Thursday, March 17, 2011

Android Thread Constructs(Part 2): Intent Service

Continuing from Part 1 about the UI thread, today, I would like to discuss the IntentService class.


In simple terms, IntentService provides a mechanism to run a long task in the background. We need not worry of any thread creation and management. It is all done behind the scene. We just extend our class from the IntentService class, and implement our long task in the overridden onHandleIntent() method.

On the specified trigger (which is an Intent), the platform will spawn a worker thread for our extended class and then call the onHandleIntent method on this thread. I like to visualize this as follows:

So, all the long running code can be executed in the onHandleIntent() method. We can be sure that this will not block the main (UI) thread.

It is worth noting here that if there are multiple intents that are received, they all will NOT execute in parallel. The IntentService class spawn a SINGLE worker thread. Hence all the consecutive intents will go into the message queue for the worker thread and will execute sequentially.

So, the obvious question is : What if I want to execute multiple tasks in parallel ?

I will defer to answer this till the end of this article series. We will first go through AsyncTask in the next article and then the concluding post I will try to consider various use cases, limitations and comparisons.

Implementation details:
Now for some implementation details. Extend your class (say MyIntentService) as follows:

class MyIntentService extends IntentService {
    public MyIntentService() {
        super ("");
    protected void onHandleIntent(Intent intent) {
        // call to any long running task !

Thats it. You are all set ! Now, you can trigger this by calling the startService(Intent) method. We need not worry about stopping the service. Once the long running task is done and if there are no intents lined up in the message queue, the platform will automatically stop the IntentService.

I have stated again and again, IntentService is very useful when you need to perform a long task in the background. The interesting part here is that the trigger for starting the task is an Intent ! Now that opens a lot of opportunities. Don't get it ?  Here is hint : Your application need not be running at the time you want to start a background task ! All you need to do is have a PendingIntent for your IntentService. Now you can register this PendingIntent with many of the available callbacks in the Android APIs. So, now, even if your application is not running, and the PendingIntent is fired ! Wolaa - your background task is started  :)

Coming up next is AsyncTask.