Cyanogen’s Android Alternative Goes Modular

Cyanogen, the maker of an alternative version of Android, on Tuesday announced that it was going modular. Future releases of its open source firmware product will not support a full stack of the Android OS.

The new modular setup will bring a slew of benefits to phone makers and developers, according to Cyanogen.

“The new partnership program offers smartphone manufacturers greater freedom and opportunity to introduce intelligent, customizable Android smartphones using different parts of the Cyanogen OS via dynamic modules and MODs, with the ROM of their choice, whether stock Android or their own variant,” noted Cyanogen CEO Lior Tal in an online post.

“At the same time, the program will offer the broader ecosystem and developers the opportunity to tap into Cyanogen’s expanding artificial intelligence cloud services, which learn usage patterns throughout the operating system and introduce smarter and more effective ways to resolve intent and interact with smartphones in a personalized and highly contextual way,” he explained.

Opportunity in Fragmentation

Changes in the Android ecosystem prodded Cyanogen to diverge from its original business model, according to Tal.

Android’s extreme fragmentation has created serious security vulnerabilities, and there are no incentives for device makers to push software upgrades and security patches, he maintained.

“All of this has created an opportunity for Cyanogen to break free from its legacy model, which required it to own and deliver the full-stack of the operating system, and instead aim for something greater than the sum of our parts,” Tal wrote.

“Cyanogen’s Modular OS program will allow value, independence and intelligence to flow freely between the layers of the ecosystem,” he continued, “providing more companies and developers with the freedom to borrow from, unite and utilize our technology in new and innovative ways.”

At Google’s Mercy

As a modifier of Android, Cyanogen always has been in a dicey position, noted Jeff Orr, senior practice director for mobile devices at ABI Research.

“They’ve been challenged over time because they have no control over the operating system,” he told LinuxInsider.

“They were always doing modifications on top of it, so if the development path of Android went in a direction that didn’t align with the Cyanogen folks, then they’d have to react to that,” Orr said. “It doesn’t surprise me that they’re making these changes, because they really have not made any headway with organizations that would preload devices with Cyanogen.”

Perils of Piggybacking

In moving to mods, Cyanogen may be anticipating big changes in the wind for Android. For example, it’s been long rumored that Google eventually will merge Android with its Chrome operating system.

“That could make their entire business model obsolete,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

Since Cyanogen doesn’t control the Android stack in the first place, it makes sense to go modular, he noted.

“With an integrated stack, when Google makes a change, the entire stack has to be rewritten,” Enderle told LinuxInsider. “With a modular approach, change should be simpler and faster. If Google merges Android and Chrome, it will be blowing up Cyanogen’s foundation. Going modular may allow them to survive that kind of change.”


In addition to its change in product strategy, Cyanogen announced some shuffling of its top brass.

Kirt McMaster, one of the company’s founders, left his CEO post and is now the new executive chairman of the board.

Another founder, Steve Kondik, switched hats from CTO to chief science officer, reporting to the company’s senior vice president of engineering Stephen Lawler.

McMaster’s move is significant, said ABI’s Orr.

“It’s a change in strategy. His time is probably going to be spent less on the day-to-day operations of the Cyanogen organization and looking more long term on what its overall strategy should be,” Orr speculated.

“In Lior Tal taking on the CEO responsibilities, you’ve got someone from inside the company that Kirt trusts to carry forward and execute on future plans,” he noted.

“They’re clearly reorganizing in anticipation of significant changes,” said Enderle, “to make sure they don’t go out of business.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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