What is a .app?

In macOS, I browse to my /Applications directory to see lots of files. Keynote.app, Spotify.app, Vidrio.app, etc. What are these things? These “applications” can’t be launched in the normal fashion:

$ /Applications/Spotify.app/
-bash: /Applications/Spotify.app/: is a directory

They’re not files, they’re directories!

$ cd /Applications/Spotify.app
$ tree -L 2
└── Contents
    ├── Frameworks
    ├── Info.plist
    ├── MacOS
    ├── Resources
    └── _CodeSignature

Despite being directories, we can open them to launch the application. What program is used to run this?

$ pstree -p 38699
-+= 00001 root /sbin/launchd
 \-+= 38699 jim /Applications/Spotify.app/Contents/MacOS/Spotify
   |--- 38705 jim /Applications/Spotify.app/Contents/Frameworks/Spotify Helper.app/Contents/MacOS/Spotify Helper --type=gpu-process --lang=en-US --log-file=/
   \--- 38710 jim /Applications/Spotify.app/Contents/Frameworks/Spotify Helper.app/Contents/MacOS/Spotify Helper --type=renderer --disable-pinch --primordial

The process 1, /sbin/launchd, started /Applications/Spotify.app/Contents/MacOS/Spotify.

The real program binary is at Contents/MacOS/Spotify within the .app directory. We can run this program ourselves, but it doesn’t run correctly for some reason:

$ /Applications/Spotify.app/Contents/MacOS/Spotify
2017-05-07 12:41:40.858 Spotify[39249:1666301] NSWindow warning: adding an unknown subview: <_NSThemeCloseWidget: 0x7f8ca4482130>. Break on NSLog to debug.
2017-05-07 12:41:40.859 Spotify[39249:1666301] Call stack:
	0   AppKit                              0x00007fffbfa56ebd -[NSThemeFrame addSubview:] + 109
	1   Spotify                             0x0000000108524c02 Spotify + 1461250
	2   Spotify                             0x0000000108524958 Spotify + 1460568

We can make an “application bundle” from scratch. Make any binary, like so:

#include <unistd.h>
#include <stdio.h>
char log_line[] = "log line\n";
int main() {
	FILE * f = fopen("/tmp/log", "w");
	for (;;) {
		size_t num_written = fwrite(log_line, sizeof(log_line), 1, f);
		printf("num_written: %zu\n", num_written);
		int flush_result = fflush(f);
	return 0;

Compile this and construct the application bundle directories:

$ mkdir -p Foo.app/Contents/MacOS
$ clang Foo.c -o Foo.app/Contents/MacOS/Foo
$ open Foo.app/ &
$ cat /tmp/log
log line
log line
log line
log line

It seems the expected path for the binary in <Name>.app is /Contents/MacOS/<Name>.

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