python-for-android now supports Python 3 APKs

It’s been a long time coming, but we can finally make the announcement… python-for-android now supports Python 3 Android apps! This naturally includes Kivy, but also should work for anything else you can package with python-for-android, such as apps made with PySDL2. Using Python 3 remains experimental for now, it works but doesn’t yet perform all possible optimisations and hasn’t been as widely tested as Python 2. However, there should be no extra application requirements (beyond actually being written for Python 3), and the remaining issues and optimisations are being worked on.


python-for-android is a packaging tool for turning Python applications into Android APKs. It was originally created to make apps with the very cross-platform Kivy graphical framework (though it didn’t arise in a vacuum, I think it built in particular on previous work by the Ren’Py project). However, the original python-for-android had flaws including being quite inconvenient to modify for non-Kivy apps (several other projects seem to have used modified versions, but each was performing similar changes), hard to extend for multiple architecture support, hard to extend internally (both in general and from the perspective of new contributors, as much of the toolchain was a big shell script), and only supported building apps with Python 2.

We recently completed and released a fully revamped version of python-for-android aimed at fixing all of these problems, as discussed in several previous posts on this blog (originally here). Almost all of the original goals are now complete, with Python 3 support the major missing one until now, though not for lack of trying. Some technical details and basic instructions for testing the new support are given below, and you can also see the online documentation for further information.

Our Python 3 support depends on the prebuilt Python distributions provided with the CrystaX NDK, a drop-in replacement for Google’s own Android NDK with many fixes and improvements. The technical details of this choice are given below, and we’ll try to further support a locally-built Python 3 option in the future. Thanks to the CrystaX team for making it so (relatively) easy!

Technical details

python-for-android works by bundling a Python interpreter, compiled for Android devices and architectures (usually arm, though other choices are supported), into an Android APK. The APK includes a simple Java bootstrap application, which mostly starts a Python script via JNI. The script then runs essentially as normal, almost all of the Python standard library is present and works fine, and python-for-android supports including other modules or non-Python dependencies. Pure Python modules will mostly work without special treatment, though things requiring compilation need a special recipe. Many common modules such as numpy and sqlalchemy are supported this way. Following its revamp python-for-android is now designed to support multiple kinds of java bootstrap, but the current main support is for GUI apps via Pygame (for Kivy’s old Android support) or SDL2 (both for Kivy and for anything else that can use it); SDL2 also now does much of the heavy lifting of handling events etc. itself, via its own Android support.

The main problems with compiling and including Python are first that it must be patched to compile (as Android’s libc doesn’t support some things very well or at all), and second that it must be unpacked and started on the device via its C API. The second point is fiddly but ultimately not that different to working this way on the desktop. The first is (in my opinion) harder because it needs some understanding of Python’s internals, of Android’s limitations, of appropriate fixes, and of how to test and debug these problems.

Such patches have been made by a number of different people for different Android versions, and I believe there has been activity on Python itself to fix some issues (including this current issue to make Python build natively on Android). For Python 2, I think python-for-android’s original patches came from here, though extended with further modifications. However, the main thing holding up my efforts to get Python 3 working was the inability to find a similar working patchset; I tried a few sources, achieving a working compilation using SL4A’s python3 patches, but I couldn’t get Python working on the device. I’m sure this was my own technical mistakes, since other projects do have it working, but it’s what was holding up the feature.

I eventually resolved this by using the new Python on Android support from the CrystaX NDK. As mentioned above, this is a drop-in replacement for Google’s own NDK (the Native Development Kit providing compilers etc for targeting Android with non-Java code), including many improvements to the build environment. As of version 10.3.0, they provide prebuilt Python packages for Android on all architectures - and all of their NDK improvements mean that Python no longer even needs patching for this compilation to work. Python is provided as a zipped standard library (Python can automatically load modules from zip files), and a folder of the compiled components like ctypes (as it’s hard to dynamically load from zips). From the perspective of python-for-android, supporting Python 3 means modifying the build to load CrystaX’s prebuilt components (both in the Android project structure and in python-for-android’s support for compiling other modules), and modifying the C initialisation code for Python 3. This takes some work, but all told wasn’t very hard and the Python bundles worked with no issues, so we owe a lot to CrystaX; thanks again.

I’d still like to come back to the issue of local python3 compilation; CrystaX’s versions are fine, but I’ve learned a lot from making them work, and have a much better idea of what I may have been doing wrong. However, the focus for now will be on resolving the remaining issues with what’s already working.

Building apps with Python 3

Building Python 3 APKs is only supported in the revamped python-for-android toolchain which was merged to the master branch a while ago. It can be installed and used as described in its documentation. If you use Buildozer, it currently does not support this new toolchain, though tito has been working on this. There is also the new restriction that you must (for obvious reasons) use the CrystaX NDK, which can be obtained here; simply refer to its filepath when setting the NDK directory, and everything else should work automatically.

To build for Python 3, add the python3crystax recipe to the requirements option, e.g. --requirements=python3crystax,kivy. It should mostly work automatically with existing recipes, though at this stage there may be bugs or problems with a few, and some will need modification. The exact syntax above may also change in the future as the Python 3 support becomes better integrated, but not significantly.

There’s also one big change whose importance I’m not sure about; the Python 3 mechanism doesn’t currently build a local Python 3 to use as a hostpython, instead using the system python. This means that you must have python3.5 (3.4 may also work) installed locally in order for python-for-android to build Python 3 APKs. This will be fixed soon, adding a hostpython3 recipe to avoid weird bugs with system-specific differences, but you need to bear it in mind for now.

Future work

For now, this Python 3 support remains experimental. I anticipate no major issues, but it’s internally a quite different method to the Python 2 support and needs further work to duplicate some of the old optimisations, and undoubtedly to fix bugs in the toolchain that will appear as it stabilises. Amongst other things, Python 3 shared libraries are not currently collected and merged (with Python 2 we did this originally to get around an Android limit but also for optimisation), python files are not precompiled to bytecode (it can make a big loading speed difference), and some features of the old pygame bootstrap have not yet been implemented in SDL2. All this and more will come in the future, but shouldn’t be hard to add now that the toolchain all works.

The SDL2 bootstrap is also missing a few features that users of the old toolchain will be used to, like the splash screen image and at least one Kivy-specific function. These too are being actively worked on, especially as more people start to move their apps to SDL2.

I’ve also phrased this as Python 2 built locally vs Python 3 from CrystaX, but actually CrystaX also supports Python 2.7 and I hope to add this option in the near future. As discussed in the technical details, it also should absolutely be possible to have a local Python 3 build, which I’d like to eventually come back to.

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