Soo!… Did CyanogenMod miss a trick by not following Mozilla and Canonical?

CyanogenMod, the hugely popular after-market mobile device firmware group recently made the transition from hobby group to viable business offering and with that managed to raise a lot of eyebrows. This reaction was surprising given the fact that the community had in fact pushed for the very goal that CyanogenMod is now pursuing. However the route they chose to go about this was what, in fact, what lead to the scrutinisation and fragmentation.

CyanogenMod had for all intents and purposes become the avatar of after-market firmware. In some aspects they still are and so when there were negative aspersions cast in their direction, a few insider-style jokes managed to rally the community around them and the accusations didn’t stick. Though we do now know that they were in fact true. CyanogenMod took the dark path to arrive at where they are. That’s not to say that the dark path is wrong, but there were indeed alternatives available.

CyanogenMod as a group had risen to become the avatar of the community by aligning themselves with the interests of the hackers and end-users who shared one very simple goal. That goal was to liberate the devices they’d purchased, whether it was because the device was older than the OEM was willing to support or simply because the software side could have been done better. The goal was to provide users with the best device the device could be by pimping the software. CyanogenMod for example managed to provide T9 search across all devices years before Google implemented the feature in the dialler. Call waiting notification which HTC are yet to provide and superuser privileges (ROOT).

The rhetoric maintains the same but there has certainly been some compromise. Now that Cyanogen Inc has been born, there are not only goals to meet, but there are also hurdles to jump and hoops to go through. Cyanogen Inc. has firmly prioritised those hoops and hurdles. That’s not say that as they prepare to release Kit Kat (Android 4.4) that superuser privileges won’t be available. But since they’re optionally shipping on Oppo’s N1, passing the Android Compatibility Test Suite is of course their goal. The suggestion is that if a feature causes failure, that feature would have to at best be left to the community to provide a flashable fix and at worst fall by the wayside. At that point it becomes firmly about Cyanogen Inc and less so about the community.

There is no uncertainty about the need for a business model, it would be impossible to do anything without that. By all reports, Steve Kondik (founder of CyanogenMod) and his partners visited numerous venture capitalists in a bid to get funding for CyanogenMod and with each and every disappointment had to tweak their business plan in order to achieve the success they have had today. However from the outside not much has changed in terms of the way the operation is run, there are still no ETAs or device commitment. The only thing that has changed is the goal of CyanogenMod. This goal is no longer to allow users to liberate their devices but it is now to get CyanogenMod to ship, even as an option, from as many OEMs as possible.

You have to then wonder, why isn’t CyanogenMod going the Mozilla route? Sundar Pichai has also changed the playing field with Android and proceeded to lock it down in every manner possible in an attempt to re-frame Google and their services as the centre of an ecosystem. As a result of this more apps have fallen victim to the abandon-ware strategy in quicker succession than ever before.

Once where CyanogenMod were proud to say that even in places without Google services, and on devices that wanted to run without Google Apps, they’re able provide a full featured experience. They are now forced to question whether that is something they are really willing to stand by? CyanogenMod had the ability to stand up and be Android’s Mozilla in the way that Firefox was a milestone moment for Windows. CyanogenMod doesn’t have a manifesto of what they are going to do for the community and what they want to do for the space, instead they have simply joined the race as another runner to compete by Google’s self-serving rules and the community has the right to be disappointed by that.

Now the one feature that Cyanogen Inc. have unveiled thus far is CyanogenMod account. Much like how Samsung take a Google app and put their own spin on it, CyanogenMod have done the same. They were effective in communicating the differences with Google’s original app too. Better security and privacy via a superior implementation. This is where so many of the Cyanogen Inc. coders excel, they are hackers and they can pimp an idea beyond belief. Bills do need to be paid and this is how they should be paid. Not by re-licensing contributions and stock apps, but by building services like Canonical does with Ubuntu. If Google have their GApps package (Play Store, Youtube, Gmail, etc), then CyanogenMod can and probably should have their CApps package full of their proprietary apps while ensuring that there is a commitment to the open source core and thus ensuring that core apps like the dialler, the gallery, email, et al retain parity with the Google encumbered versions. Not everyone would like it, but it is a commitment to the community, especially in the face of the fact that AOSP (Android Open Source Project) doesn’t accept patches from plebeians while also building a solid business. If other ROMs (after-market firmware distributions) want to bundle CApps, they can pay a license fee or gimp their own and if it is a single end user that wants to add CApps to whichever non-official CyanogenMod AOSP ROM they have installed, they can pay a single user license fee.

Canonical are proving that there is nothing wrong with mixing open source and proprietary and while some are turned off by the idea, there are many more that have flocked towards Debian’s flavour of Linux as a result. In Ubuntu, Canonical have provided free software that simply works out of the box for almost anyone and CyanogenMod are in a position to follow that model. On one hand they provide services that many haven’t thought of and attempt to profit with those while on the other hand, they provide a core Android experience superior to what AOSP provide and with freedom out of the box from Google’s profiling and advertising. Commitment to open source and a commitment to business, it is truly the best of both worlds. But let’s see what the future holds for CyanogenMod as the communities’ favourite after-market firmware distribution.


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