Who killed Cyanogen?

Well, it's hanging on in there, but why didn't it conquer the world?

Analysis Does European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager's team pay close attention to the tech news? If not, perhaps they should.

Last week there was barely a murmur after Cyanogen Inc scaled back its ambitions. “Throwing in the towel” may be harsh – but the Android software company said it would henceforth be trying to interest phone makers in useful bits and bobs of code, rather than a platform alternative to Google, a customisable firmware.

It’s all a far cry from 2013, when money poured into the venture, which set out to commercialise a hobbyist fork of Android that Steve Kondik had created out of boredom in 2008. If you recall, rumours swirled that Google had failed in a buyout bid, and that Microsoft wanted to invest (later denied). Cyanogen Inc was the hottest ticket in town. Three years on, the rationale behind that investment frenzy seems absurd.

Do remind yourself of the coverage of Cyangogen’s infancy – here and elsewhere. You can see how different the world looked then. For Steve Kondik, Android was a Linux with a layer of Java on top. Linux was open source, so it was plausible to expand the open layer and turn it into a community OS. Google had left a backdoor open, and thanks to Kondik and other early enthusiasts, the AOSP code drop was forked, and a community was up and running.

Embedded manufacturers were the most enthusiastic adopters of Linux in the 1990s, and appreciated having the code to hand. Phones were just another device with an embedded OS. And they seemed to validate Kondik’s work too. Phone makers were developing on CyanogenMod, in preference to using Google’s code and tools. Android was on its way to becoming the world’s most popular OS, but for cognoscenti, Google’s wasn’t the “real Android”. CyanogenMod was.

It all looked quite plausible in 2008. But less so in 2013.

The logic behind investing in Cyanogen was a confidence that the firmware engineers could out-engineer Google and create a superior, richer code base that the world’s ODM’s would then flock to. But the flaw was the supposition that Google would cheer on this rival, in some noble Corinthian spirit of sport. The investment assumed Google would continue to release its best work as open source – to encourage fair play – and not migrate critical open code into its own proprietary binaries, which is how it actually responded. The VCs also assumed Google wouldn’t attempt to copy CyanogenMod’s best features and make them part of Android. And that Google wouldn’t try to leverage its market power and contracts to steer OEMs into the one true Android, which was Google’s. All would be fair play, and may the best Android win!

I’m not sure what the VCs at firms like “A16Z” (as Andreessen Horowitz likes to call itself) thought they were smoking. Maybe it’s just carelessness – what happens when you’re spending other people’s money: it becomes a sport. Either way, it’s hard to understand.

What happened next isn’t in dispute. Google’s aggressive tactics were making it harder and harder to compete at the platform level. A16Z was deeply entwined with their pals at Google, which made the investment risky. The VC firm had launched the “Glass Collective” a major new fund for investing in the nerd goggles. Marc Andreessen called it “profoundly transformational” – comparing it to the advent of the web itself.

One obvious historical analogy is the web browser, which is 20 years old this year – both the browser and Google Glass are windows into the Internet that everyone will be able to use.

Then Cyanogen Inc made a completely baffling move – one that continues to puzzle readers.

It signed an exclusivity deal with Micromax in India. Micromax could boast of being the biggest seller of phones in India, but the exclusivity clause meant that no other OEM, not even a non-Indian OEM, could use Cyanogen in India. This infuriated Chinese vendors, particularly Oppo, who had bet on Cyanogen and fancied a crack at India’s burgeoning market. Oppo “spin-out” OnePlus had brought Cyanogen lots of attention with the lauded OnePlus One.

Micromax sued OnePlus and won, halting sales of Cyanogen in India, and forcing OnePlus to cobble together its own Android variant from scratch (and it’s still catching up). Only one Micromax Cyanogen phone ever appeared, and Cyanogen doesn’t even list it on its website.

No doubt it’s just a coincidence. Just like it was a coincidence that Google and Facebook stopped competing with each other two years ago. Google had launched Google+ in 2011, with its executive chairman saying Google’s failure to produce a successful social network the “greatest mistake” he had made. Google set about building Google+ integration into all its products – a huge undertaking. In 2013, Facebook announced it had made Google Search redundant – and built its new Graph Search itself.

“We just haven't gotten it worked out with Google yet,” explained Mark Zuckerberg at the time. But in 2014, Google scaled back Google+, and Facebook snuffed out Graph Search.

Life is full of strange coincidences. When competition regulators see what looks like a non-compete agreement between huge monopolies, it’s different. ®