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Friday Debate: Is Cyanogen heading in the right direction?

For this week's Friday Debate we are discussing Cyanogen's current direction, where it's heading and whether it can truly separate from Google in the way that it is claiming.

Published onJanuary 30, 2015

CyanogenMod camera Kate Upton mode

Cyanogen has been in the news a lot recently, in large part due to their aggressive statement that they hope to “steal Android from Google”, which led Simon Hill to ask the question, “Can Cyanogen make it without Google?” Additionally, many found it interesting that Microsoft is reportedly joining in as a minor investor in the company.

With all this in mind, for this week’s Friday Debate we are discussing Cyanogen’s current direction, where it’s heading and whether it can truly separate from Google in the way that it is claiming. Additionally, how do you feel about Microsoft getting involved as a minor investor?

This week there wasn’t a lot of community responses, though you can check out the official forum thread to read all the responses we received.

What Team AA has to say

Gary Sims

Can Cyanogen’s version of Android survive without Google. Absolutely not. Any company or investor who is putting money into Cyanogen is just burning their money.

OK, you might think I am being a bit harsh, but let me tell you my reasoning. First, recent history is showing that Cyanogen is turning out to be a pretty juvenile company. The whole OnePlus One and India thing proves it. If I was a handset maker there is no way I would touch Cyanogen, it is too dangerous, too flaky. What this means is that even if Cyanogen came up with the best Android variant on the face of the planet, it would still be a hard sell.

But the second point is that it can’t come up with the best Android variant. You see it has been tried by companies with deeper pockets than Cyanogen and there is limited appeal to consumers.
There are lots of Android variants out there, there is CyanogenMod, there is ColorOS, MIUI, and FlyME. You could even consider the skins that Samsung and HTCput on their devices as a variant of Android. But they all have one thing in common, they use Google’s services. You get Google Play, Gmail, Maps, YouTube, and so on.

There are a couple of Android variants that don’t use Google’s services, namly Amazon’s Fire OS, and the now dead Nokia X. Amazon has a huge online footprint, and it has managed in part to convince tablet users that its ecosystem is enough. But it didn’t do so well for smartphones. The Nokia X had lots of potential, and I would have really liked to have seen how it would have played out over several years. But even with names like Nokia and Microsoft behind it, the lack of Google’s service seemed to be a show stopper for many consumers.

One thing is for sure, if Cyanogen starts to make a divergent version of Android then Google will come down on it like a ton of bricks. There are clauses in the SDK that insist on a unifying of Android, not a divergence. Once Google declare Cyanogen divergent then the SDK becomes off limits, and of course Google will pull support for its services from Cyanogen. At that point Cyanogen is dead. Is that wrong? Well, that is a whole different discussion.

Robert Triggs

I’m a little torn about this. One the one hand, I want to see Cyanogen take the beloved ROM as far as it can and I wouldn’t mind Google loosening its grip on Android a little either. On the other, there’s a big difference between dreaming big and what can be accomplished in reality, and I can’t see how breaking away from Google benefits Cyanogen OS development or its users right now.
This seems like a case of biting off more than you can chew. As Gary said, there are bigger, richer, and more experienced companies that haven’t managed to replicate the utility provided by Google and I don’t see Cyanogen replacing the entire Google ecosystem with a superior version anytime in the next decade. Perhaps a slower path, similar to MIUI, would be viable; gradually building up its software, then forming a hardware base, leading to a sustainable ecosystem over time. Instead, Cyanogen has run straight for the nukes, announcing ambitious plans without a clear roadmap or history of success.

I believe it’s a big oversight by Cyanogen to deliberately make enemies of its contemporaries. Every statement drips headline baiting venom, but I want details and results, not self-indulgent hot air.

As for Microsoft’s investment, I don’t think there’s much too it. Microsoft backs lots of companies, some which rival its own goals and products. It’s a cheap, see-what-happens investment for Microsoft, but it probably won’t generate a return.

Part of me doesn’t want to write Cyanogen off, as I hate the taste of my own words, but I really can’t see the end benefit to users from arguing with Google, and consumers are a better measure of success than ideology.

Matthew Benson

Let me preface this by stating I’ve never spent much time with Cyanogenmod nor have I personally rooted any device. I have, however, been bequeathed with rooted devices, but that’s another story.

The situation surrounding Cyanogenmod is quite precarious to say the least, though I honestly question just how much of a real threat it presents to Google. By-and-large, the masses don’t care about Cyanogenmod much less know of its existence. I personally associate it with XDA Developers for whatever reason, something that is as far from mainstream users as one can get.

This is not to say that there is no mainstream appeal of Cyanogenmod. On the contrary I think that with its cornucopia of customization while still preserving the integrity of AOSP, there is a lot to love. Still, the question is, if Cyanogen wants to “overtake” Google, can it actively seek to attract droves of new users when its core installation procedure requires root and flashing, two things that just don’t ring up with casual customers.

Amazon has managed to push its Fire OS in no small part thanks to its internal ecosystem and by providing products that make full use of it. The fact that the Kindle Fire HDX units have some excellent specs doesn’t hurt either. Now we need only look at the Fire Phone and a totally different story is said. Even if Cyanogen begins to offer products with the OS splinter pre-installed, like the OnePlus One shipped with outside China, the question is who will make such a device, especially given the recent legal issues it ran into in India? The company doesn’t seem too sold on compliance related issues, how will this factor in?

The Microsoft issue seems to be, sadly, another attempt at the folks over in Redmond trying to remain relevant in the mobile space. You know that the Windows Phone team is just chomping at the bit for access to the smorgasbord of Android apps, and by investing in Cyanogen, Microsoft is slowly inching towards a Blackberry-type paradigm. I suppose one might argue that it’s troublesome for app developers to port their creations to all platforms, but at the same time I can’t help but feel that the “Android compatible” issue is just plain cheating: don’t bother trying to make a compelling reason for developers to migrate; heck, don’t even make them consider your platform period!

At the end of the day however, if, Cyanogen can get it’s forked OS on the dinner plates of enough users, I for one would welcome it with open arms. Vanilla Android is just too plain for me, which led to the proclamation that the only thing missing from the Nexus 6 was TouchWiz in a previous Friday Debate. Plain and simple is all fine and dandy, but what of those who want some more to eat with their candy?

Bogdan Petrovan

I’m ambivalent about the whole situation. On the one hand I agree with the general opinion that Cyanogen is biting more than it can chew, especially since it’s biting the hand the feeds it, at least for now. But if you look past McMaster’s deliberately shocking comments, the idea itself is quite intriguing. What if every company out there could make its own unique flavor of Android, with unique services integrated deep into it, the way only Google can do right now? I am talking about more than skinning and superficial touches. Right now, Google is doing some amazing things that give great value to users; but for the crowd that doesn’t want to be part of the Googlesphere, because of privacy issues or just out of sheer contrarianism, having an alternative, or more, would be great. Microsoft has tried and, so far, failed, to create an alternative to Android and iOS, but they are doing a far better job at creating a suite of cloud services and apps. They could partner with CM to mix Android with their cloud services – it may crash and burn, but it may also be the beginning of a real alternative to Google’s suite.

But before Cyanogen can establish itself as a platform for other companies, its more urgent concern should be keeping Google happy and not alienating current and potential partners. I suspect McMaster’s bravado is just a way of drumming up excitement among potential partners or buyers. Perhaps Cyanogen is just looking for an early exit. If that’s the case, losing access to Google’s services may not matter that much. But if Cyanogen is really thinking long-term, they are really playing with fire here.

Now it’s your turn

You’ve heard from our community members and Team AA, now it’s your turn. How do you feel about Cyanogen’s recent direction, Microsoft investing and everything in between? We welcome you to leave your responses in the comments below, or you can get even more detailed in the forums. 

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