Scoped Storage Stories: Problems with SAF

Android 10 is greatly restricting access to external storage via filesystem APIs. Instead, we need to use other APIs to work with content. This is the sixth post in a series where we will explore how to work with those alternatives, starting with the Storage Access Framework (SAF).

The Storage Access Framework is “the go-to solution” for getting access to arbitrary content on Android 10 and higher. And, since it works back to Android 4.4 (for documents) and 5.1 (for trees), it is likely to be a solution that you can apply for all versions of Android that your app supports.

However, it has a bugs and undocumented limitations.

I have filed issues about these. Unfortunately, my track record of getting anyone to pay attention to issues is not good, so all of these problems still exist.

The biggest is that device manufacturers may unilaterally eliminate the Storage Access Framework, by removing or replacing the activities that handle ACTION_OPEN_DOCUMENT and kin. Hopefully, manufacturers will stop doing this, as Android and its apps become more reliant on SAF. However, since Google does not seem to test whether devices support SAF, there is no real pressure for device manufacturers to allow SAF to function. UPDATE 2019-12-08: the situation is complicated.

ACTION_CREATE_DOCUMENT implies that we have write access to the location identified by the returned Uri. We tend to assume that ACTION_OPEN_DOCUMENT also grants us write access to that location. That is not a safe assumption, as ACTION_OPEN_DOCUMENT may return a Uri that represents read-only content. We have no way to request that the ACTION_OPEN_DOCUMENT UI limit the user to read-write locations. And while a document provider might include some hints that the Uri it returns points to read-only content, DocumentFile does not support read-only content correctly.

The Storage Access Framework UI has this annoying habit of starting up in a mode that hides most of external storage. The user has to tap an item in an overflow menu to get that to show up. It turns out that there is an undocumented extra to make external storage visible in the SAF UI. However, since it is undocumented, it may be unreliable.

Among the issues filed by others, we have:

With luck, some of these will get addressed eventually, though I do not have a lot of hope.

Of course, some of these problems are less with the Storage Access Framework itself and more with particular implementations of the SAF UI or of document providers. I hold out even less hope that these will ever get fixed. In many respects, this is the single biggest problem with the death of external storage: the replacement solutions involve multiple parties and multiple sources of bugs. Google needed to ensure that the SAF ecosystem was implemented properly first, and that did not happen.

The entire series of “Scoped Storage Stories” posts includes posts on: