Remember Cyanogen? I See No Bullet in Google’s Brain

Remember Cyanogen? I See No Bullet in Google’s Brain

Cyanogen Inc was riding the headlines just a few months back over outspoken CEO Kirt McMaster’s comments regarding Google’s fate. Back then, Cyanogen was on a roll with investors and some curious enthusiasts were rooting for it.

Despite the millions raised with their funding, and despite many-a-promises of a bloat-free Android, Cyanogen seemingly turned back on its ideals (once more), and as it slowly faded out of the blogosphere, its sphere of influence failed to make headlines again.

For a while, Cyanogen looked to finally be able to achieve its goals: the company had amassed millions in a war chest and built the necessary guns through OEM partnerships to make its army of developers shine. We saw the release of Cyanogen OS, which overtook the well-received CyanogenMod S in the OnePlus One, after a short yet hectic legal dispute between the ROM maker and the retired flagship-slayer. Amongst Cyanogen’s most notable partners, one can find influential names such as Micromax, one of India’s biggest; ZUK, a newly founded operation by Lenovo; OPPO, another big player from China; and Smartfren, a less-known OEM from Indonesia.

Notice, though, how none of these players are big enough to instantly spark interest, much less provoke impulse purchases. This is one of Cyanogen’s biggest faults, as they haven’t been able to land devices that offer truly premium or flagship experiences since their dramatic OnePlus breakup. They might have had a shot with the Alcatel Hero 2+, but the device was canceled as it had no clear upgrade path. Looking back, one cannot help but feel that Cyanogen missed a terrific opportunity with OnePlus — the One was a one-shot-wonder that OnePlus couldn’t replicate after (yet not because) Cyanogen left its software, and CyanogenMod S’ reception amongst enthusiast circles was also not matched by Cyanogen OS, be it because it came too late or because it still lacks many devices where it can shine (flagship phones, that is).


Cyanogen ran its war campaign on promises of the Android it then contradicted

There is even more to the Cyanogen narrative that was not fulfilled, and their slips led to an a broken omen for the company. Back at its media apex, Cyanogen boasted about the millions of Cyanogen installations that they had under their belt — a somewhat misleading and unverifiable figure that is widely disputed still.

Even then, having tens of millions of users flash a free ROM did not translate to tens of millions of people buying Cyanogen phones. There are many reasons for this, which we plan on getting to down below. But one must wonder… if Cyanogen could not recapture the flagship space once it lost its shot through OnePlus, where did they put their focus? Emerging markets, of course.


Team D*uche, all grown up

At a first glance, Cyanogen has some very powerful allies to cover developing economies. Micromax, for example, is one of India’s top sellers, and their recent Android-powered YU line does get love from those who can decide to buy into it. But Cyanogen’s mobile strategy in this space has been dwarfed in terms of attention not only by the sheer number of players competing, but also by Google itself — the Goliath they set out to kill, in one of the most balanced battlefields of the moment. Both Cyanogen and Google began relatively fresh beginnings in developing markets; Cyanogen has its Cyanogen OS and partnerships, while Google has the Android One program. We had deemed this prophetic conflict an open war for open Android, and unless war propaganda is messing with our heads, Google’s position seems more favorable.

While Android One still has a lot of growing up to do, and while it hasn’t caught up to its full potential (something which we have criticized in the past), the Pure Android program is extending its reach amongst various territories, including Africa. Android’s Nexus 5X and 6P devices are also allegedly reaching India, a crucial market, and now that said country has been exposed to affordable flagships, the Nexus line might have a little more success than it otherwise would have. Where does that leave Cyanogen? Their devices do compete in the lower-end spectrum, but not only do Cyanogen devices lack Google’s reach (which covers first-world markets through Nexus, and emerging markets through One) due to its lack of participation in the flagship-heavy markets of the west, but it’s also losing key devices.

McMaster’s Twitter depicts a far more heroic Cyanogen

Micromax’s Yu Yuphoria has switched to Stock Android, meaning one of Cyanogen’s best friends’ popular devices is now on Google’s uncorrupted side. The Yu Yunique, a lesser-specced phone, also opted for Stock Android with an optional Cyanogen OS installation. The Yuphoria is also a bit cheaper now that older units moved to stock Android. Does this mean Cyanogen divorced a new partner? We can’t tell, but it’s still ironic that Cyanogen was dumped for Stock Android, and given their many remarks and their recent tactics, one could say it almost feels like cosmic justice.

Cyanogen ran its war campaign on promises of an open Android, one that did not have to suffer from big, monopolistic bloatware from Google… those last two words being key, as while Cyanogen furiously criticized Google’s hold on OEM devices through their services, Cyanogen forged relationships with various technology companies to provide bloatware nonetheless. And it’s worth noting that these companies are not ones that bring unquestionable trust in consumers, either. From Microsoft to Boxer, Cyanogen’s wanton corporate courting of interested VC and companies who could thrive on the analytics from the purported millions of users resulted in their devices being infested with the same thing they accused Google of. These include very worrying applications in places such as the default e-mail and dialer — you know, popular phone stuff.

Their “secular” Android might be Google-free, but it still brings the same concerns, magnified

Deep Cortana Integration

What’s more, Cyanogen’s buddy-lobbying is all but unnoticeable to the naked eye. Despite their cries against Google’s pre-installed applications and favoritism, their OS comes with obvious applications from investors, and they also advertise each new partnership despite the negative scrutiny they get each time. They had promised the ability to remove all kinds of bloatware, and luckily you can remove most of what they put in there without root. Yet their OS is not as pure as they’d like to market it, and certainly not as pure as many of the AOSP ROMs flying around. Cyanogen OS became a source of headlines once more when they had announced plans for “deep Cortana integration”. Sounds like favoritism to me!

And all of this, from the unfounded remarks to the shameless contradictions, still didn’t make for an overly-stable OS. All it takes is a glance at certain forum threads to find that Cyanogen OS on YU and OnePlus devices was not what it could be, and not what even their non-commercial CyanogenMod is on various popular phones. So ultimately, where does Cyanogen stand right now?

Their influence has diminished, their snark has been turned around, their promises have been unfulfilled and Google’s brain is healthier than ever. A quick recapitulation of events shows that Cyanogen has not managed to “break free from Google”. Microsoft and Windows devices might ultimately benefit from the partnership in ways we currently don’t know about, but as things stand, right now, Cyanogen’s war machine is in dire need of oil. Or perhaps, there was no war machine, and their ambitious campaign was smoke and mirrors, and just another case of an undeserved spotlight.

Whether Cyanogen can surprise us is still to be decided, but so far, what remarkable goal has their crusade achieved? None, and considering that Google’s new services will become more important and integrated than ever before, Cyanogen’s plans look even less achievable. Because ultimately, most people do like Google’s suite of applications, and the replacements Cyanogen put in their place are either worse or more worrying. So their “secular” Android might be Google-free, but it still brings the same concerns, magnified by the companies involved in Cyanogen software.

So bite the bullet, Cyanogen; go back to your roots, you still have loyal CyanogenMod fans. If our forums comment sections are anything to go by, each new corporate charade only diminishes that number.


Imagery from Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole

About author

Mario Tomás Serrafero
Mario Tomás Serrafero

Mario developed his love for technology in Argentina, where a flagship smartphone costs a few months of salary. Forced to maximize whatever device he could get, he came to know and love XDA. Quantifying smartphone metrics and creating benchmarks are his favorite hobbies. Mario holds a Bachelor's in Mathematics and currently spends most of his time classifying cat and dog pictures as a Data Science graduate student.