2 Sep 2014

Cyanogen: Compatible Software Stack vs. Ecosystem

According to a report from TheInformation, tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung and Yahoo have expressed interest in acquiring or partnering with Cyanogen, the company behind CyanogenMod. With 10 million users, CyanogenMod is one of the most popular, custom variants of the Android operating system. That said, this report puzzles me because Cyanogen doesn't really give these companies a real counter to Google's power over the Android ecosystem.

Before we begin, let's take a moment to understand Cyanogen. Much like Xiaomi's software, MIUI, CyanogenMod is a "compatible fork" of the Android operating system. This means that devices pre-loaded with CyanogenMod (like the OnePlus One) are still eligible for Google's GMS certification and, therefore, can access Google Play and other Google apps (outside China). Cyanogen's eventual monetization strategy is likely to mimic Xiaomi's, in that they will need to monetize content and services without stepping on Google's toes.

Now, the companies mentioned in the report seem to have the same goal -- to own or use a mobile platform, away from Google's control. Unfortunately, the Android app ecosystem has become so large that it is no longer possible to create a new ecosystem for existing product categories. In order to achieve this goal, these companies have been looking for an evolved, APK-compatible software stack. But this is just one part of the puzzle.

The presence of Amazon on this list proves that a software stack isn't nearly enough to escape Google. In order to assert control over the Android ecosystem, Google has been moving core APIs from AOSP to Google Play services -- VisionMobile has a detailed write-up on this move. As a result, non-compatible forks will need to provide alternative APIs and developers will need to re-write apps for each fork. Unsurprisingly, the size of the user base rarely justifies the amount of work required. This is another reason why AOSP is not a danger to Google.

Google Play APIs effectively diminish the value of third party software stacks to these companies. Therefore, the only avenue available to these companies is to accept Google's control and attempt to create value on top of the existing ecosystem. Messaging apps and Uber have already proved the validity of this approach.