From XDA to Cyanogenmod to LineageOS: A brief history
The stories behind LineageOS and XDA are inexorably linked. The custom Android flavor has given hundreds of thousands of users a chance to unlock their smartphones’ full potential, and in many cases, give it a lease of life way beyond what the manufacturer intended. But, ahead of our big LineageOS-related news tomorrow, if you’ve never stopped to think about how it all started, or you want a reminder, allow us to enlighten you.
The CyanogenMod Years
The forerunner of what we now know as LineageOS began eleven years ago. As with so many custom ROMs, it began on these hallowed pages. Cyanogen herself, aka Stefanie Kondik, worked with contributors to produce a ROM that would work on a wide variety of phone models, even if the OEM had discontinued support.
The first device to be supported was the HTC Dream (aka the T-Mobile G1) – the first commercially available Android device – with a firmware build that grew from a forum dweller’s work by the name of jesusfreke. As the Android market grew, so did CyanogenMod, tailored for each device, either officially or as an unofficial fork, from the newest Samsung Galaxy blockbuster to the smallest challenger model.
Those with fond memories of the HTC HD2 (the little handset that could) will know that CyanogenMod was the catalyst for many other operating systems that were successfully ported to this most versatile of devices. Indeed, many Custom ROM designers used CyanogenMod as a starting point for their own projects because it built on the AOSP offering with a range of extra features, all on a stable base. Amongst the features we accept as regular in Android today premiered in CyanogenMod were FLAC support, toggles in the notification pull-down, and GUI-powered overclocking.
Those early days were something of a cat-and-mouse battle with Google who did not (at that stage) take kindly to their phone software being rooted. But for every patch Google issued, someone was there to crack it, and soon Custom ROMs abounded for almost every handset, with Cyanogen leading the charge with her team of volunteer maintainers and developers, affectionately known on these pages as “Team Douche.”
CyanogenMod was heavily based around privacy, so actual usage figures were very difficult to obtain. At its height in 2012-3, it’s thought that at least 50m devices were running CyanogenMod, making it comfortably the biggest non-OEM firmware for Android.
The final version of CyanogenMod was version 14, based on Android 7.0 Nougat. Then, things began to change….
In 2013, Kondik began to look at the possibilities for monetizing and commercializing her work. Even as an open-source product, there were options for producing versions of CyanogenMod for OEMs to put straight onto their devices. The reaction was mixed. Some XDA users felt that Kondik was betraying the spirit of XDA, which had hitherto been strictly about community and open sharing.
Others questioned whether it was appropriate for any new company to profit from work donated to the community project, free of charge. Indeed some modules of the stack had to be rewritten when individual developers withdrew their support.
Kondik made it clear that CyanogenMod would continue as a free product for most users and that only commercially commissioned versions would be for cash. She obtained $7m venture-capital funding to formalize the business, and Cyanogen Inc. was born. To maintain goodwill with the XDA community, Cyanogen Inc. largely kept the same open-source licensing with respect to CyanogenMod code and promised to release device trees and kernel source code for devices running Cyanogen OS.
Some incidents threatened this goodwill, though. Cyanogen OS had several closed-source applications like CameraNext and GalleryNext, and they also tried to convert the licensing for some apps like Focal from GPL to Apache. However, the latter caused Focal to be withdrawn after developer xplodwild refused to adopt closed-source modifications to the code and move the entire application under a commercial license.
Despite the friction, Cyanogen Inc began to make an impression, courting customers joining the Android gold rush, including a little start-up known as OnePlus. More of them, shortly. Meanwhile, investment continued with Microsoft throwing its hat in the ring in 2015, when Windows Mobile was floundering, and the company was already eyeing how it could capitalize on the success of Android. This led to a wildly unpopular update in 2016, which bundled pointers to many of Microsoft’s Android apps into the firmware, at a time when Microsoft’s approval rating was at its lowest ebb.
By this time, aided by initiatives like this, internal frictions had started to boil over. Cyanogen Inc’s relationship with OnePlus had collapsed in acrimony within a year when it emerged shortly after the OnePlus One release that Cyanogen Inc. had signed an exclusivity deal for India with another OEM. India has always been a key market for OnePlus, so the dispute’s effect on both parties was palpable. Other OEMs came on board, including Spanish firm BQ and UK-based Wileyfox, but with OnePlus effectively alienated, Cyanogen OS was without a “killer product.”
Even Kondik had become frustrated with the lack of progress for the company in its new form. On the one hand, CEO Kirt McMaster was happy to brag to the press that CyanogenMod would soon supplant Google in controlling Android (the Android version of John Lennon’s ‘bigger than Jesus’ claim), while on the other, the previously brisk updates to the platform began to slow to a near halt as all resources went towards producing tailored versions for paying clients.
CyanogenMod continued to be popular as a Custom ROM, but its commercial twin Cyanogen OS was proving a disaster. In July 2016, 30 staff (around one fifth) were fired at a stroke, the Seattle offices were “gutted,” and CEO Kirt McMaster left the company with fledgling COO Lior Tai taking on the CEO role.
Most notably, at some point during this period, Stefanie Kondik was, herself, removed from the Board of Directors of her own company. She later said that she’d “worked with the wrong people” and found herself unable to prevent the business’s failure or the alienation being felt by developers. Worse still, she had lost legal rights to the Cyanogen name. Things didn’t look great.
Then, two days before Christmas 2016, Cyanogen Inc was formally wound down, effectively ending CyanogenMod. After her ousting, Kondik begged the development community to fork the work, so it didn’t go to waste.
A day later, on Christmas Eve, the first use of the name “LineageOS” appeared on the XDA forums.
You can’t keep a good operating system down for long. Very quickly, members of the XDA forums, including former Cyanogen-era developers, had organized themselves into a team to support the orphaned CyanogenMod. Thanks to the legal wrangles, it needed a new name, and LineageOS was chosen, reflecting the continuity from the previous project.
Back in community hands, many unofficial forks under the LineageOS name were quickly released on the XDA Forums over the Holidays, based on source code from CyanogenMod’s last build. A few weeks later, in early 2017, the first official builds began to appear, and a formal statement of intent was announced in a blog post.
The feature set of LineageOS includes several stock apps that were, themselves, developed by the community. Besides dedicated mail clients, the camera app (Snap), and a bespoke file manager, there have also been a number of features that go beyond simply being an alternative “skin” for Android. These include customization of hardware buttons, a global dark theme long before it arrived on AOSP, granular permissions through Privacy Guard, and the ability to block numbers from appearing in your call history.
February 2018 saw LineageOS 15.1 – the first new version to be announced since the XDA-take-back was released on some devices. 13 months later, version 16 arrived, by which time the development of the product had returned to a more familiar rhythm. Version 16 brought the new “Trust” interface, which provides a dashboard for making your device as secure and private as you want. Version 16 followed in 2019, by which time several forks had appeared, some offering a “Google-less” experience and one even removing all licensed components in favor of a truly open-source environment. Most recently, just after the world went mad, in April this year, Lineage 17.1, the most recent major release, was announced, built on Android 10. Work is now underway on Lineage 18, based on Android 11.
The Story Continues….
LineageOS provides an alternative firmware for literally thousands of phone models, thanks to its open-source, community-led approach. At XDA, we’re very proud of our association with LineageOS and its developers, and we can’t wait to tell you how we’re using it to raise the bar still further.
Read the next chapter at XDA tomorrow (Tuesday, 27th October 2020). Sign up here to get added to our early bird list – we’ll email everyone on that list with a unique link before it goes on general sale, but you’ll have to be quick as stock is limited!