate the target component.

As you saw above many things happen behind the scene when a user clicks on an icon and a new application gets launched. Here is the full picture :

Android App Launch: Click Event to Activity Launch Block Diagram

There are three distinct phases of process launch :

  1. Process Creation
  2. Binding Application
  3. Launching Activity / Starting Service / Invoking intent receiver …

Process Creation:

ActivityManagerService creates a new process by invoking startProcessLocked() method which sends arguments to Zygote process over the socket connection. Zygote forks itself and calls ZygoteInit.main() which then instantiates ActivityThread object and returns a process id of a newly created process.

Every process gets one thread by default. The main thread has a Looper instance to handle messages from a message queue and it calls Looper.loop() in its every iteration of run() method. It’s the job of a Looper to pop off the messages from message queue and invoke the corresponding methods to handle them. ActivityThread then starts the message loop by calling Looper.prepareLoop() and Looper.loop() subsequently.

The following sequence captures the call sequence in detail -

Android App Launch: Click Event to Looper Call Sequence

Application Binding:

The next step is to attach this newly created process to a specific application. This is done by calling bindApplication() on the thread object. This method sends BIND_APPLICATION message to the message queue. This message is retrieved by the Handler object which then invokes handleMessage() method to trigger the message specific action — handleBindApplication(). This method invokes makeApplication() method which loads app specific classes into memory.

This call sequence is depicted in following figure.

Android App Launch: BIND_APPLICATION message handling

Launching an Activity:

After the previous step, the system contains the process responsible for the application with application classes loaded in process’s private memory. The call sequence to launch an activity is common between a newly created process and an existing process.

The actual process of launching starts in realStartActivity() method which calls sheduleLaunchActivity() on the application thread object. This method sends LAUNCH_ACTIVITY message to the message queue. The message is handled by handleLaunchActivity() method as shown below.

Assuming that user clicks on Video Browser application. the call sequence to launch the activity is as shown in the figure.

Android App Launch: LAUNCH_ACTIVITY message handling

The Activity starts its managed lifecycle with onCreate() method call. The activity comes to foreground with onRestart() call and starts interacting with the user with onStart() call.

Thanks for reading through 🙌🏼. If you found this post useful, please applaud using the 👏 button and share it through your circles.

This article was initially published as two part series (Part 1 and Part 2) on my blog ./mult-core-dump in 2010. These articles have been cited in multiple documents including the very famous Introduction to the Android Graphics Pipeline

Software Development Manager @AmazonLab126 #Android Enthusiast since 2008, Interested in building next generation device or Alexa cloud services? Ping me.

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