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24 April 2009

Live folders

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Live folders have been introduced in Android 1.5 and let you display any source of data on the Home screen without forcing the user to launch an application. A live folder is simply a real-time view of a ContentProvider. As such, a live folder can be used to display all your contacts, your bookmarks, your email, your playlists, an RSS feed, etc. The possibilities are endless! Android 1.5 ships with a few stock live folders to display your contacts. For instance, the screenshot below shows the content of the live folders that displays all my contacts with a phone number:

If a contacts sync happens in the background while I'm browsing this live folder, I will see the change happen in real-time. Live folders are not only useful but it's also very easy to modify your application to make it provider a live folder. In this article, I will show you how to add a live folder to the Shelves application. You can download its source code and modify it by following my instructions to better understand how live folders work.

To give the user the option to create a new live folder, you first need to create a new activity with an intent filter who action is android.intent.action.CREATE_LIVE_FOLDER. To do so, simply open AndroidManifest.xml and add something similar to this:

        <action android:name="android.intent.action.CREATE_LIVE_FOLDER" />
        <category android:name="android.intent.category.DEFAULT" />

The label and icon of this activity are what the user will see on the Home screen when choosing a live folder to create:

Since you just need an intent filter, it is possible, and sometimes advised, to reuse an existing activity. In the case of Shelves, we will create a new activity, The role of this activity is to send an Intent result to Home containing the description of the live folder: its name, icon, display mode and content URI. The content URI is very important as it describes what ContentProvider will be used to populate the live folder. The code of the activity is very simple as you can see here:

public class BookShelfLiveFolder extends Activity {
    public static final Uri CONTENT_URI = Uri.parse("content://shelves/live_folders/books");

    protected void onCreate(Bundle savedInstanceState) {

        final Intent intent = getIntent();
        final String action = intent.getAction();

        if (LiveFolders.ACTION_CREATE_LIVE_FOLDER.equals(action)) {
            setResult(RESULT_OK, createLiveFolder(this, CONTENT_URI,
                    "Books", R.drawable.ic_live_folder));
        } else {


    private static Intent createLiveFolder(Context context, Uri uri, String name, int icon) {
        final Intent intent = new Intent();

        intent.putExtra(LiveFolders.EXTRA_LIVE_FOLDER_NAME, name);
                Intent.ShortcutIconResource.fromContext(context, icon));
        intent.putExtra(LiveFolders.EXTRA_LIVE_FOLDER_DISPLAY_MODE, LiveFolders.DISPLAY_MODE_LIST);

        return intent;

This activity, when invoked with theACTION_CREATE_LIVE_FOLDER intent, returns an intent with a URI, content://shelves/live_folders/books, and three extras to describe the live folder. There are other extras and constants you can use and you should refer to the documentation of android.provider.LiveFolders for more details. When Home receives this intent, a new live folder is created on the user's desktop, with the name and icon you provided. Then, when the user clicks on the live folder to open it, Home queries the content provider referenced by the provided URI.

Live folders' content providers must obey specific naming rules. The Cursor returned by the query() method must have at least two columns named LiveFolders._ID and LiveFolders.NAME. The first one is the unique identifier of each item in the live folder and the second one is the name of the item. There are other column names you can use to specify an icon, a description, the intent to associate with the item (fired when the user clicks that item), etc. Again, refer to the documentation of android.provider.LiveFolders for more details.

In our example, all we need to do is modify the existing provider in Shelves called First, we need to modify the URI_MATCHER to recognize our content://shelves/live_folders/books content URI:

private static final int LIVE_FOLDER_BOOKS = 4;
// ...

Then we need to create a new projection map for the cursor. A projection map can be used to "rename" columns. In our case, we will replace BooksStore.Book._ID, BooksStore.Book.TITLE and BooksStore.Book.AUTHORS with LiveFolders._ID, LiveFolders.TITLE and LiveFolders.DESCRIPTION:

private static final HashMap LIVE_FOLDER_PROJECTION_MAP;
static {
    LIVE_FOLDER_PROJECTION_MAP.put(LiveFolders._ID, BooksStore.Book._ID +
            " AS " + LiveFolders._ID);
    LIVE_FOLDER_PROJECTION_MAP.put(LiveFolders.NAME, BooksStore.Book.TITLE +
            " AS " + LiveFolders.NAME);
            " AS " + LiveFolders.DESCRIPTION);

Because we are providing a title and a description for each row, Home will automatically display each item of the live folder with two lines of text. Finally, we implement the query() method by supplying our projection map to the SQL query builder:

public Cursor query(Uri uri, String[] projection, String selection,
        String[] selectionArgs, String sortOrder) {

    SQLiteQueryBuilder qb = new SQLiteQueryBuilder();

    switch (URI_MATCHER.match(uri)) {
        // ...
        case LIVE_FOLDER_BOOKS:
            throw new IllegalArgumentException("Unknown URI " + uri);

    SQLiteDatabase db = mOpenHelper.getReadableDatabase();
    Cursor c = qb.query(db, projection, selection, selectionArgs, null, null, BooksStore.Book.DEFAULT_SORT_ORDER);
    c.setNotificationUri(getContext().getContentResolver(), uri);

    return c;

You can now compile and deploy the application, go to the Home screen and try to add a live folder. I added a books live folder to my Home screen and when I open it, I can see the list of all of my books, with their titles and authors, and all it took was a few lines of code:

The live folders API is extremely simple and relies only on intents and content URI. If you want to see more examples of live folders implementation, you can read the source code of the Contacts application and of the Contacts provider.

You can also download the result of our exercise, the modified version of Shelves with live folders support.

Learn about Android 1.5 and more at Google I/O. Members of the Android team will be there to give a series of in-depth technical sessions and to field your toughest questions.