An iPhone Killer App May Be Left to Die

There's an incredible iPhone app that you should know about. Its implications are far-reaching, of potential relevance to almost everyone that owns an iPhone. Yet chances are good that you know nothing about it. Even worse, rather than getting the popularity it deserves, the app may vanish from the scene altogether.

This app is not entirely new. It has been around since the early part of the year. However, I only recently became aware of it. This is because the app runs only on a jailbroken iPhone. As I had temporarily given up on jailbreaking back in 2008, I stopped paying close attention to developments here. My mistake. I discovered the app only after returning to the ranks of "jailbreakers" and saw a reader comment posted to my previous column.

Before I get to the software itself, it will be helpful to go on a brief detour:

MacBooks are often used to give presentations in front of an audience, typically by connecting the laptop to a large screen television or projector system. With this setup, you can show a PowerPoint or Keynote slideshow. Or, as I do at Macworld Expos and User Groups, you can mirror the MacBook's screen, so as to do a "live demo."

I have previously lamented about the inability to similarly display the iPhone on a large screen. If there was an iPhone "video out," I would definitely use it to include live iPhone demos in my presentations. I am not alone in this desire. Steve Jobs had the same wish. That's why Apple created a special cable just so he could demo the iPhone, as he has done at Macworld keynotes and other Apple special events.

Unfortunately, Apple does not offer this cable, or any similar alternative, to the public. You can purchase what Apple calls an AV cable. But it is of limited value; only useful for showing videos or photo slideshows.

I asked an Apple rep about Steve's mysterious cable. He told me that the cable is especially difficult to build and cumbersome to use. That's why there are only two or three in existence. They are only used by Steve and other Apple staff and there is no plan to make a commercial version. It's too impractical. End of story.

And the end of our detour. Back to the main story.

ScreenSplitr and DemoGod

It turns out that, even while the Apple rep was informing me of the impossibility of the task, a solution was already available — if you were willing to jailbreak your iPhone. It's called ScreenSplitr. With this app installed on your iPhone, you can mirror the iPhone's display to a television via the aforementioned AV cable.

But that's not what's really exciting. I am much more enthusiastic about the combination of ScreenSplitr and Plutinosoft's companion application for the Mac, DemoGod. With this combination, you can instantly display the iPhone's screen on a Mac via a wireless connection!

With an iPhone connected to a Mac in this way, you can live demo the iPhone on any large screen — via the exact same set up you use for the Mac itself.

Or, with an application such as Snapz Pro X, you can create a movie of your iPhone demo. This allows you to show the demo later anywhere, without having to connect the iPhone to a Mac at the time. You can of course upload the video to the Web. Several such videos have already been posted. I've added my own; click here to view it.

Getting all of this to work is incredibly simple. You launch DemoGod while ScreenSplitr is running on your iPhone. DemoGod locates the iPhone over your local Wi-Fi network and offers to connect to it. Accept the offer and you're in. A brief moment later, your iPhone screen is displayed on your Mac, within an iPhone-like shell that is about 50% larger than the actual iPhone. That's it. Now, anything you do in the iPhone is duplicated in DemoGod on your Mac. You can even rotate the DemoGod shell to show the iPhone in landscape view.

Not only is this done without any cumbersome cable, it's done without any cable at all! For someone like me, who has been longing for a feature like this, using ScreenSplitr and DemoGod for the first time was a "knock-your-socks-off" experience. All I could say was "Wow!"

To be fair, unlike Apple's cable, ScreenSplitr is not a true "video out." ScreenSplitr uses a bit of a trick to mimic its video effect. You can read the details here. Among other things, this means that its frame-rate is rather slow. So you can't use ScreenSplitr to demo an action game. But, as my video shows, ScreenSplitr is good enough for many, if not most, situations.

My ideas for how to use all of this software continue to expand. As one example, as the author of an iPhone ebook, I am thinking about including iPhone videos in future editions of the book.

Why should I need to jailbreak?

At this point, if you are even half-way as excited as I am about this, you are probably asking yourself: Why should I need to jailbreak my iPhone to use this software? Why isn't it available in the App Store? The answer is simple, if unsatisfying: Once launched, ScreenSplitr remains running in the background until you quit it. As you probably know, Apple currently prohibits any third-party apps that run background processes. Compounding ScreenSplitr's transgressions, it uses undocumented APIs to circumvent Apple's prohibition. There is clearly no way that Apple would allow this app in the App Store.

But this only leads to the next question: Why keep this no-background-processing restriction? Why not change the rules? Apple has tried to make a case for its position: Allowing background apps on the iPhone could overwhelm the iPhone's memory and lead to crashes and other symptoms. It can also cause the battery to run down faster. There is some truth to all of this. But I don't see this as an insurmountable problem. Google's Android, an iPhone competitor, allows multiple apps to run at the same time. Apple could figure out a way for this to work on the iPhone as well.

Regardless, I don't see why Apple needs to take such a black-or-white position: Why not allow iPhone users to decide how much risk they are willing to take? I have been using ScreenSplitr regularly for the past week and have not had one crash or any other symptom associated with it. It's all worked perfectly with no hassles. If Apple allowed this app into the App Store, with some appropriate warnings about its risks, perhaps updating the iPhone OS so that you need to enable an Advanced mode to use it, I would gladly pay for it.

It saddens me to think that, if Apple ever finds a way to completely block jailbreaking, we may forever lose the option to do what ScreenSplitr can do (as well as losing other useful features only accessible via jailbreak apps). Even if jailbreaking remains viable, ScreenSplitr may not: the author has said that he no longer has the time to work on it.

I know; never say "forever." The day may come when the iPhone hardware has advanced sufficiently that Apple believes it is okay to permit background processing. But that could be years away. In the meantime, iPhone users are left out in the cold. If there was ever a compelling argument in favor of jailbreaking or at least against Apple's overly-restrictive App Store policies, this is it. Once you've seen what you can do with ScreenSplitr, you won't want to give it up.

Hope for the future

Let's not end on a down note. Instead, let's imagine a better future — one where Apple not only permits ScreenSplitr to exist but embraces the technology, expanding its capabilities in a way that only Apple could do. What might we see?

Imagine a faster improved version of ScreenSplitr, one that would allow you to play any iPhone video or movie on any Mac over a Wi-Fi connection. This feature could even work for games, such as a pinball game where you could watch the larger image on the Mac display while manipulating the flippers with your fingers on the iPhone.

Finally, let's assume that the rumored Apple tablet will soon be a reality — and that it features a touchscreen. Now imagine an Apple version of DemoGod that works with this iTablet so that, when the iPhone's screen is displayed on the tablet, you can manipulate the iPhone with your fingers via the image on the tablet's touchscreen. Further, imagine you could enter data directly to iPhone apps by using the iTablet's presumably larger and more convenient keyboard — and view the results via the iPhone image on the iTablet. From this perspective, the iTablet would function as an iPhone accessory, significantly expanding what the iPhone can do. This could be a great marketing opportunity for Apple, offering a reason why the millions of iPhone owners should now get themselves an iTablet.

This need not be far-in-the-future science-fiction. I believe most of it could happen relatively soon. A good first step would be for Apple to end its war with jailbreaking — or at least acknowledge the value in what these jailbreak apps can do. We can all be winners here. How about it Apple?