Service to Activity Communication With The Android SDK

I’m an experienced iOS developer but still consider myself a noob regarding Android development. Never mind, I still want to share my latest experiment with the Android SDK: how to run a long operation in the background while still updating the UI regularly?

Where AsyncTask won’t do the job…

The Android SDK provides a convenient object to perform background operations that will need to provide a UI feedback: AsyncTask. But as Android’s documentation says:

AsyncTasks should ideally be used for short operations (a few seconds at the most.)

The question then arises: what should we use when a longer background operation is needed?

Well, guess what? It depends…

Searching for an answer to this question on services like StackOverflow ends up being more confusing than helpful. Many questions are asked in this area but no clear answer appears. But depending on the specific aspects of each question, many keywords appear to help getting our quest further: Services, Handlers, etc.

Let’s give Services a try

Ideally, I wanted to find something similar to the KVO mechanism in iOS.

I decided to give Services a try and developed a POC you can find on my bootstragram-android repository on GitHub.

The main reason why I picked Services over other solutions is that I wanted to be able to share any kind of objects, not only Serializable and Parcelable ones. This constraint eliminated a solution based on a LocalBroadcastManager as from my understanding, objects that can be passed with the Intent (ie Extra) have to be Serializable or Parcelable.

My objectives for this POC were:

  1. Create a background operation that will live as long as my app, no less.
  2. This operation must run continously and must update some kind of state at a relatively high-frequency.
  3. The user must be able to get a UI representation of that state without being blocked on one activiy in particular.

Some notes about it went follow.

The POC Story

The pitch for the POC is as silly as can be. The app will generate in the background a new hex-string every 2 seconds. It will have to be displayed in a screen with a new color. Wow! I’m sure this app would be a hit on the Google Play Store!

Create a Service

When you create a Service, you need to declare it in your app manifest. I made mine private to my app but it’s not required.

<application ...>
        android:exported="false" >

The service itself is a subclass of IntentService (which provides a convenient onHandleIntent method to override) doing very simple things:

protected void onHandleIntent(Intent intent) {
    while (true) {
        final RandomSingleton singleton = RandomSingleton.getInstance();
        long endTime = System.currentTimeMillis() + 2 * 1000;
        while (System.currentTimeMillis() < endTime) {
            synchronized (this) {
                try {
                    wait(endTime - System.currentTimeMillis());
                } catch (Exception e) {
                    Log.e(TAG, "Couldn't sleep in peace", e);

The service just runs continously and wakes up every 2 seconds to update the RandomSingleton singleton object via the increment() method: objectives 1 and 2 are achieved.

Here is the full source code.

The service is started via a button in an activity:

public void onClick(View v) {
  Intent intent = new Intent(ServiceFeedbackActivity.this, RandomEventsService.class);

UI Representation and Notifications

We still have objective 3 to achieve. To do so:

  1. I made my RandomSingleton a subclass of ContentObservable
  2. I created an activity using a subclass of ContentObserver, observing RandomSingleton
  3. Then I made RandomSingleton call dispatchChange(...) at the end of the increment() method

And that’s it.

The Result

The app updates the UI every 2s accordingly to the new singleton state


After a frustrating research that had made me more confused than confident about my problem, I found out that the actual implementation was pretty straightforward and easier to implement than I expected.

Nevertheless, I’m still curious of feedbacks you might have about this code and I invite you to get in touch via GitHub or Twitter if you want to engage a discussion about this page (in particular if you know a better way to do a Service to UI communication).

Also, my message in a bottle is still out there: