October 5, 2020

How to run Java programs directly on Android (without creating an APK)

A step by step instruction for compiling a Java program into an Android executable and using ADB to run it.

When you want to create a system / commandline tool for Android, you have to write it in C(++)… or do you?

TLDR; here’s the final proof of concept.

Sticking with Java would have the benefit of avoiding all of the native ABI hassle and also being able to call into the Android runtime. So how do we do that?

A (not so) simple Hello World program

Let’s start with the Java program we want to run. In order to make it a bit more interesting (and because any useful program has dependencies), it won’t just print the obligatory “Hello World” message, but also use the Apache Commons CLI library to parse its commandline arguments:

package com.example;

import org.apache.commons.cli.DefaultParser;
import org.apache.commons.cli.HelpFormatter;
import org.apache.commons.cli.Option;
import org.apache.commons.cli.Options;
import org.apache.commons.cli.ParseException;

public class HelloWorld {

	public static void main(String[] args) throws ParseException {
		Option version = new Option("v", "Print version");
		Option help = new Option("h", "Print help");
		Options options = new Options();
		for (Option opt : new DefaultParser().parse(options, args).getOptions()) {
			if (opt.equals(version)) {
				String os = System.getProperty("os.arch");
				System.out.println("Hello World (" + os + ") v0.1");
			if (opt.equals(help)) {
				new HelpFormatter().printHelp("Hello World", options);

Setting up the working directory

We will have to manually run several commandline tools in the next step, assuming the following final directory structure:

├── android-sdk-linux
│   └── build-tools
│       └── 23.0.2
│           └── dx
├── bin
│   └── com
│       └── example
│           └── HelloWorld.class
├── lib
│   └── commons-cli-1.3.1.jar
├── src
│   └── com
│       └── example
│           └── HelloWorld.java
├── helloworld.jar
└── helloworld.sh

Start by creating an empty directory in a convenient place. Download and unpack the following items there:

  • Android SDK (either via Android Studio or the SDK Manager). NOTE: If you are an Android developer, you’ll have the Android SDK already installed. In that case, you don’t actually need to copy it to the working directory as long as you know the path to the dx tool.
  • Apache Commons CLI library v1.3.1

Afterwards copy&paste the HelloWorld code from above into the source folder. You might also find my semantic version parser class useful later on (not required here, though).

Compiling and dexing the Java class

Next step is to compile the java class (keep in mind that Android is stuck with Java 7 - bytecode for later versions won’t work). In case you are not used to doing this outside of an IDE, here’s the command:

javac -source 1.7 -target 1.7 -d bin -cp lib/commons-cli-1.3.1.jar src/com/example/HelloWorld.java

Make sure the program compiled properly:

java -cp lib/commons-cli-1.3.1.jar:bin com.example.HelloWorld -h
usage: Hello world
 -h   Print help
 -v   Print version

Android cannot run Java class files directly. They have to be converted to Dalvik’s DEX format first (yes, even if you are using ART):

./android-sdk-linux/build-tools/23.0.2/dx --output=helloworld.jar --dex ./bin lib/commons-cli-1.3.1.jar

NOTE: Android Build Tools v28.0.2 and later contain a dx upgrade, called d8. The d8 tool can process Java 8 class files. I’ll stick with dx for backwards compatibility reasons here.

Creating the startup shellscript

Android does not have a (normal) JRE, so JAR files cannot be started the same way as on a PC. You need a shellscript wrapper to do this. Copy&paste the one below to the workspace.

export CLASSPATH=$base/helloworld.jar
export ANDROID_DATA=$base
mkdir -p $base/dalvik-cache
exec app_process $base com.example.HelloWorld "$@"

NOTE: DEX files can also be started directly using the dalvikvm command, but going through app_process gives us a pre-warmed VM from the Zygote process (it is also the method employed by framework commands like pm and am).

Installing and running the (non-) app

Time to push everything to the device:

adb shell mkdir -p /data/local/tmp/helloworld
adb push helloworld.jar /data/local/tmp/helloworld
adb push helloworld.sh /data/local/tmp/helloworld
adb shell chmod 777 /data/local/tmp/helloworld/helloworld.sh

Moment of truth (fingers crossed):

adb shell /data/local/tmp/helloworld/helloworld.sh -v
Hello World (armv7l) v0.1

NOTE: Since nothing was installed into the system, getting rid of the program is simply done by deleting the directory again.

It works, but how do I get a Context?!

You don’t!

Contexts represent an environment that is associated with an app (which we explicitly did not build) and are also device dependant. They can only be created by the ActivityThread class (a hidden system class that you cannot instantiate). If you want to interact with the Android runtime, you have to talk to the system services directly through their Binder interfaces. But that’s a topic for another article.