Interview: CyanogenMod: from bedroom Android hack to million dollar mobile OS

Interview: CyanogenMod: from bedroom Android hack to million dollar mobile OS

CyanogenMod is one of the most popular third-party Android ROMs available, with over 8 million users. It’s an operating system that’s grown from the modding community into a mainstream alternative to what your current mobile phone offers.

Hate Samsung’s TouchWiz? Then CyanogenMod offers a more grown-up user interface. Fed up with HTC Sense or the vanilla look of pure Android on your Nexus? Then CM brings a viable alternative but there’s a predicament that’s been weighing on the minds of its development team.

"I think that for every one person that does install CyanogenMod, there’s maybe five or six that try but don’t finish. I had one of our board members try to install it, and he actually gave up," laughs Koushik Dutta, one of CyanogenMod’s lead developers (known to the community as Koush).

The problem of getting people to actually use its software isn’t something the CyanogenMod team has taken lightly. In fact, it’s one of the spurs that has pushed the team into turning its community-based, open-source Android spin-off into a full-on business venture: Cyanogen Inc.

With $7 million in funding behind it, the core CM team, including Koush and CyanogenMod’s founder Steve Kondik (known as Cyanogen), is now working on turning the enthusiast-friendly ROM into a mainstream hit. And the first challenge is making it easy to install.

Jumping hurdles

"What we hear from everybody is that, ‘Yeah, I share this with my friends and I think it’s great, but then I tell them what they have to do to install it and they bail’," says Kondik.

"So we’ve made this installer. We say it’s one-click, though in reality it’s more like three clicks. But we’ve been doing some pretty extensive usability testing on it, because the big goal here is to get CM to as many people as possible.

"We think that the whole walled garden approach is fine, but it’s getting tired, and people want an alternative, and we’ve absolutely proven that. By having this installer, the current growth is just going to go crazy. It’s just going to sky rocket."


He’s not joking – after announcing the Cyanogen business, the brand new servers were brought to their knees from 38 million downloads in just one month. And the team was keen to point out that, while the installer is seen as the crucial first step to making CM more popular outside of hardcore Android users, it’s only the beginning.

"We need to make it really easy to install, and then we have to start building compelling reasons for people to install it," says Koush.

"Right now, the main reason people install it is because what is out there is just… not very good. And I don’t want the reason that users come to us to be because the competition isn’t good. I want the reason users come to us to be because we’re awesome."

To get to a point where users are being attracted to CM, the team is taking a few different approaches. One aspect is to build more useful services into the operating system, including network-based services.

"We’re contracting a really notable security researcher, Moxie Marlinspike, to build a secure messaging/iMessage product for us," says Koush.

In with the new

Another big change will be getting CM installed on phones as the default operating system, starting with a partnership with Oppo on the N1, a new flagship phone.

"Oppo had given us support in the past, and when we were forming the company, I told them what was going on. For the global release of the N1, there’s an officially supported version of CM, and there’s also going to be a limited edition that will actually run CM by default," says Kondik.


"This is just the beginning of bigger things, really. We have the chance to do some experimentation and get everything in place to support something like this, and then next year we’ll do something bigger. It’s got to be done right, though.

"You can’t just put some branding on a phone and sell it. You’ve got to provide something that you can’t get elsewhere, especially if you want to make money off the thing. It’s going to be important to have a really great platform, really great services. People aren’t just going to shell out $800 for a device unless it’s really giving them something that they can’t get elsewhere."

One way to do this is be on a device from a new company, and that’s exactly what was announced at CES 2014. It was revealed that Cyanogen Inc was teaming up with a new mobile venture from China – OnePlus. The link? The founder of OnePlus is Pete Lau, a former VP of Oppo.

Mass appeal

Another opportunity is to use the team’s knowledge, and the flexibility of CM’s Android roots, to make something new that appeals to a different audience.

"CM is absolutely perfect for people who are technical, and everything is designed for people who are technical. We don’t want to dumb it down, but we want to wrap some of that stuff in a prettier face. Sometime next year, we’re planning on launching something quite a bit bigger that’s geared more towards a broader market," says Kondik.

These plans help to explain why the team wanted to take the chance to push CM further by creating a business around it, but the decision understandably caused some concerns from the community, while some contributors wanted to know whether they would get paid a portion of the new business money for the work they put in.

"I think some of the younger guys have this vision that Steve and I got written this seven million dollar check that went into our bank accounts," says Koush.

"The money that we got is to build a business, so it’s hiring people, paying them, building out an office, paying for the servers that have been donated for so long, paying for bandwidth… Paying for so many different things that it’s scary looking through the transactions of our bank account."

Keeping competitive

The new company has also announced that some of the work it will do will be proprietary, leading to concerns over the future of the open-source project. Kondik understands these fears, but is fairly bullish that they’re unfounded.

"When you look at Android, it was done with a very specific goal in mind – to really screw up an industry that had gone so far down the proprietary software route that it was hopeless. And they totally succeeded. But now it’s happening again, and we’re hoping to be the answer to that," he says.

"But you have to find a balance. The things that we won’t be releasing are the things that give us a competitive edge. We won’t release the source code for our installer. That would be crazy."

"But we don’t have any plans to close source any of the existing stuff," he says, definitively. "We’re building on top of the open source project. We’re not even maintaining a closed fork of CM internally. Anything that we need to do to support our own applications, we’ll build the APIs [application programming interface] into the open source side and ship that.


"Going forward, you’re going to see two release branches. One is going to be business as usual, what we’re releasing today. Then you’re going to see a version that comes with extra stuff that we’ve done that we think is pretty awesome."

Some community members have also worried about the pressure on a business to make money, and how that will affect CM at large. "Right now, we’re following the great Silicon Valley idea of ‘get the users, and the money will come later’," says Kondik.

"We’re in this for the long haul. We think it’s going to be a big company. We’re not trying to make a quick buck and then get out. We’re trying to build something important. There’s too much time, and too many emotions from too many people involved to give it anything less than what it deserves."

Gaining ground

It’s important for a project like CyanogenMod to remember the emotions and history that went into getting it to where it is today. When Kondik and Koush look back on the early days, they talk about the speed of growth and voracity of its contributors as though they’re not quite sure it really happened.


"A few people had looked at different approaches to building on Android, but when I posted my version up, people seemed to really go crazy over it," says Kondik.

"It was really awesome because of how quick people were to try it out and give feedback on what’s broken and what could be better. So I kept at it for a few months and more people started using it, more people started submitting patches and wanted to work on it. Koush got involved when the first Motorola Droid hit the shelves, porting CM to it."

"I recall the first year there was maybe only a dozen guys, and then I disappeared for a year, and I came back and there were a hundred guys," says Koush. "And then a year later there were 500, and now there’s 2,000. It’s just crazy. It’s exponential growth for contributors and for users."

But despite all the changes that come from changing from a purely contributor and community-driven project to a well funded business, the team promises that the feel of CyanogenMod won’t change.


"A lot of the guys who were on the open source project were going to their day jobs and then hacking on CM for a long time, including myself," says Kondik.

"And now we just work on CM the whole time. But one thing that has not changed is working very, very late. Until 5 o’clock in the morning," he laughs. But is it the classic Silicon Valley startup with fun toys around the office? "We have a kegerator!" shouts Kondik, proudly.

"And a really nice coffee machine," adds Koush. "I think we’re all on the same page; the office is somewhere you want to come into and work, so we don’t do cubes. We have a really nice setup and design."

There is one thing that will change for CyanogenMod when it launches for a mainstream audience, though: the name. The team says that the company will still be called Cyanogen, and the open source project will keep its name, but for reaching a wider audience, the operating system will be called something new.

"Yeah, it’s changing…" Koush chuckles. "At some point. For a mass consumer release, ‘CyanogenMod’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue."

  • Mobile OSes are changing: here’s what the next gen will look like