Why the startup that wants to 'put a bullet through Google's head' could be set to explode

CyanogenNextbitCyanogen’s official Facebook pageCyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster (middle)

Over the past few months, Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster has been vocal about his company’s plans to create a better, more open version of Android that doesn’t require Google’s approval — a plan he thinks could put “a bullet through Google’s head.”

His company also recently raised $US80 million and struck a partnership with Microsoft to help it accomplish those goals.

And now, Cyanogen has announced that it will no longer work with Chinese startup OnePlus — the company behind the insanely popular One phone, which shipped with a version of Cyanogen’s more open version of Android. But it looks like working with OnePlus may be just the beginning when it comes to Cyanogen’s plans for China.

The OnePlus One was very well received when it launched last year. It was so popular, in fact, that you couldn’t even buy the phone unless you had a special invite from someone else who had already purchased it.

The inclusion of Cyanogen’s software on a phone like the OnePlus One was the company’s first foray into the more mainstream smartphone space.

The company’s CyanogenMod software, which is essentially a version of Android that’s more customisable and adds extra features to your phone, was aimed at a niche crowd of Android phone users that wanted to tinker with their devices.

Now, Cyanogen has made it clear that it wants to get its software in front of more mainstream smartphone users, and working with OnePlus was just the start.

“OnePlus shipped reasonable volume, but nothing compared to what some of these other partners can ship,” McMaster said to PCWorld. “So we are working with partners that can scale much quicker.”

And vendors are lining up to work with Cyanogen, according to Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin, who tweeted the following last month:

“There’s a lot of interest in Cyanogen,” Bajarin said in an interview with Business Insider. “Primarily because I think there’s some exploration in other ways to make money than just hardware, and that’s a bit tricky in Google’s world.”

To understand exactly what that means, you need to know what makes Google’s Android different than Cyanogen’s. Google has released the basic source code for Android under an open-source licence, which means anybody can build on it or modify it. This was crucial to Android’s success early on, and many companies such as Cyanogen, Amazon, and other smartphone companies in China have done just that.

At the same time, there’s the Google-approved version of Android that has Google’s own services, like Google Now, Gmail, and Google Maps, built into the core of the software. To use the Android and Google brand on your smartphones, you generally have to use this version and agree to other kinds of restrictions. This is the type of Android you’ll find on the Galaxy S6, HTC One, and other popular Android phones.

CyanogenCyanogen Inc.Screenshots of themes available in CyanogenMod

There’s tons of interest in Cyanogen in emerging markets, however, because smartphone users in those regions don’t necessarily care as much about using Google’s services.

Instad, they want localised apps and services catered to their specific region, and Cyanogen’s highly customisable software makes it easy for smartphone makers to add those apps without having to build their own Android skin or operating system.

Bajarin added that there are a number of vendors in China that are interested in Cyanogen, too, where there’s tons of opportunity. China has more smartphone users than any country in the world, according to data from eMarketer released at the end of last year.

Companies like Apple and Samsung are struggling to compete with smartphone makers like Xiaomi in China, which makes its own proprietary services and apps for its phones.

And, most importantly, Google doesn’t have a large presence in China, Bajarin says, leaving more space for Cyanogen to promote its more open software.

“It’s a key point that Google’s not there, and Cyanogen’s getting there,” he said.

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