By Jared Newman
If you were to plot an elaborate heist on one of the world's largest technology companies, you probably wouldn't start by letting everyone know you were coming.
Yet that's not stopping Cyanogen, a startup that makes alternative firmware for Google's Android operating system. Cyanogen hasn't hidden its dissatisfaction with Google, and has publicly complained that Android isn't as open as it should be. While Android's software is open source, the vast majority of Android phones rely on proprietary Google services like Gmail and the Google Play app store. Cyanogen wants to offer an alternative.
"We’re attempting to take Android away from Google," Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster said at an industry conference in January. To that end, Cyanogen is reportedly courting companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo to help build a version of Android that's more accommodating to their services, and to those of other companies. The goal is to have a viable alternative to Google's flavor of Android in the next three to five years.
Cyanogen's ambitions seem laughable at first glance. Outside of emerging markets like China, where Google never thrived to begin with, it's hard to imagine a truly successful version of Android that isn't tied to Google services. And in recent years, Google has introduced firmer mandates that bundle all its services together, making it harder than ever to sell a competitive Android phone without Google's support. (Just ask Amazon, whose Fire phone has struggled mightily without Google's app store and services.)
But in an interview about Cyanogen's strategy, McMaster was surprisingly persuasive about the company's vision. All of a sudden, the company's plan for a truly open alternative to Google's Android doesn't seem like such a joke.
Cyanogen had a reason to grant interviews when I chatted over Google Hangouts with McMaster and Vikram Natarajan, the company's senior vice president of global partnerships and distribution. The company had just made a deal with chip giant Qualcomm that puts Cyanogen's software on a reference design phone, which hardware makers makers can use as a starting point to quickly build new handsets.
Natarajan pitched the deal as a win-win for everyone. Qualcomm gets to offer handset vendors ready-made software with features that don't appear in stock Android, such as custom themes and granular privacy controls. Phone makers get a promise from Cyanogen to keep their software fresh with over-the-air updates, and Cyanogen gets a chance to reach a much larger audience through unlocked hardware at lower prices. (Today, Cyanogen is much better known for its open-source, non-commercial variant known as Cyanogen Mod, which Android enthusiasts can install in place of their phones' default firmware.)
Still, Cyanogen in its current form isn't a threat to Google. The company still pre-loads Google's services and app store on its phones, so the Cyanogen experience isn't drastically different from Google's stock version of Android. But with more scale, Cyanogen stands a better chance of being taken seriously when it does decide to break free.
Dreams Of A Spotify Phone
Part of Cyanogen's master plan involves partnering with natural replacements for Google services and building them deeply into the operating system (in exchange for a slice of the revenues). Imagine, for instance, a phone that automatically backs up all your files and data to Dropbox, or uses Spotify as the standard for music playback. Cyanogen wants to build an open platform where these services can play a much bigger role than they currently do as standalone apps.
"Listen, if Spotify could really create a Spotify phone, or Facebook could really create the Facebook phone, and Dropbox could create the Dropbox phone, you would see levels of innovation there that are just not happening today in the app ecosystem," McMaster says.
He offers an example: Today, if you tell an Android phone to play some music, by default the results will come from Google Play Music. "I should be able to talk to my device, say 'play a song,' and that song should play on my Sonos in my living room via Spotify," McMaster says.
Cyanogen wants to be a boon to smaller companies as well, such as makers of virtual assistant software that compete with Google Now or Apple's Siri. Even if their technology is superior, McMaster says, today they can't compete because they aren't hooked into the operating system. Their best chance at success is simply to get acquired by the platform gatekeepers. "They require a lot of the data that's only available at the deeper levels of the OS, and particularly to do things like machine learning and AI, if you don't have this data, your whole model falls apart," McMaster says.
Cyanogen is still figuring out exactly how to involve all these different services, but Natarajan says the company wants to work with a handful of "lighthouse" partners that could be part of the platform by default. Other companies will be able to hop on board through a software development kit, and users would have the ultimate say over which services they want to use.
The 800-Pound App Store
Assuming Cyanogen can whip up a cast of supporting services, it still faces one major obstacle: Cutting out core Google services means losing the Google Play store, and the entire Android app ecosystem along with it. As Ars Technica documented a couple of years ago, Google requires all of its services to be bundled as a package deal, so you can't replace Google as the default search engine or toss out Google Drive integration without giving up the Play store and its millions of apps.
McMaster has previously vowed to offer his own app store within 18 months, and told me that Cyanogen is still on track to do so. But instead of having a monolithic marketplace to rival Google Play, Cyanogen will likely bring in multiple app stores from various providers. He points out how the Chinese market has plenty of thriving app markets, with individual focuses such as enterprise software and games, and he thinks the same model can work in developed markets.
"Just because you have not yet seen it in mature markets because of the dominance of Google does not mean that it will not exist," McMaster says. While he wouldn't get into details, it sounds like Cyanogen wants to create the strip mall to Google Play's Walmart, with each app store offering a different spin. Given how difficult it can be to discover new apps in today's massive storefronts, breaking the store up doesn't seem like a bad idea.
"We have some ideas there, and we're aware of a number of different partners that have some really awesome ideas there, so you will see it happen, no question," McMaster says.
None of these plans are foolproof. Replacing Google services only works if Cyanogen can rope in top-notch alternatives, and in any case, plenty of people will have a hard time adopting an Android where Google isn't present.
And even if Cyanogen can string together a sizable app selection across multiple stores, that alone doesn't comprise an ecosystem. To rival the experience of Google Play, Cyanogen will need to come up with a single billing system, a unified front against malware, and a way to track and restore past purchases without headaches.
Perhaps that's why Cyanogen is hoping it won't have to completely sever ties with Google after all. "As a company, we love Google. We love Google services. I use Google services every day," McMaster says. "We want to work with Google. It's up to them to continue to want to work with Cyanogen."
That notion seems hard to swallow when Cyanogen is spewing anti-Google vitriol whenever it has an audience. But when I ask McMaster about his past comments, he seem to soften up, if only for a moment.
"You know, this notion of 'taking Android away from Google' is more of a battle cry around the emergence of open Android and the creation of an open computing platform," he says. "We're not naive enough to believe that we're going to take Android and we're going to have all 5 billion users ourselves." Besides, McMaster says, Cyanogen doesn't want to become the same monopoly power that it's trying to disrupt. That'd be bad for everyone.
And with that, he jumps right back into the rhetoric. "We would like people to have an open option, and that's what we're fighting for here. And believe me, it is a fight, so we're not going to sit back like pussycats, and take it lightly," he says. "We're going to come out swinging."