Cyanogen CEO on layoffs: We're not pivoting and we're stronger than ever

Kirt McMasterFlickr / Web SummitKirt McMaster speaking at Web Summit

Cyanogen cofounder and CEO Kirt McMaster wants to make it clear that his company is not abandoning its mission to create an alternative to Google’s Android, even though the company is cutting back on efforts that weren’t bearing fruit.

“The premise and the vision and the mission for why this company was formed from Day One has not changed,”McMaster tells Business Insider, in response to a report last Friday from Android Police that the company had laid off about 20% of its workforce with plans for a major strategic shift.
“We’re certainly not making a ‘pivot to apps’ at all. Cyanogen is very much an operating system company we’re focused on a future where the operating system is open and enables all these new kinds of experiences to emerge on Android, and much more. That’s the story.”

Cyanogen makes a modified version of Google’s Android operating system that gives developers opportunity for deeper integrations and more control. For example, a Cyanogen “mod” for Instagram could let you view photos from your phone’s lock screen.

Over the three years of its existence, the company has raised more than $100 million in funding and convinced several phone makers in emerging markets to ship its OS, selling “several million devices.” But as the company tries to scale those initial successes, it needed to make some tough cuts, McMaster said, confirming the layoffs, primarily from the systems engineering team.

“At the end of the day, as a company, we were attempting to do too much and attempting to do too much without seeing the necessary growth based on that effort,” he says. “So we realised that we had to refine and refocus our product strategy on market dynamics and getting to something that we felt could scale on Android much better and much quicker.”

Among the things that Cyanogen will no longer focus on: developing its own version of software that phone or app makers are already building, such as camera software.

“Snapchat is THE camera to a generation. Samsung has 1000 people on camera,” McMaster says. “Why should we attempt to innovate here? I’d rather enable.”

Getting closer to Google

Although he declined to talk about specific product roadmaps, he emphasised that the company’s future lies in an increased focus on artificial intelligence. Cyanogen has access to data and intelligence that’s usually reserved for the platform owner, like Google or Apple, and plans to use it to turn Android into more of an “AI compute platform.” Google’s version of Android has gradually incorporated many of of the features that Cyanogen originally created to differentiate itself, so Cyanogen now needs even more innovation to convince phone makers that its alternative is worth it.

“It really comes down to data — who the user is and what they do,” he says. “We see Android as a diamond mine of data and our ability to partake in that means that we can extract the kind of data that is important, that fuels this next generation of services and experiences that are fundamentally powered by machine intelligence. And that is a big part of a journey of where we’re going.”

Although McMaster has previously described its mission as “taking control of Android away from Google,” and “putting a bullet through Google’s head,” he stresses now that the company doesn’t see Google as the enemy and hopes to “get closer” to it in time. He chalks up his past statements to the “bravado” and “swagger” that come with being a startup CEO in a competitive environment and doesn’t regret them.

He adds that Cyanogen still has nearly three years of runway and an “incredibly strong team” that includes a new COO, Lior Tal, who joined from Facebook in June. And it’s still shooting for a future where its OS powers hundreds of millions of devices.

“The bottom line is that we had a layoff. That unfortunate but it does not signal failure. It’s focus,” he says. “Listen, there’s a of of hard work ahead of us right? Make no mistake of that. But I think the company is stronger than it’s ever been.”

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