Cyanogen’s ambitions make sense, but another fork in Android won’t really change things for US customers.
An Overview of Cyanogen
If you’re not the type to talk about mobile OSs, or to risk your manufacturer warranty, then you probably haven’t heard about Cyanogen. For the last few years, they’ve made the CyanogenMod, a fork of Android, that you could install to unlock additional features and use apps that weren’t supported by the “stock” version of Android. The mod played into the love of tech people for customizing their equipment. It was not easy to install, but it was also something that a geek would be happy to spend a weekend figuring out.
In exchange for some cursing and reading forums, you got greater control over system settings like memory usage, a slew of sort of cool apps, the ability to ignore certain Play Store polices, and a lot of custom homescreens.
While a lot of IT guys loved it, I don’t know non-techs who ever installed Cyanogen and did anything with with. Even my techie friends were hard pressed to come up with a good reason to mod, other than that they could.
In the last year, Cyanogen has launched a fullblown operating system to compete with Android, and now they are building buzz about their goal of unseating Google in the mobile operating arena. Some big name companies have become investors in the Palo Alto-based company, and now it’s on like Donkey Kong.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if this matters at all…
Why Take That Fork in the Road?
Kurt McMaster, founder of Cyanogen, wants to put “a bullet through Google’s head.”, and take the lead on developing Android for the next generation of devices.
I’m sceptical about the company’s ability to pull this off, but more to the point, I’m sceptical about the need for it. Android is already a highly fractured system with multiple versions being used, vendor customizations, and device-specific tweaks. On top of that, we’ve got the Amazon version being run on Kindles and a slew of overseas companies bringing new builds to market.
What exactly is Cyanogen going to bring into the market that justifies both supporting a new version of Android, and the abandonment of the Google ecosystem?
I’ve been thinking about this question since stories about Cyanogen’s ambitions first started showing in my feeds. Honestly, I haven’t found a good answer from a US customer perspective. Yes, the OnePlus One is what dreams are made of, but it’s still just a phone. While the price and specs are nice, it’s still not enough to make me go rogue and leave the Google world.
But if you’re in Asia, Africa or Latin America, I can see this being a real alternative because Google’s apps don’t have deep penetration in these places. China is a prime example: while Android phones dominate market share, most Google services haven’t been available since the company left China in 2010. Both Africa and Latin America, have strong user bases for Android devices, but they are also still weak when it comes to using apps like Gmail or Maps.
I can see Cyanogen taking ground overseas where Google services are less used, and doing partnerships with companies trying to penetrate those markets or just looking to be less dependent on Google. I’m not saying this will be the case, but it makes sense.
Not a Bad Play for Google Competitors
While the customer-side argument is hard for me to make, the argument for hardware manufacturers and app makers is pretty easy to see. Google’s relationships with other tech companies are complicated to say the least: they are both the operating system and a competitor for companies like DropBox, Square, and Microsoft.
If you’re a company building on Google’s Android and trying to sell a competing product, then you always have to worry about Google showing prejudice in interfaces, policies and app stores. Pushing Cyanogen as an alternative — especially with a similar user experience — gives your company some diversification without a lot of risk. You don’t need Cyanogen to take over the Android market, just slice off enough to give you another (less worrisome) revenue stream.
Handset manufacturers have a similar position to the sofware makers. Why tie yourself to one company, especially if they want to interfere with your business practices, when you can use an alternative that is as good. The only thing that bothers me is that this will drop phone prices to the point that OEMs will be not better off in terms of margin. Sure, Cyanogen might win but will that really help Samsung, HTC or other phone makers? While Apple owns the high-end, Cyanogen will make the fight at the low-end even harsher.
If It Works, Then…What?
Assuming Cyanogen is successful in breaking Google’s hold on Android, then what happens? I’ve got no idea. We’ll definitely see new phones, possibly cheaper phones and maybe even better phones, but I don’t know if it really changes things at the consumer-level. If you’re a die-hard Google user, then you’ll install the apps. If you’re not, then you’ll hope that your favorites are available or learn to use alternatives.
In the short-term, I see new Cyanogen phones coming out, and forum posts popping up with instructions on how to mod Cyanogen to use Lollipop or whatever the latest Google build is. The overall user-experience won’t change much, but you’ll need to go to multiple app stores to get the tools you want.
In the long-term, I see Cyanogen gaining marketshare in developing countries, bringing some value to its partners, but becoming something like Amazon without the built in money-maker of ecommerce. Everyone will be happy to have some freedom from Google, but no one will be that much better off. Of course, this prediction depends on Cyanogen continuing to be used in high-quality, lower-cost headsets.
In sum, I’d say the rise of Cyanogen will make OEMs and Google competitors happy, but won’t be much of a game changer for end-users.