Cyanogen, Android, and iPhone: The Future of Phones

on February 11, 2015

Cyanogen logoCyanogen Inc. is hardly one of the best known companies in the mobile phone business. It is a recent outgrowth from CyanogenMod, a not much better known developer of Google-free versions of Android for mobile devices. And now it’s making a move to turn the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) into a challenge to both Google and Apple.

There have been three interests controlling most of the phone world–Apple, Google Android, and AOSP. The Google version, which includes a broad range of Google apps, is dominated by leading Android phone makers, particularly Samsung. The AOSP approach is used on millions of phones sold in Asia, especially China, by Xiaomi and many others (it is also popular with a minority of Google device buyers who want to install their own software).

Tough moves. Cyanogen is now planning a tough move into the market. Microsoft has shown itself to be a investor in the project spending perhaps $70 million, though it has not made a formal commitment. Amazon is another likely contributor. (Ina Fried has written an excellent report for Re/code.)

Amazon’s potential is obvious. It has been doing its own AOSP version for the Kindle Fire tablets and the unfortunate Fire Phone. It could almost certainly benefit by managing Android without leaning on Google. The Microsoft game is somewhat more dubious. One possibility is it is just looking for an OS other than Windows or Google Android for lower-end Nokia phones intended for third world countries.

The other is to play to the advantage of Windows Phone, which has struggled as a distant competitor for both Apple and Google. The logic, which is purely speculative about Microsoft’s intent, is that injecting a third, well-funded developer into the Google/iPhone battle could help create a better position for Windows Phone.

Unlikely problems. The  Cyanogen move is unlikely to cause problems for Apple. The iPhone is designed only for the upper part of the market–remember the lack of success of the iPhone 5c–while whatever Cyanogen offers is likely to be aimed primarily at the low end. The addition of a new OS is unlikely to have much impact on Windows Phones either.

The big issue is the entry of a new layer into the market of Google’s Android. The relationship of Android between Google and AOSP is a complicated affair. (( For more on the complications of Android, see Ben Bajarin’s The Android Schism. ))  At first, AOSP was attractive primarily to tinkerers who wanted to tamper with their phone software. They replaced the manufacturer-supplied software with CyanogenMod versions, which were offered for a wide variety of Android phones.

But producers of phones in the rapidly growing Chinese market were strongly attached to AOSP. They wanted to get a free OS and they had little interest in installing the Google services, many of which would not work on the Chinese network anyway. ABI’s survey found AOSP software was responsible for about 20% of the smartphones sold worldwide this summer.

Cyanogen could bring  some valuable stability to the chaotic assortment of software and OS versions being sold. But there is a question about just what Google does with AOSP while a new rival company does its best t0 take charge of the system. Google typically has made each new version of Android available to AOSP (Honeycomb, the short-lived tablet version was an exception).

Google’s interests. With Cyanogen trying to take charge, Google my be far less interested in helping. Google’s mostly unprofitable Android business has been to gain use of the services built in to the phones. But Google is already being hurt by the growth of the disorganized AOSP phone network and it could suffer significantly more if Cyanogen turns this into a real, competitive business. Android software is available free for any would-be user, but Google is not required to maintain it.

Of course, there are still a lot of questions about how Cyanogen will make this a real success. Right now, its only business is to provide software for Micromax, a maker of low end phones in India. It can provide a business of helping manufacturers get a more efficient operating system from AOSP, but it is hard to see how that can produce a whole lot of business.

But it certainly can contribute to the already growing fragmentation of the Android world. Google’s interest in Android has tended to cycle, hitting a peak with the acquisition of Motorola and at something of a low right now. Android’s market continues to grow significantly, but the biggest part of the expansion remains on the AOSP side while the top Google Android makers, led by Samsung, are hurting. Google should be worried.