Mobile - Service API changes starting with Android 2.0

Android 2.0 introduced a number of changes and improvements in this area for both developers and users.

The three main changes to be aware of are:
  • Service.setForeground() is now deprecated and in 2.0 does nothing.
  • There were many edge cases in the service lifecycle that made it very easy to accidentally leave a service running; new APIs in 2.0 make this much easier to deal with.
  • Android 2.0 also introduces a new UI for end users to monitor and manage the running services on their device.
Background on services

Before going into the details of 2.0, it may be useful to go over a quick summary of services. The Service API in Android is one of the key mechanisms for applications to do work in the background. Due to the way Android is designed, once an application is no longer visible to the user it is generally considered expendable and a candidate to be killed by the system if it ever needs memory elsewhere. The main way applications get around this is by starting a Service component, which explicitly tells the system that they are doing some valuable work and would prefer that the system not kill their process if it doesn't truly need to.

This is a very powerful facility but along with that power comes some responsibility: an actively running service is taking resources away from other things that can run (including inactive processes in the background that don't need to be initialized the next time the user visits them). It is thus important that developers take care when designing their services that they only run when truly needed and avoid any bugs where they may accidentally leave the service running for long durations.

Redesigning Service.setForeground()

During the final stabilization period of Android 1.6 we started to see more issues due to an increasing number of applications using the Service.setForeground() API when they shouldn't be. This is an API that we haven't advertised much because it should not be used by most applications and can be very hard on the system: it asks that the service's process be treated as in the foreground, essentially making it unkillable and thus more difficult for the system to recover from low memory situations.

Service lifecycle changes

Another situation we were increasingly seeing in 1.6 was that, even ignoring the services that inappropriately make themselves foreground, we had a growing number of devices with a large number of services running in the background all fighting each other over the available memory.

Part of this problem is services that are running more than they should or there simply being too much stuff trying to be done on the device. However, we also found many issues in the interaction between services and the platform that made it easy for an application to leave a service running even when it is trying to do the right thing. Consider this typical scenario:
  1. An application calls startService().
  2. That service gets onCreate(), onStart(), and then spawns a background thread to do some work.
  3. The system is tight on memory, so has to kill the currently running service.
  4. Later when memory is free, the service is restarted, and gets onCreate() called but not onStart() because there has not been another call to startService() with a new Intent command to send it.
Now the service will sit there created, not realizing it used to be doing some work, and so not knowing it should stop itself at some point.

New "running services" user interface
Our final issue to address is the case where there are simply too many service running in the amount of memory available on a device. This may be due to bugs or design flaws in installed applications, or the user simply trying to do too much. Historically users have had no visibility into what is going on at this level in the system, but it has become important to expose this, at least for lower-end devices, as the use of services has had an increasing impact on the user experience.
To help address this, Android 2.0 introduces a new "Running Services" activity available from the Application system settings.



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