Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster thinks Google’s Android isn’t open enough — and he’s just raised $US80 million to make is own version of Android.
“We’re putting a bullet through Google’s head,” McMaster said in a recent interview with Forbes.
“We’re taking control of Android away from Google,” he said earlier this year to The Wall Street Journal.
McMaster is convinced companies that rely on Google’s Android for their products, like Samsung, will be toast within the next five years, as he told Business Insider in a previous interview.
To understand what he’s talking about, you need to understand that Google releases the code for the basic guts of Android under an open-source licence, which means anybody can build on it and modify it. A lot of companies, including Cyanogen, Amazon, and many companies building smartphones for China and other emerging economies, have done just that.
But there’s also a Google-approved version of Android that has more links to Google services, both built into the core of the operating system, and included as apps on the home screen. To use the Android and Google brand on your smartphones, you generally have to use this version and agree to other kinds of restrictions.
All told, various versions of Android are already on about one billion devices worldwide, according to estimates from Strategy Analytics. The Google-preferred version of Android ships on about 50% to 60% of all new phones, according to recent analysis from ABI Research, while non-Google versions ship on another 20% or so.
So McMaster’s alternate version of Android would have a formidable opponent to catch up to.
There is one area, however, where Cyanogen’s OS could have a shot at taking the lead over Google: emerging markets.
“Google services don’t make sense [in emerging markets],” Tim Bajarin, an analyst for firm Creative Strategies that’s very plugged in to the consumer tech scene, told us.
It’s not uncommon for carriers and phone makers in emerging markets to create their own apps and services catered to the region. Cherry Mobile in the Philippines, Micromax in India, and Blu in Latin America all do this. They create their own version of Android without Google’s services, and populate it with their own apps and services.
Cyanogen is digging into these niche areas more than ever now, as the company has recently announced partnerships with both Blu and Qualcomm to get its software on more of these cheap devices aimed at emerging markets.
This isn’t necessarily new — Cherry Mobile and Micromax have been using their own custom Android software for a while. But now, Cyanogen is aiming to make a more polished and robust type of Android that would be just as customisable as the software already in use, according to Bajarin. And Bajarin predicts that another 2 billion smartphones will be sold over the next seven years — many of which could land in emerging markets, potentially giving Cyanogen more reach than ever.
“There is a tremendous need for this, which is why we’re watching it closely,” Bajarin said.
If the scenario plays out in this way, and the more open version of Android that Cyanogen is building does eventually end up on millions or even billions of phones, it could lead to more fragmentation within Android.
“Even within Google’s Android today, there are too many flavours,” Bajarin said. “And Google has not done well to bring those together in a more harmonious way.”
Right now, Cyanogen makes a forked version of Android that you can install on some Android phones. It lets you add more features and customise the phone a bit more, but McMaster is envisioning an entirely new operating system altogether that allows you to tailor the software to your liking even more closely.
If Cyanogen ever decides to deviate from the APIs required for apps supported by Android, developers could find themselves in a difficult position. (An API, application protocol interface, is how app makers can use features that are built into operating systems — for instance, there’s usually a well-defined way to display a dialog box on a screen, or trigger a piece of hardware like a camera.)
“But, if for some reason they start providing APIs that deviate from the expected results, you will encourage more work for developers as they now have the dilemma: do I forsake Google’s APIs and go with what Cyanogen provides or just stick with Google?” a person that used to work in the Android division at Google told us.
The big draw for developers and app creators is that they would be able to tie their services more deeply into the phone than they can on Google’s Android or iOS. This, in turn, could make the services better.
McMaster cited a virtual assistant app as an example when we spoke with him several weeks ago. If that app becomes a “core service” (i.e. Siri in iOS, Google Now in Android) rather than just an app sitting on top of the operating system, it can offer you more timely and accurate information. The app would get access to a ton of data it wouldn’t if it were a third-party app.
“There’s a lot of truth to that,” Ryan D. Matzner, designer and chief strategist at app design firm Fuelled, said to us. “There are a lot of deep integrations that third party services aren’t able to do. That’s one potential upside of having an OS that’s completely open.”
It’s unclear whether or not Cyanogen’s OS will ever grow large enough to live up to McMaster’s bold statements.
But there’s a huge opportunity for Cyanogen to tackle an area of the world that doesn’t necessarily need Google, and big tech companies are on board to help it do just that.
Twitter Ventures is one of the investors that contributed to Cyanogen’s new $US80 million round, and Microsoft is reportedly in talks with the company about a partnership that would bring its apps to Cyanogen’s platform.
“What Cyanogen brings to the table is more discipline,” Bajarin said. “[It] could be a richer, non-Google version of Android.”
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