A fork that could worry Android

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Updated: April 2, 2015 9:08:47 PM

Having taken venture capital on board, will Cyanogen take the market away from Google?

android, android google, google, google android, Cyanogen, Cyanogen OS, Cyanogen phone, google phone, tech news, technology update, business newsFor years, smartphone makers have been uneasy about being dependent on just one open source operating system, Android.

Last week, Google’s new nemesis Cyanogen raised $80 million in its latest round of funding, led by Premji Invest along with Rupert Murdoch, Twitter Ventures, Qualcomm and other agencies. The industry is now backing the commercial operating system project with $110 million, bringing it several strides closer to actualising the threat that CEO Kirt McMaster had made in January, to “take Android away from Google.” Cyanogen had debuted in 2009 on the XDA developers’ forum as the maintainer of CyanogenMod, a popular community-driven custom ROM built on stock Android, but minus the bloatware inserted by Google and hardware manufacturers, and with popular tools and customisations added on. Four years later, it was incorporated into a company committed to developing a commercial operating system for hand-held devices that could change the game for both users and manufacturers of mobile phones.

For years, smartphone makers have been uneasy about being dependent on just one open source operating system, Android. Forks were inevitable from the day that Google released the code to the Android Open Software Project. But users are a different matter. Many read McMaster’s declaration as intent to steal. Besides, the success of an operating system depends on the app ecosystem which accompanies it. Amazon’s Fire OS is a fork of Android that has struggled to gain acceptance in the phone space because its software hub is not exactly the same as the Google Playstore.

For such reasons, Cyanogen OS may turn into the Linux of phone operating systems—valued by geeks and modders, but not a popular choice for the average user of little or no technical prowess. Indeed, Cyanogen’s recent corporate literature bears uncanny echoes of the philosophy that drives Linux. It prizes choice over all other values as the essence of liberty, and it wishes to propagate choice not only among users—competition is a fundamental capitalist value—but also among manufacturers and developers, the other components of the ecosystem in which products flourish.

The philosophy is genetically transmitted, since the story of open source mobile computing has its roots in Linux. Users who think that Cyanogen is ripping off Google are mistaken, for it only continues the Linux tradition of forking open source projects. Cyanogen OS is a fork of Android, which runs a version of the Linux kernel. In the Linux ecosystem, almost all popular distributions are based on Debian, Red Hat or Gentoo (Chromium is the most popular), which reached maturity in the latter half of the 1990s. They have been quite cheerful about being ‘ripped off’, believing that it leads to more creativity and faster development.

That philosophy has also powered the success of Android, the distant descendant of Linux that the author of the kernel, Linus Torvalds, can’t possibly have foreseen. Open development creates a huge global pool of specialists who not only write more applications, but also test and standardise them faster. Hence the massive volume of offerings in the Android Playstore. But forks may not be able to replicate Android’s success. Google has the first-mover advantage and developers may not wish to put their products through a secondary vetting process for a smaller user base.

Android has the numbers. It is reported to account for 85% of mobile operating systems. Apple holds the high end of the market, but capitalising on its reluctance to temper prices, Google has taken control of the rest of the field. Last autumn, 20% of Android systems worldwide were believed to be forks, and the percentage has been growing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that forks have developed extensive app ecosystems, which determine the rate of user adoption. Many android forks support ‘side-loading’ apps from the Google Playstore. This, too, is a legacy of the Linux ecosystem. For instance, Ubuntu has multiple derivatives like Mint and Elementary OS, which update themselves off the software repositories of the parent distribution to save bother and prevent duplication. One step up the tree, the popular desktop distro Ubuntu is a sibling of Kali Linux, the pen drive-loaded Swiss Army knife of hackers and their prey, security specialists. Both distros are descended from Debian. Rather than competing, they offer alternatives to the user.

In terms of user base, Android has moved light years ahead of its parent, the Linux kernel, which drives about half the servers on the internet and dominates embedded systems, but has a modest presence in the desktop segment. Android has brought it back to the user market, after a fashion. But does it now face an existential threat from a fork? Will Cyanogen respect the DNA of its distant parent and position itself as an unaggressive alternative to stock Android? Or, having taken venture capital on board, will the company find itself compelled to try to make good its threat and take the market away from Google?


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