The sudden, brutal and bloody death of Cyanogen Mod, one of the first and most popular Android forks, over the past week has demonstrated the difficult task of building a company off the back of a community run project. For years before Cyanogen Inc. began commercialising and selling its clean, comprehensive and solid Android OS to OEM phone makers, its enormous community focused on providing tailored releases for once forgotten devices. Phones, especially those made by HTC and Samsung, were updated with modern security and firmware updates, complete with OTA (Over the Air) updates.
Cyanogen, the company, was an attempt at taking this refined OS and offering a competitive all-in-one option to OEM phone makers. Cyanogen had some cool tweaks – it had a host of great privacy options, 3rd party apps tied into its core apps, a great keyboard, and a very clean and rigid design language. It was extremely fast, especially when it was tailored for a specific handset, and clear of any sort of bloatware or app duplication, which is common on devices from larger hardware makers.
The problem was that Cyanogen Inc weren’t sure how to make any money from it. Android’s appeal is that it’s basically free – there are countless options for OEMs to choose from – and that any phone designer could pick anything that’s out there, make a few small changes and call it their own. What makes the operating system useful to users is the inclusion of Google Apps – Gmail, Maps, YouTube, etc – that most users would consider essential to the use of any Android phone. Google offers these apps to anyone who is part of the AOSP program, but there are rules.
What made Cyanogen a force was, unlike awful forks like TouchWiz and Sense, it was a beautiful, fast and clean operating system. It had an enormous active development community behind it, pumping out updates that were so regular it had to separate them into categories so people knew how stable they were. In many cases, it was more secure than official Android, as it would push security updates out well before Google did with its own monthlies. It partnered with Microsoft and other app makers to provide Google replacements for new gen services like Google Now and Allo.
The idea was sound. Cyanogen’s aim was ultimately to remove Google’s influence from Android through partnerships with other companies. Currently, Google applications are the default apps for Android, which means that companies that supply competing email or music streaming services are second fiddle. Sure, the operating system can be largely configured to change these defaults, but incorporating this functionality directly into core applications, such as the dialler or messenger, was much more difficult.
Google saw this potential at one point, even going as far offering Cyanogen a billion dollar acquisition offer, which the company ended up turning down. Many wondered at the time what Google saw as a threat – Cyanogen was a minnow compared to its might – but seeing the long-term Google strategy in 2016, with the release of the Pixel and the hardening of its control over the OS, the acquisition may have been an easy way to get developers on board to refine the exclusive version of Android that exists on its own hardware.
Unlike Samsung, however, Cyanogen did not make their own hardware. They relied on OEMs, such as the deal they once had with OnePlus, to provide them with a source of revenue. Unfortunately, they decided to put in place a bunch of exclusivity agreements with their first customers which they ended up ballsing up to the point almost all of them ended up failing. Their oft-repeated claim of “putting a bullet through Google’s Head” ended up being turned on its head, with their hubris and lack of planning turning the gun around 180 degrees.
With the death of Cyanogen, Google’s ability to make gains becomes a lot easier. Another strong, competing fork in developing countries, one of the last few growth opportunities in Smartphones, would make it much more difficult to sell its own low-cost handsets in future. Google knew Cyanogen was probably the only real true threat to “core” Android, due to the fact that it was built on the very foundation it had helped develop all those years ago. A strict code of refinement and improvement over many years and across a host of devices made it an easy bet for OEMs looking to take market share from Samsung.
But it wasn’t just Cyanogen’s own mistakes that killed it. Google had been working hard in the meantime, using its app leverage to push manufacturers its way. You want Gmail on your device? Make sure you have a search bar. Make sure you implement our security protocols. Sign our licensing agreements. Ensure Google Play is on the first screen customers see after setup. Google had also been gradually strengthening its ability to tie core services into Google Play, ensuring that even if it had less control over kernel updates, it could manage security and other functionality via its suite.
Google regrets letting Samsung, Cyanogen and other fork stake the reins, and ultimately the soul, of Android. Through a lack of clear long term support from them and other OEMs, billions of Android devices are woefully out of date and open to thousands of exploits and attacks. Google’s fight, through Pixel and subsequent updates of Android, makes it increasingly easier to reign control back to its HQ. But the cat was out of the bag many years ago, and the death of a single upstart is not going to magically repair the damage that has already been done.