There are few major strategic partnerships that have potential to cause a substantial effect on the working of several projects. As you can tell, the Cyanogen and Microsoft strategic partnership announced on April 16 belongs to this category.
Cyanogen: Referred to as Cyngn, the company was formed in 2013 by people originally working on the popular CyanogenMod project, an aftermarket firmware distribution for Android devices.
Cyanogen offers Cyanogen OS, a proprietary version of the latest version of CyanogenMod (12, as of writing) to its partners, which include OnePlus (formerly with the OnePlus One internationally) and Micromax’s Yu (with the Yu Yureka in India) as well as Alcatel (with the upcoming One Touch Hero 2+ for North America).
Microsoft: Microsoft is the global giant struggling since the onset of the mobile era to get traction after its failures against the duopoly of Google and Apple. The PC era has now been superseded by the mobile era, but Microsoft didn’t move on with the times.
Windows Mobile failed after the launch of the iPhone, its successor Windows Phone launched in 2010 but has failed to get significant popularity – currently has 3% market share globally – and compete with Android and iOS. Microsoft bought Nokia’s Devices & Services division in 2014, but after the acquisition, has yet to launch a new Windows flagship.
Windows 10 for mobile is due to launch later in 2015, however long-standing problems of app availability as well as platform maturity in terms of features have yet to be solved.
Both of these companies are facing significant problems of their own. But here’s the thing: they can partner with each other to solve their problems by mutual help and with their combined strength, pose as a capable competitor to Google Android, fulfilling aims that seemed far-fetched before – and in the process, alienate consumers as well. Can they actually succeed?
Let’s start with some background. Cyanogen didn’t get here overnight. The company would not have existed even if CyanogenMod hadn’t existed in the first place. It’s like stock Android, but with more features and better customisation.
Before, no phone came with CyanogenMod. To use it, you had to do complicated stuff such as rooting your phone, unlocking the bootloader (if required), installing a custom recovery and finally installing the custom firmware or ROM.
The reasons for CM’s popularity among power users and unpopularity in the mainstream
But it was still popular with the Android enthusiast segment, which was frustrated by poorly skinned Android (such as Samsung’s TouchWiz and other UIs) and poor speed and quality of software updates. Not to mention that the manufacturers liked to play this game of artificial obsolescence by refusing to provide updates to phones older than 18 months (this is applicable to flagships only by the way).
The strategy of refusing to give software updates was designed to force you to upgrade to newer models and hence lead to more sales. It led to poor customer satisfaction, and some power users decided they weren’t going to stand for it.
CyanogenMod is by far the most popular Android custom ROM, and most importantly, it’s a community-driven project. It may have its share of problems, but any developer can pitch in, make a device tree, get a device supported, and liberate the device from the tyranny of manufacturer UIs.
And the Android update scenario wasn’t going to improve either. Anyone remember the Android Update Alliance? You could make a point about Google Play services and how it’s dealing with fragmentation issues on its own, and how you don’t even need Android updates anymore. All valid, but still missing the point.
So the niche for CyanogenMod users has existed throughout the years, from the early days to now the latest version of Lollipop, and that niche has only grown bigger – currently 50M+ users. Still, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t popular for mainstream users.
2013: The formation of Cyanogen
In 2013, Steve Kondik – the head of CyanogenMod – and a few others created a new company, Cyanogen, and brought in Kirt McMaster as the CEO. They “solved” the capital problem by going for venture capital funding. Not many were interested at that time, since it took far too much time and energy to install CyanogenMod, and the whole replacement thing was missing the point in a way.
Consumers wouldn’t get to know about CyanogenMod as long as you had to install it yourself. The only solution was to pre-install it on certified devices, and that’s what Cyanogen was teasing about in late 2013. They released a CM version of the Oppo N1, but that was only the start.
2014: The OnePlus partnership and the OnePlus One “flagship killer”
It was in 2014 that Cyanogen went mainstream. And that happened only because of the OnePlus One. It is important to repeat that had Cyanogen not partnered with OnePlus to launch the OnePlus One as an affordable flagship, no one would really still care about CM or the new Cyanogen OS.
In early 2014 Cyanogen signed a deal with a Chinese startup company with strong links to Oppo known as OnePlus. The ambitious aim was to launch a Nexus-like device at affordable prices while still packing high-end specifications. The new device would run the latest version of CyanogenMod (11, based on Android KitKat).
The result of all that was the OnePlus One, announced in April 2014 and released with a weird invite system in June of that year, although wider availability wasn’t part of the equation at that time. The device had a 5.5-inch display, making it a phablet. The specifications were excellent for the price they were offering it at.
But unfortunately both Cyanogen and OnePlus ran into thousands of teething issues. There were quality control issues, absurd marketing tactics, then the whole invite system and the huge amount of criticism it generated – all this prevented the phone from being a mainstream hit.
Even with all the issues, the phone did what nothing else could have done: it made Cyanogen popular. On every Android enthusiast website you had loads of people discussing the OnePlus One and CyanogenMod 11S OS. There were lots of pros and cons but also a lot of free publicity.
On the software side of the story it was apparent that custom ROMs were one thing, but released firmwares another. Although Cyanogen and OnePlus had got the required certification from Google and were allowed to bundle Google Apps, there were bugs and more bugs.
Cyanogen would release fixes, and they would fix the issues, but then another crop of issues would emerge, many times because of the fixes. In this way, compared to a usual manufacturer firmware tested for QA, CM11S on the OnePlus One was lacking.
There were custom firmwares of course, but that wasn’t the point of the device. Far from being a selling point of the phone, the software experience became a drawback. Especially when coupled with the slow speed of bug fixes and general software updates, Cyanogen lost a lot of reputation with the enthusiast community, but they were still being cut a lot of slack.
The partnership with Micromax, the betrayal of OnePlus and the delay for the Lollipop update
For Cyanogen fans, the latter part of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 would prove to be something they would like to forget. It was a mixture of betrayals, lawsuits, unprofessional tactics, general corporate evil, and a straightforward loss for the consumers.
In October 2014, Cyanogen announced another strategic partnership: this time with India’s number two mobile phone company Micromax. What we didn’t know at the time, of course, was that it was an exclusive partnership to sell phones pre-loaded with Cyanogen OS (the new name for the proprietary version of CM).
And then all the nastiness started. Cyanogen’s CEO told OnePlus that they were “ending their partnership” (via a two-sentence email sent by the iPad, no less). Once OnePlus launched the One in India through the partnership with Amazon, Cyanogen went on making weirdly unprofessional decisions.
After a lot of vague statements, they made it clear they wouldn’t be supporting the OnePlus One Indian version, and asked OnePlus to remove all Cyanogen branding (which was later carried out). Also, Micromax’s new venture Yu took OnePlus to court, resulting in a temporary ban of the OnePlus One.
A lengthy lawsuit then took place, and the findings of the Judge were that OnePlus was not at fault, but Cyanogen most definitely was. In fact, they were even referred to as the villain during the court proceedings, and the ban against the OnePlus One was lifted in January 2015.
The Yu Yureka (the result of Yu and Cyanogen’s partnership) went on sale after this, having the promise to be the full Cyanogen supported device (still hasn’t received Lollipop yet). But by then, the damage had already been done.
The Lollipop update: And then there was the delay over the Lollipop update. Google officially released Android 5.0 to the world on November 13, 2014.
Cyanogen reassured all OnePlus owners – except for Indian owners – that they would release the Lollipop based Cyanogen OS 12 within 90 days at the latest. Unfortunately, they failed to honour this promise.
Things turned so bad that OnePlus was forced to develop their own ROM – Oxygen OS – and release it to be manually flashed (installed) on the OnePlus One. Their ROM too, wasn’t free from delays, but was finally released in April, after Android 5.1 had already been released.
The Cyanogen OS 12 OTA was released a couple of weeks later for all users, bringing an end to a costly, unproductive and quite frankly, unprofessional saga from Cyanogen.
Cyanogen: “We’re aiming to take Android away from Google”
While this pathetic scenario was taking place, Cyanogen was busy in other areas. They boasted about raising $80 million in funding, although no revenue option in Cyanogen OS is yet in place, and posted a lot of PR speak about opening up Android.
The full implications of those statements weren’t realised until McMaster personally told an audience that “We’re aiming to take Android away from Google.” He also assured them that Cyanogen would have its own app store within 18 months, and within 3-4 years, would not be based on Google Android.
Ambitious plans to be sure. But these statements also resulted in a lot of backlash from the tech community, and more importantly the Android enthusiast community, since they weren’t realistic.
Google – which had once distributed Android as open-source to increase market share of a then fledgling product – had been making moves since quite a few years to bring Android back to its control.
The Mobile Application Distribution Agreements, the conversion of open-source AOSP Android apps such as Calendar, Music to closed-source Play Store ones such as Google Calendar, Google Play Music, etc – all this made it clear that Google was tightening control over Android, now that it had won the market share wars.
No one could challenge them on an international level, except for Amazon. They were the ones which had equivalents to most of Google services, but for the Android enthusiast community, Cyanogen becoming like Amazon was never even an option (nor was it realistic in the first place – Amazon is unique with its cloud strengths and work done to replicate Google’s APIs).
People loved Android, but Android without Play Store? Android without Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Google Calendar? It wouldn’t sell, especially in the international market. (China was a special case).
Then what? Samsung had once dreamed of taking TouchWiz Android away from Google too, in the good times when they posted quarters of high profits. But those good times and the high profits came to an end in 2014 and so did Samsung’s leverage.
No longer was there a fear that Samsung could break away from Android to its own Tizen OS (yup, the same Tizen that is now relegated to budget phones like the Samsung Z1). Now, they had to play under Google’s rules like everyone else. There was no chance to end Google’s monopoly of controlling Android.
Are we being too harsh on Google? No, I don’t think so. Sure, they made Android what it is. But in the process, they also made tons of terrible decisions, drove away open source development, let manufacturers do what they did, and stifled innovation. They were slowly but surely betraying Android’s open-source roots, no matter what PR speak they used to defend it.
So was there a chance or not to make a truly Google-free Android that works in a place not named China? It seemed impossible. Cyanogen meanwhile was steadily losing appreciation and reputation over these far-fetched statements. But was there a deeper plan?
It’s strange to see that Microsoft, a company with its own mobile operating system in the form of Windows Phone 8.1 and next generation mobile operating system in the form of Windows 10, is choosing to partner with Cyanogen, which in the end uses AOSP Android as the base OS.
But delving deeper, we see circumstances that have virtually forced Microsoft to take a serious look at Android, or more precisely, Google-free Android.
In India, the situation is different from the situation in the US. In Microsoft’s home country, they have no need for budget phone after budget phone. They buy phones on contract. They can afford to buy the flagships. But then, nobody wants to buy a Windows Phone flagship.
Why? Hundreds of reasons. Lack of hardware parity with Android and iOS, lack of app availability and poor apps quality, missing features in the operating system, and USPs disappearing over the years (for e.g. Nokia had the best cameras, but Samsung and Apple have come very close now, in less compromising form factors).
Not to mention that since last year, there has been no new Windows Phone flagship release at all. The Lumia 930 was released internationally in Q3, came to India in October, and wasn’t a hot seller, which is no surprise. No new Windows flagship will be released until at least September.
The Indians prefer budget phones. And Microsoft’s last chance is in budget phones. They had a tradition going with the Nokia-built Lumia 520, which was a great phone for the price in 2013. At that time, the budget Android phone market was filled with cheap, crappy phones from the likes of Samsung.
But over the last year, Microsoft has seen even that advantage in the budget market gradually erode away. Since the re-entry of Motorola as an affordable phone player and since the entry of the Chinese OEMs, Microsoft has actually found it hard to compete.
One more factor was that ever since Satya Nadella’s appointment, Microsoft appeared to stop caring for Windows Phones and suddenly care a lot more about giving their apps and services to maximum percentage of users, which were predictably on iOS and Android.
So you now have this situation where the best Microsoft app experience will actually be found in iPhone (with full touch Office apps plus stable Outlook), then in Android (no touch Office yet, but at least the new Outlook Preview is available) and finally in Windows Phone (wait for Windows 10 for all the new stuff, everyone).
The net effect of all this was that while Microsoft has 10% market share in some countries (including the overall Indian mobile phone market) – the global share for Windows Phone has actually fallen year-on-year.
And even though some are still optimistic for Windows 10 on mobile, far too many have already written it off, for valid reasons. You’re too late, too slow: that’s what happened to Windows Phone even after all the learning from Windows Mobile.
So what was Microsoft to do?
The new strategy: prioritise Google-free Android over Windows
That’s what they did. It’s important to understand that, through the application of patent wars and intellectual property rights, Microsoft earns royalty fees on most Android phones sold. (In 2013 alone, they earned $1 billion from royalties on Samsung phone sales).
That’s a lot more than Microsoft is ever likely to earn through mobile Windows, even Windows 10.
So we have two major changes. The first: Microsoft apps for Windows Phone will no longer be a differential factor. (Right now they’re a liability). And second: Microsoft doesn’t care if even Windows 10 for phones and tablets fails, since they have a Plan B.
We first got implications of Microsoft’s Plan B when they announced a partnership with Samsung pre-installing uninstallable Microsoft apps such as OneDrive, OneNote etc. But that was peanuts compared to the Cyanogen partnership, since Samsung isn’t moving away from Google anytime soon, while Cyanogen wants to.
So what does this new partnership do?
Now there’s a lot of PR speak in the press release, which is to be expected. It’s written that in a near future version of Cyanogen OS the two companies will work together to offer a “unique experience” for Cyanogen users with native integration. Bing, Skype, OneDrive, OneNote, Outlook and Microsoft Office were mentioned in the announcement.
Like I said, it’s PR speak.
Essentially, what they’re going to do is to pre-load Microsoft apps via contextual suggested downloads: phrases that are going to make a lot of Cyanogen OS users’ blood boil. Bloatware? Yes, it’s bloatware, clean and simple, and many chose Cyanogen OS simply because of the lack of bloatware – stock Cyanogen OS has Google Apps, but is otherwise free from traditional bloatware.
Cyanogen’s integration plans with Microsoft are different from the Microsoft + Android experiences seen so far (see the Galaxy S6). The Microsoft apps being included in Cyanogen OS will be removable (fully removable, not just able to be disabled). Users can uninstall those apps and use whatever they want as their default.
According to Android Central, a Cyanogen rep explained that “Microsoft apps will be surfaced contextually, and will always be downloadable.”
Suggested downloads? Will such functionality be removable like in the HTC One M9? If not, well, the pitchforks are already being raised…
It may seem that both of the companies had their problems and by putting pen down to paper in this “strategic partnership,” have the means to solve them.
As in, Microsoft gets exposure on Android phones, so that more people can use its services.
Cyanogen gets replacements for many of Google services. No Gmail? Try Outlook. Same for OneNote vs. Google Keep; Office vs. Google Docs, Sheets and Slides; OneDrive vs. Google Drive; Bing vs. Google Search; Bing Maps vs. Google Maps; Skype vs. Google Hangouts. But what about YouTube and that app store, Cyanogen?
Again, a lot of details on the specific mechanism of this integration are unknown right now. Maybe it will arrive with Cyanogen OS 12.1, maybe later.
But one thing remains clear: in this partnership with Microsoft, Cyanogen has once again made a move to alienate its core base of users, those hard-core Android power users, those members of the Android enthusiast community who would rather have the option to install Microsoft apps (or any other apps) themselves and not to be forced to use them.
At least this integration will not be coming to the open-source CyanogenMod. It seems whoever said commercialisation of open-source projects lead to big issues, said something completely true.