Newcomer Cyanogen looks to disrupt Android and iOS

Open version of Android has backing of 9,000 developers and big investors, company claims

cyanogen screenshot

The Yureka Plus smartphone goes on sale Aug. 6 for about $156 and features a 5.5-in. full HD display. It's powered by Cyanogen OS 12.

Credit: Yu

Several versions of the Android OS for smartphones have appeared on the global stage in recent years. One version, Cyanogen OS, has gathered publicity as well as prominent investors --including Twitter, Qualcomm and Foxconn -- that could give it some staying power.

In a July report, IDC analyst William Stofega, asserted, "Cyanogen has the potential to meaningfully disrupt the current duopoly of Android and iOS, creating a richer experience for end users."

Doing so would be a tall order for the Cyanogen OS, given that Apple and various Android phone makers control more than 95% of the smartphone market.

An estimated 50 million users have loaded the open source Cyanogen OS on their smartphones since 2009 after stripping off the existing OS. In the past year, several new phones have arrived that are pre-loaded with the OS from newer phone manufacturers.

Cyanogen's market potential

There are about 2.5 billion smartphones in use. In 2014, Android phones had reached 1.6 billion users, while iOS smartphones reached nearly 400 million, according to research firm Statista and others.

Expected growth in smartphones is where Cyanogen will make its mark. Something like 6 billion smartphones could be in use by 2020, according to various analysts, leaving plenty of room for Cyanogen and other operating systems.

The largest portion of the smartphone growth will be among low-cost devices sold into populous countries like India and China. Low-cost smartphone makers like Xioami, Coolpad, Huawei, Lenovo and ZTE -- all based in China -- and others are seeing this opportunity.

Meet Cyanogen Inc., based in California

Much of the fate of the Cyanogen OS rests in the hands of Cyanogen Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif. The company's primary business is the commercial distribution of the Cyanogen OS, built on Android. The company reportedly has just 100 employees, but boasts having 9,000 open source contributors. The OS offers "revolutionary personalization features, intuitive interface, improved battery life, and enhanced security," according to the company website.

In a sign of its growing ambitions, Cyanogen reported on July 8 that it had hired top Amazon engineer Stephen Lawler as its senior vice president of engineering and Qualcomm's Android engineering head Karthick Iyer as Cyanogen's vice president of global systems.

A few smartphones have launched this year with the Cyanogen OS running natively. Also, version 12 of the OS will run on the Yureka Plus smartphone, which will be sold by India-based YU Televentures, a joint venture formed last December between Cyanogen Inc. and Micromax Informatics. The phone, which is set to launch Aug. 6, will sell for 9,999 rupees, or about $156. It features a 5.5-in. full high-definition display with a 13-megapixel camera.

The Cyanogen OS also is pre-loaded on the Alcatel OneTouch Hero2+, the OnePlus One, the Oppo N1 and will appear later this year on a device from Blu, a Florida-based company that has sold phones widely through Latin America and through WalMart and Best Buy. Blu is expected to strip off Google's suite of mobile apps seen on many Android phones and replace them with features like the Opera browser, Nokia Here for mapping and Spotify for music.

One of the biggest indicators of Cyanogen's stature came in April, when the company announced a strategic partnership with Microsoft. Cyanogen said it will integrate and distribute Microsoft consumer apps and services such as Bing search, Skype, OneDrive, OneNote, Outlook and Office into the Cyanogen OS.

Investors pave the way

Cyanogen has secured $115 million in three rounds of funding, with a diverse set of investors that includes mobile chip maker Qualcomm, the social network Twitter, China-based electronics maker Foxconn and Spain-based Telefonica, one of the world's largest mobile network providers. 

Partners announced in March also include media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Access Industries, a U.S. industrial group led by Russian-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik.

One investor, Primji Invest, declared at the time that Cyanogen is "well positioned to become the 3d leading mobile OS" behind Android and iOS.

Some history of Cyanogen

Cyanogen Inc. traces its roots to the CyanogenMod, short for Cyanogen Modification, which is also known as CM. Developer Steve Kondik, using the online handle "Cyanogen," first posted information about CM in 2009 and is now the company's chief technology officer. Kirt McMaster, an entrepreneur, met Kondik in 2012 and the two formed Cyanogen Inc. in 2013. (Kondik's reason for choosing cyanogen as his handle isn't clear; the word also refers to a toxic gas sometimes used in the production of fertilizer.)

McMaster, the CEO, is reportedly working to add more manufacturers and carriers to the group of companies supporting Cyanogen. He already has established himself in the class of upstart and outspoken CEOs in the vein of T-Mobile CEO John Legere. "We're putting a bullet through Google's head," McMaster told Forbes in March, even though analysts generally agree that Google isn't all that vulnerable.

Google and Cyanogen didn't comment for this story.

Why Cyanogen matters

Whether Cyanogen thrives in coming years, it is pretty clear that its backers want to attract app developers who feel too controlled by either Apple or Google. Eventually, Cyanogen is expected to run its own app storefront, assuming it grows as investors hope it will.

"Cyanogen is a threat, in a sense, to Google if enough phone makers decide not to be compatible with Google's store and apps," IDC analyst Stofega said in an interview.

But for users, what's the value?

"Cyanogen is sort of a way to fix things on a smartphone, not really to re-create the wheel," Stofega added. "With Cyanogen on a device, it allows you to take full advantage of the phone's processor core, for faster speeds, and certain apps give better security. It offers simple things not offered yet in the app storefronts, such as the ability to change the layout of the interface and to get much more out of your camera."

One thing missing from the Cyanogen story thus far is published benchmark testing results of how much faster it can perform than standard Android, Stofega said. The Cyanogen website details a few "favorite" features, such as PIN Scramble, which randomizes the numbers behind a user's password, to protect against someone spying on a user's PIN strokes or recreating the PIN from the smudges on a screen.


Despite the strong investor backing for Cyanogen Inc. there are detractors.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates called the Cyanogen OS "a hobbyist hack for smartphones that will never get beyond a very small number of users, relatively speaking." He was referring to Cyanogen's 50 million users, who make up a small portion of the users of the 2+ billion smartphones operating today.

So far, the OS is not supported by any mainline phone makers, Gold said. Users usually get the OS by stripping off an existing OS to reboot with the new Cyanogen. "How many phone users are willing or able to do that?"

Even Stofega admitted that the Cyanogen developer crowd, while well organized under the Cyanogen Inc. leadership and apparently committed for the long haul, has a certain reputation. "They're a lot like a group of hot-rod hobbyists," he said.

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