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Stealing Android

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 26, 2015 --  

Google is under threat from an upstart that wants to take away its mobile operating system.

As Android developers gather for Google's annual tech conference this week, control of the company's mobile operating system is under threat.

The challenge to Google comes from a company called Cyanogen, traditionally a maker of alternative operating system images, called ROMs, for hobbyists and power users.  Cyanogen's recent partnership with Chinese phone maker OnePlus created a low-cost, high quality Android phone, the OnePlus One. Google's industry dominance was thrown into question when the most exciting new Android product of they year was based on a version of the Android operating system that Cyanogen had stripped from Google's control.

This challenge is possible because the core of Android is free and open source, allowing anyone to build on its foundation. But many components (like the Maps app and various mobile app services) are proprietary and under Google's tight control.  This tight coupling has historically helped Google maintain control over the Android platform, but has also frustrated phone manufacturers and hobbyists, leaving a niche for companies like Cyanogen to exploit.

The opportunity opened by this niche got even wider last fall when Google announced their new flagship Nexus 6 phone, a physically large device that was panned by critics as being too bulky and expensive.  Unlike Apple, Google only sells small numbers of its branded phones, but they are typically a great buy and very influential in setting standards for other Android manufacturers to follow.  Critical disdain for last fall's Nexus 6 gave an opening to the OnePlus One. It's runaway popularity resulted in waiting lists.  The same folks on these waiting lists were the ones that would have been in the market for a "pure" Google phone had the Nexus 6 not been such a flop.

For all the merits of the OnePlus One, the biggest threat to Google comes from software, not hardware.  The OnePlus One was released with a Cyanogen operating system -- one based on the open source core of Android without Google's proprietary add-ons.  Cyanogen and OnePlus have since had a falling out over an exclusivity deal with another phone manufacturer in India.1  But the partnership shows the promise of Google-free variants of the operating system.

The Google-free Android variants are particularly popular in China, because Google's refusal to be complicit in government censorship led it to pull out operations five years ago.  By ripping out Google proprietary components and replacing them with local variants (like the Baidu search engine), Chinese manufacturers can both target the domestic Google-free market and have a low-cost model ready for export overseas.

Cyanogen and OnePlus are not the first challengers to Google's Android dominance. Amazon also "forked" the Android operating system to create its Kindle Fire line of tablets and phones. But unlike Amazon, which just wants to sell its products, Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster openly brags that "We're attempting to take Android away from Google." 2

Taking full control of Android won't be easy. While the Android code is open-source, it is sponsored by Google, and its engineers do the vast majority of coding work on the operating system. The code behind upcoming releases is secret — visible only to Google engineers — until Google releases it in finished form. Taking control away from Google means getting enough developer support to fork Android, and take responsibility for subsequent development. While there are ample volunteers who may be willing to work toward this goal, a failed revolution would leave the rebels with a hobbled operating system that can't run mainstream apps. A failure to dominate would make an operating system doomed to second class status.

Even if Cyanogen can't take full control of Android, it can cause plenty of trouble for Google by offering an alternative that Google does control — essentially what it is doing right now, but on a wider scale. The company recently entered into a partnership with Microsoft to bundle its Office apps for Android with a Cyanogen distribution as an alternative to Google Documents.3

Responding to the software challenge isn't easy. Google has in the past maintained control by shifting open source functionality of Android into its proprietary "Google Play Services" component. Moving more functionality there could help google maintain control over the Google Android experience, but also inspire more manufacturers to join the rebellion away from it.

Regaining its influence over hardware models should be simpler. Google has typically gotten rave reviews for its well-designed Nexus phone line. Many observers are hoping the company will announce a good value model to compete with the OnePlus One. By doing so, Google can keep Android rebels from grabbing all the attention like the OnePlus One did in the past year. If Google wants to protect its dominance from upstarts like Cyanogen, it's got to make phones that stay ahead of the pack. 


1. ZDNet, OnePlus and Cyanogen Officially Call it Quits, April 30, 2015

2. Phandroid, Cyanogen Announces Partnership with Microsoft that Will Bundle Their Apps on Cyanogen OS, April 16, 2015

3. Fast Company, Cyanogen's Surprisingly Sensible Plan to Steal Android Away From Google, March 9, 2015