How Cyanogen plans to be Android’s open-source champion

January 16, 2014
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cyanogenmod nexus 5 boot screen aa 2The beauty of Android is that it is open source. Well in theory anyway. Google develops and maintains Android and it publishes the source code via the Android Open Source Project. From there smaller manufacturers and custom firmware makers can take the code and build their own Android ROMs. One of the most popular custom Android firmwares is Cyanogenmod. Based on Google’s AOSP code the Cyanogenmod team add a range of new features that aren’t found in vanilla Android. Back in September 2013 Steve Kondik, Koushik Dutta, and a small group of CyanogenMod developers established their own company – Cyanogen, Inc.

We want to kind of spread the idea that it's okay to change the OS on your phone and the software that your phone runs. That should be the norm, not the exception.
Steve Kondik
TechHive

But there is something wrong with Android’s open source model. Although Google releases the source code for Android it doesn’t (and can’t) release the drivers needed for the various chipsets like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth etc. For its Nexus range of devices Google releases binary drivers which at least means that projects like Cyanogenmod can incorporate them into their builds. Because of these binary drivers (and other proprietary information which isn’t available to the general public) alternative firmware makers can only support a subset of devices, devices which basically have been reversed engineered.

Another problem is that Google’s suite of apps (Google Play, Gmail and Maps etc) aren’t open source. This means that it is possible to create a smartphone or tablet from the open source version of Android that doesn’t have the Play Store etc. This is in fact the biggest reason why there is so much malware for Android. In places where people use Android devices without Google’s apps alternative ecoo-systems exist including third party app stores and other online services. The security of these alternatives often isn’t very strong.

Cyanogen, Inc. plans to offer Cyanogenmod to handset manufacturers while simultaneously continuing to work on the community version, in fact Cyanogen’s primary goal is listed as “organize, lead, and support our community.” By working with handset manufacturers like Oppo and OnePlus Cyanogen have complete access to any proprietary and special information. Since Cyanogen is an open-source company it will be able to publish as much information (and source code) as it can for these OEM devices.

But building a finished product for an OEM is a little different than producing custom firmware for enthusiasts. In comments email to TechHive Steve Kondik said, “in the custom ROM community people are a little more tolerant to get the most bleeding edge thing on their device, but when you’re trying to ship a real product you’ve really got to nail those edge cases… make sure things don’t crash.”

oppo-n1-cm

Cyanogen now also need to think about marketing, something it didn’t need to worry about before. To make a profitable business Cyanogen needs its OEMs to sell lots of devices. It also needs to convince consumers that Cyanogen is a “better Android” while still remaining 100% compatible with Android. The Oppo N1, which runs CM10.2, recently passed Google’s CTS (compatibility test suite), CDD (compatibility definition document) and CTS Verifier which means it can officially run Google’s apps and access the Google Play Store. This is great news for Cyanogen, but marketing isn’t only about compatibility. One thing for sure is that the word “Cyanogenmod” isn’t very snappy. However it looks like Cyanogen has plans to rebrand soon. “We’re going to do a minor rebranding for the mass market because CyanogenMod doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue,” said Kondik.

We're going to do a minor rebranding for the mass market because CyanogenMod doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Another aspect of the Cyanogen model is that it frees hardware focused companies from worrying about the software. Big names like Samsung and HTC can afford to employ extra software developers to build their custom user interfaces, like TouchWiz and HTC Sense, but smaller companies don’t have the resources. Cyanogen is basically offering a custom Android build service for handset manufacturers. Talking about the Oppo N1 Kondik said, “it was a very straightforward way for us to really focus on the software without having to deal too much with the manufacturing side of it.” The opposite could probably be said for Oppo, it could focus on the hardware while Cyanogen worked on the software.

Ultimately Cyanogen aims (and needs) to coexist with Google and the Android Open Source Project. Without access to Google’s services most devices won’t sell, specifically in the West, and without the AOSP Cyanogen doesn’t have a code base. But maybe Cyanogen can offer viable alternative to vanilla Android and make a success of selling open source software.

What do you think? Would you buy a phone with Cyanogenmod pre-installed rather than say vanilla Android, as found on Nexus devices and Play Edition devices? Would you prefer Cyanogenmod over TouchWiz or HTC Sense? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.

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