Android: Open dynamically created file with ContentProvider

If you have asked yourself how to can return a handle to a temporary file from an own Android ContentProvider implementation, here is a good solution I found at by utilizing the behavior of the underlying linux file system:

The basic scenario is this: You have implemented a ContentProvider and you want to use it to return something that is too big to fit into a cursor, say an image. It’s clear from the relevant Android platform javadocs, though perhaps not from the general ContentProvider documentation, that this is done by implementing openFile and returning a ParcelFileDescriptor.

But now suppose that the image resource is being rendered on the fly. How do you implement openFile?

As per the contact of openFile you need to return a ParceFileDescriptor which means that the resource must be returned via an open file (or possibly a socket, which we’ll ignore). This means that the image must first be written to a file, which is then opened as a ParceFileDescriptor. The interesting question here is when do you delete the file?

You can’t wait until the calling process has finished reading the file because (a) you won’t get notified when that occurs and (b) it may never exhaust the stream anyway. You can’t rely on the calling process to delete the file for you either, also, the whole idea behind wrapping the resource in this way is to guard it from direct access by other processes. You could delete the file after a fixed time period — assuming that the caller will have finished reading the file by that time. But this is unnecessarily complex, because the answer turns out to be very simple:

You delete the file immediately after you’ve opened the ParcelFileDescriptor but before you return it from the openFile method.

The reason this works is down to the way that Linux filesystems operate: directories maintain links to files, when a process opens a file a new link is created, closing a file or removing it from a directory removes a link. When there are no links to a file, the file is deleted.

So by opening the file in our application, we create a link to it. Then ‘deleting’ the file actually unlinks it, but the file won’t really be deleted until the file descriptor is discarded (ie. the last link is removed). This will happen automatically at some point after the calling application has finished accessing the file and any associated ParcelFileDescriptor objects have become garbage.

Read the full post at Returning dynamically generated resources – Parentheticals & Excursions.