Troubleshooting multi-threading problems related to Android’s onResume()

This post is a continuation of a previous post I wrote about best practices for using onResume(). I found a particularly testy bug that caused me 2 hours of pain time to track down. The tricky part was it would only show up when there was no debugger attached. Right away this told me it was a threading problem. I suspected that the debugger slowed things down just enough that all the threads could complete in the expected order, but not the actual order that occurred when running the device in stand-alone mode.

The test case. This is actually a very common workflow, and perhaps so common that we just don’t think about it much:

  • Cold start the application without a debugger attached. By cold start I mean that the app was in a completely stopped, non-cached state.
  • Minimize the app like you are going to do some other task.
  • Open the app again to ensure that onResume() gets called.

Now, fortunately I already had good error handling built-in. I kept seeing in logcat and a toast message that a java.lang.NullPointerException was occuring. What happened next was troubleshooting a multi-threaded app without the benefit of a debugger. Not fun. I knew I had to do it because of the visibility of the use case. I couldn’t let this one go.

How to narrow down the problem. The pattern I used to hunt down the bug was to wrap each line of code or code block with Log messages like this.

setLocationListener(true, true);

Then I used the following methodology starting inside the method were the NullPointerException was occurring. I did this step-by-step, app rebuild by app rebuild, through the next 250 lines of related code:

  1. Click debug in Eclipse to build the new version of the app that included any new logging code as shown above, and load it on the device.
  2. Wait until the application was running, then shutdown the debug session through Eclipse.
  3. Restart the app on device. Note: debugger was shutdown so it wouldn’t re-attach.
  4. Watch the messages in Logcat.
  5. If I saw one message , such as Test1, followed by the NullPointerException with no test message after it, then I knew it was the offending code block, method or property. If it was a method, then I followed the same pattern through the individual lines of code inside that method. This looked very much like you would do with step-thru debugging, except this was done manually. Ugh.

What caused the problem? As time went on, and I was surprised that I had to keep going and going deeper in the code, I became very curious.  It turned out to be a multi-threading bug in a third party library that wasn’t fully initialized even though it had a method to check if initialization was complete. The boolean state property was plainly wrong. This one portion of the library wasn’t taken into account when declaring initialization was complete. And I was trying to access a property that wasn’t initialized. Oops…now that’s a bug.

The workaround? To work around the problem  I simply wrapped the offending property in a try/catch block. Then using the pattern I described in the previous blog post I was able to keep running verification checks until this property was either correctly initialized, or fail after a certain number of attempts. This isn’t 100% ideal, yet it let me keep going forward with the project until the vendor fixes the bug.

Lessons Learned. I’ve done kernel level debugging on Windows applications, but I really didn’t feel like learning how to do it with one or multiple Android devices. I was determined to try and narrow down the bug using the rather primitive tools at hand. The good news is it only took two hours. For me, it reaffirmed my own practice of implementing good error handling because I knew immediately where to start looking. I had multiple libraries and several thousand lines of code to work with. And, as I’ve seen before there are some bugs in Android that simply fail with little meaningful information. By doubling down and taking it step-by-step I was able to mitigate a very visible bug.

Debugging Web Apps on Android’s Mobile Browser – Part 2

In addition to the suggestions listed in Part 1, I forgot to mention one more tool. There is a lesser known browser that can be quite handy for debugging: Firefox mobile. This relatively unknown sibling of the full-blown desktop browser actually has a fairly nice, built in debugger. The one major caveat is that it doesn’t work as well as the native browser for HTML5, CSS3 and some JavaScript, but it may be just the tool you need for some quick debugging, on-the-fly. Besides it fits in your pocket along with your other mobile apps, and you don’t need Logcat.

Step 1 – place your finger in the middle of the screen and drag it to the left. Click the gears icon at the bottom right of the screen.

Step 2 – In the upper right hand corner of the next screen, click the bug icon

Step 3 – Scroll down the datagrid to view errors.

Debugging HTTP Requests on Native Android Apps

If your native android app uses HTTP requests, then there is currently nothing built into Logcat that let’s you see HTTP connections. Just to clarify, you can see HTTP requests in Logcat when they come from the Android browser, but not when they come from a native app.

Like many of my blog posts, I’ve done a fair amount of searching before I try to re-invent the wheel. And, on this topic, I scoured the Logcat documentation, and I looked around for several days and found nada. Zip. Zero. The bottom line is I need a full-proof, gimmick free way to test HTTP connections that will work all the time.

Here’s the Solution. Load wireshark protocol analyzer on your machine, turn it on, and then run your app in the Android emulator. There are other protocol analyzers you can use, such as Charles, but I prefer wireshark.  If you aren’t a developer and you don’t have access to the source code, then you are probably out of luck.

Why does this work? This works every time and all the time because the emulator runs on your machine, and the protocol analyzer picks up any HTTP request coming from the emulator (or anywhere else on your machine for that matter). Period.

Tip #1. If you haven’t used wireshark before then when you turn it on, in the filter field apply either http.request or http.response to cut down on the noise you’ll pick up.

Tip #2. Yep, you can also use this methodology to debug apps running in the Android browser of the Emulator. Also, as a bonus, if you are using this methodology to debug browser apps, you can set the proxy settings on your phone (or browser) and point them to the IP address of the machine running Charles or Fiddler, for example. Note, this only works if your phone and proxy are on the same network, and if your wireless router also acts as a LAN router to allow HTTP connections between machines. If you don’t know how to set proxy settings for your browser just do a search on “proxy android.”

Here’s an example with http.request. The services shown in the image are publicly available:

Here’s an example with http.response:

Debugging Web Apps on Android’s Mobile Browser

For some unknown reason, Google did not include a debugger in their native browser, at least for versions up to v2.3.x. I don’t have a phone that supports a version greater than that, yet, so I can’t speak about the latest releases. Unfortunately this can be a huge productivity killer. The good news is there is a solution – you can debug the native Android browser using what’s called the DDMS, or Dalvik Debug Monitor Server, and the ADB, or Android Debug Bridge. I can also tell you this works great.

Yes, it’s true that JavaScript development forces you to have an armada’s worth of tools, tricks, libraries, phones and browsers. This is just another hammer to place into your growing toolkit. Debugging via ADB was good news for me since I do native Android development and I already have the software installed when I installed the full Android SDK. If you don’t do native development then it’s a real pain.

But, if you want to do your best to deliver bug free apps, then your best bet is to install at least ADB. I believe, but I’m not 100% certain, that you can this without having to install Eclipse along with the entire Android SDK. Yes, I agree that installing the entire SDK would seem entirely ridiculous and complete overkill for mobile web development, especially if you are not using Eclipse as your primary IDE. I’m aware that in the past I’d seen a few stand-alone versions of this floating around for both Windows and Linux. I’m not even remotely certain about Mac’s. If you do know something about this, then I encourage you to please post a comment.

How to use ADB. My suggestion, once you’ve installed it, is to filter by the tag “console” if you are using Android v2.x and above.  Instructions on how to do filtering can be found in the ADB link below and scroll towards the very bottom of the page.

Caveat: You will have to install the Android USB device driver on your machine in order for ADB to work.  And, you will also have to have a USB cable that will connect your device to your dev machine. The drivers are different for every device. I’ve included a link to Google’s device drivers below. On a related note, for several of my Motorola Androids I had to go directly to the Motorola website to find a device driver that finally worked.

Another Possibility – Adobe Shadow! You should also be aware of a very cool development from Adobe called Shadow. As of today, I believe you can still download it for free from Adobe labs. I mention this last because, well…I haven’t tried it out. However, my good friend Kevin Hoyt, from Adobe, says it’s very, very promising. And, it’s supported on both Mac and Windows. As I write this I’m thinking that I really do need to download it and test drive it. If you have tried it, then post your thoughts…don’t by shy!


Adobe Shadow + sneak peak video

Google’s ADB

Android Device Drivers

Google’s Guidelines for Web app developers