Cyanogen Android – In just 18 months, Cyanogen Inc., the commercial arm of the popular CyanogenMod Android variant, has raised over $110 million. The latest round was for a whopping $80 million, and included investors such as Twitter Ventures, Qualcomm and Rupert Murdoch.
Investors are betting on Cyanogen because they believe it has the best shot at being the third biggest mobile OS, after Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. But wait, you’re saying. Isn’t Cyanogen based on Android? It sure is. But Evan Blass outlined last month, Cyanogen has aspirations for building a mobile ecosystem with no trace of Google.
In fact, Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster has said that Cyanogen is “attempting to take Android away from Google.”
A Google-free Android
To those of us in the Western world, the idea of a Google-free Android doesn’t make a ton of sense. After all, a big part of the appeal of the Android OS (some would argue the appeal) is its tight integration with Google services such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Play.
But in other parts of the world — including mainland China — Google services aren’t actually a big draw. In fact, most customers in mainland China have never even used the Google Play store or other Google services. Google left China five years ago over issues with government censorship, and as a result, most of the flavors of Android available on Chinese devices are based off the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and bundled with non-Google services.
Some of those flavors, including Xiaomi’s MiUI, are becoming increasingly popular. This is the market Cyanogen wants to target.
For its part, Google isn’t standing still. It’s making efforts to get parts of its Google Play ecosystem into China, but Google is clearly at a disadvantage in the country, especially as companies such as Baidu, Qihoo and Tencent lap up marketshare and mindshare.
Escaping Google’s control
There’s another reason OEMs and mobile carriers are interested in Cyanogen: control.
When Android launched in 2008, Google made it pretty easy for OEMs and carriers to do with the mobile OS what they wanted.
And that worked well at first — it’s what allowed the platform to thrive in its early days. (Seriously, the early Android experience was made so much better by HTC’s Sense UI. Whatever you may think of Android UI skins today, in 2008 and 2009, those skins were essential.)
Fragmentation — the idea that no two Android devices look alike or act alike — has hurt Google’s mindshare.
Fragmentation — the idea that no two Android devices look alike or act alike — has hurt Google’s mindshare. It has also made it harder for Google to push updates across various devices, because the OEMs have to be on board, the carriers have to agree to do updates, and the customizations HTC or Samsung make on a device have to be ported to new versions.
And that’s assuming the companies want all those changes to begin with.
Google has a very clear vision for Android, and it isn’t necessarily in line with the visions of its partners.
“App and chip vendors are very worried about Google controlling the entire experience,” Andreessen Horowitz partner Peter Levine told Forbes. Andreessen Horowitz is a Cyanogen investor and is betting on the company’s potential to establish itself as a third option.
Why choose Cyanogen?
Device makers that adopt the non-Google brand of Android are responsible for making their own security patches, creating UI skins and bundling app stores and services.
For the Xiaomis of the world, doing this sort of thing in-house makes a lot of sense. In fact, Xiaomi has a dedicated fandom in its own right.
But for other device makers, the idea of maintaining, optimizing and customizing an OS for various devices — and keep in mind, most of these devices are sold at low or no margins — isn’t something they can afford to do themselves.
This is Cyanogen’s opportunity. The company has the in-house expertise with Android (born out of its CyanogenMod roots) to customize the experience to run well on different types of hardware.
Plus, Cyanogen can take care of patching devices with security updates and keeping important bits in check.
Moreover, Google has continued to pull more and more of the parts we think of as Android from its AOSP project. In 2013, Ars Technica explored the Google-free world of Android and the results were stunning. Over the ensuing 18 months, Google has continued to move more of the core bits into its proprietary Google Services domain.
What Cyanogen offers OEMs is an attractive, updated and potentially customizable version of Android that will work with the services they want to work with.
And so far, it’s working. Cyanogen has signed deals with Micromax in India to preload its version of Android on the company’s high-end devices.
With the latest influx of capital, we expect these deals to continue.