Microsoft reportedly is investing in Cyanogen Inc., creator of Android-based Cyanogen OS, and whose CEO recently criticized Google’s “tyranny” over Android.
Microsoft is making a minority investment in Cyanogen Inc., according to the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources. The software giant will be a minority investor in an approximately $70 million round of equity financing “that values Cyanogen in the high hundreds of millions,” says the story.
Microsoft is joining other investors who are similarly “eager to diminish Google’s control over Android,” says the WSJ. Phone manufacturers have grown frustrated with Google in recent years for “requiring them to feature Google apps and set Google search as the default for users, in exchange for access to the search engine, YouTube, or the millions of apps in its Play Store,” says the story. Such restrictions helped lead to Samsung to develop Tizen, which it eventually launched on a phone in India. However, Samsung does not appear it’s planning a major smartphone push for Tizen at this point.
If the Microsoft rumor is true, the modest investment also opens up the possibility of Redmond eventually adopting the open source CyanogenMod version of Android. Windows Phone has declined to 3 percent of the smartphone market, according to a Jan. 29 Strategy Analytics report, which also says that Android broke the 1 billion phone mark for the first time in 2014, up from $800 million in 2013. With Cyanogen, Microsoft could at least ensure that it could load Bing and other Microsoft products instead of Google apps, suggests, the WSJ.
Despite Android’s ascent, there are some troubling signs for the Linux-based OS. According to Strategy Analytics, huge sales for the iPhone 6 helped Apple become the world’s leading smartphone vendor in the fourth quarter. Apple matched free-falling Android vendor Samsung during the quarter, for a 20 percent global share. Samsung recently reported that its mobile business suffered a 64.2 percent loss compared to the previous year.
Perhaps more troubling, at least from Google’s perspective, is the rise of alternative versions of Android such as CyanogenMod and various Chinese Android variants like Xiaomi’s MIUI that don’t include Google’s apps. According to Strategy Analytics, non-Google sanctioned Android phones grew to 37 percent of total Android smartphone shipments in the 3rd quarter.
For years, the CyanogenMod project has been steadily improving its variations on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code under the guidance of renowned hacker Steve Kondik. The project has optimized its stock CyanogenMod builds for a growing list of Android phone models, enabling tech-savvy consumers to strip out vendor-supplied builds burdened with bloatware and UI skins. The builds also add some features not available on most Android phones.
In 2013, the open source project sprouted a sponsoring company called Cyanogen Inc. (formerly CyanogenMod Inc.) which has since received extensive funding, claimed to be up to $100 million. Third-party software and services have also been optimized for the platform, such as Nextbit’s cloud-based Baton service for enabling sync and handoffs between devices.
CyanogenMod is now used by some 50 million users, says the project. The 80-person company says that 9,000 software developers are working for free on CyanogenMod, according to the WSJ.
Cyanogen OS: a customized Android OS for OEMs
Recently, the Cyanogen Inc. struck a deal with Micromax, a mobile device vendor in India to preload a version of CyanogenMod called “Cyanogen OS” on a high-end phone called the Yureka. The phone goes on sale in at Amazon India on Feb. 5. The Android 4.4.4-compatible build (Cyanogen OS 11) runs on an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615. According to the WSJ story, Cyanogen, Inc. will soon announced similar deals with other phone vendors.
A Nov. 11 post at Android Headlines clarified the distinction between the terms CyanogenMod and Cyanogen OS, based on information obtained from an unnamed Cyanogen Inc. source. “CyanogenMod is the awesome open-source, community-driven Android OS backed by Cyanogen Inc.,” the source is quoted as saying. On the other hand, “Cyanogen OS is the commercially-distributed operating system that comes with certain proprietary features, services, and enhancements,” and is “distributed pre-installed with handset partners.”
CyanogenMod scuffled early on with Google, but then made peace. More recently, however, Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster has made some provocative statements about Google, telling the Journal, “We’re going to take Android away from Google.” Last August, McMaster told Re/code “Everyone in the world wants an open Android. They want to get outside of Google’s tyranny, if you will.”
Last week at the The Information’s “Next Phase of Android” event, McMaster made it clear he wants to divorce Cyanogen OS from Google. “Today, Cyanogen has some dependence on Google,” said McMaster. “Tomorrow, it will not. We will not be based on some derivative of Google in three to five years. ”
If Microsoft does eventually opt for Cyanogen OS as a way to fight Google’s tyranny, it would be a supreme irony indeed. Microsoft has long been accused of forcing PC vendors to pre-load its Office apps, which are just as lucrative to Microsoft as Google Apps are to Google. Unlike Google, of course, Microsoft also directly charges consumers for the OS itself.
The one thing that’s clear is that Microsoft can’t ignore Android any longer. Yesterday, Redmond finally released its final stage versions of its Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Office applications for Android. As of today, Microsoft has sixty Android apps listed on Google Play.