Why passing data inside a mobile app is difficult?

3 minute read

“The solutions all are simple… After you’ve already arrived at them. But they’re simple only when you already know what they are.” Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Kovacs shot put

You’re learning to develop Android apps and very early on you’re stuck. You’ve faced a problem that you just can’t easily pass data within your app. That’s unexpected. And solutions seem to be much more complex than you’ve hoped for in this beginner stage. It feels like you’re just wasting time trying to read all the docs. What’s going on?

I suspect that some fundamental concept about app structure has not been explained to you. Let me try to set it straight.

First, let’s see where you find yourself. You’ve built your first app following the Google developer tutorial. Added a few simple activity classes that represent individual screens of your app. And now you wish to send some data between them (beyond a string of text). Say, a captured picture, an object of a class Person filled with some contact details, or an ArrayList of records. You try to put it in an Intent, but it’s not working. (By the way, you’re still confused whether intents are to open other activities or to send data between them).

You promptly discover that intents can only carry little additional information, mostly primitive types, to be packed as key-value pairs. You go to Stack Overflow to discover that you’ve got to use something Parcelable to send objects between activities.

– “What is that? I’ve just started learning? Can’t we have it simpler?”

You go back to Google tutorials that give you options to save app data in Key-Value Sets, files, or SQL Databases.

– “Isn’t that an overkill for just sharing simple pieces of data within a trivial app? Come on!”

The “web app” metaphor

Here you need to pause and understand that you probably miss something essential about Android apps and their structure. The most useful metaphor that I have to share with you is this:

think of your phone as a web browser and your app as a web app – a collection of web pages.1

In a web app each page is standalone, the data it needs is loaded from a server or other resources on the web (it does not come directly from the preceding page). Each page knows to open another one using links. As you follow to open the next page, it takes place of the previous one that gets closed.

Mobile apps essentially follow the same structure. Each activity is standalone, responsible for obtaining its own resources, just like a web page. Starting from the launcher activity (app’s home page), user navigates around the app using “links” to reach other activities. If a phone call arrives, the app is not closed, the “browsing history” with the latest activity on top is preserved in the background by the operating system (imagine a web page covered with a new opened tab). After the calling app is closed, you see your app as you left it.
The only difference is that our app can only be shown in “one tab” of our “browser”, and only one page (activity) of our app is visible at a time.

What you might have imagined about Android app structure being a monolith application made of different Java classes, is actually several smaller independent “apps” (activities) packed together.

How is it useful?

Now you should start to see why sending data between activities is not trivial. It’s about connecting smaller independent “apps”. And trying to put more data in an Intent is like trying to send pictures between two web pages, instead of uploading a picture to the server and make it accessible to both. You also start to see why do you might need Services for long-running operations.

Armed with a good metaphor you don’t waste your time hacking workarounds and getting red eyes after browsing dozens of Stack Overflow questions/answers, and instead focus on learning the stuff you’ll need time and again (such as, for example, working with SQL Databases).

Kovacs happy

P.S.: Can you do me a favor and leave a comment about any other useful Android metaphor you’ve come across?

  1. I am not talking about web-based mobile apps right now, just in general. 




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