My guess is that the contents of .apk package are extracted somewhere, and the application is registered at some directory so that the application launcher or whatever can find it. But is that all? If that is the case, is the original manifest.xml read every time the app is launched or it gets pre-processed into some other form?
.apk-file is not magical at all. It's just a bundle of files which represent the content of an Android application. If you open it in a archive-tool (like 7Zip), you can browser and extract it's contents.
The basic Android-System is a Linux system. Android uses a custom Linux kernel with some extra functionality on power-saving and some speed-improvements. The internal storage of an Android device is formatted with the YAFFS2-filesystem, which fully features the Linux-like access-concepts.
The used file-system might differ by manufacture or Android-Version. Newer devices often use
ext3, while Samsung uses it's own file-system: RFS
This is one important aspect of the Sandbox-system, which is used by Android.
Well, first they are normally compiled by an installed JDK implementation. After they are compiled (to
dx-tool from the Android SDK then cross-compiles those "normal" java-classes into Dalvik-Bytecode.
This "special" java-code is then interpreted by the DVM (Dalvik Virtual Machine), which is based on the opensource JRE-implementation Apache Harmony.
Android offers the
/assets-directory to add some binary raw-files (e.g. a SQLite Database). Files which are put into this directory are not compiled or optimized.
If you put your files into this directory, this is the kind of behavior you would expect from Android.
/assets-directory, you can also put binary (or other) raw-files in here (e.g. HTML-files for the Help-page). These files are compiled/optimized (if possible).
The Android-Manifest and also the other XML-files (Layouts, Strings, etc.) are stored and "compiled" into a binary XML-format. This is a speed-optimization.
From Android OS point of view, a single Application owns:
So yes, every Android app has it's own user which has the proper rights to access it's place in the internal storage (which is protected by standard Linux filesystem rights-management) and it's own DVM-process (which can't be accessed from outside of the application).
To give the application the possibility to leave the Sandbox (e.g. to connect to the Internet), the permissions declared in the Android Manifest are used.
So from the above explanations, it should be clear what happens when an Android-Application is installed:
.apk-file are being extracted there.
intent-filters are registered (e.g. the
android.intent.category.LAUNCHER-filter for the applications standard entry point).