​Can CyanogenMod phones challenge iPhones and Android smartphones?

Cyanogen, the company that backs the popular CyanogenMod alternative Android firmware, wants to take on Apple and Google for mobile operating system domination.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Cyanogen, the company behind CyanogenMod, started small. It began as a group of developers that wanted to produce a high-quality alternative Android firmware. Today, it still stands behind a great Android alternative, but its ambitions now go so high as to consider taking on Apple and Google.

CyanogenMod is a great alternative Android firmware, but can it really challenge Google's Android? Apple's iOS?
The company's CEO, Kirt McMaster, has criticized iOS and Android for being mere "shells" for Google and Apple services. In addition, McMaster has complained about Google requiring OEMs to accept Gmail, YouTube, and the Google Play store and other services as a single bundle in order to use Google's official Android. Indeed, McMaster has gone so far as to declare that "We're going to take Android away from Google."

Good luck with that Cyanogen.

McMaster's master plan for doing that, he said at a recent Android conference, is to make "a version of Android that is more open so we can integrate with more partners so their services can be tier one services, so startups working on [artificial intelligence] or other problems don't get stuck having you have to launch a stupid little application that inevitably gets acquired by Google or Apple. These companies can thrive on non-Google Android."

Cyanogen has a long history of been annoyed at Google for its control of the Android software stack. In 2009, Cyanogen's founder, Steve Kondik, was forced to back off from his plans to include Google services on his own terms in an early version of CyanogenMod.

This isn't about wanting to get even with Google though. Cyanogen's investors want to take CyanogenMod from being simply the best Android firmware company, with seven to eight-figures of possible gross income, to a major mobile OS player with an upside in the billions.

I find that hard to buy.

The only thing that makes me take Cyanogen's plans seriously is that Amazon and Microsoft appear to be looking into investing in Cyanogen to help create an Android software eco-system that's not under Google's control. But, honestly, even if Amazon and Microsoft backed Cyanogen to the hilt, would that really matter?

Both companies have tried, and failed, to produce a popular smartphone. Indeed, Amazon's Fire smartphone lost approximately $170 million.

As for Cyanogen, its most well-known efforts to contract with phone vendors ended up with Indian phone giant Micromax and Chinese company Shenzhen OnePlus Technology locked in a lawsuit in the Indian courts. McMaster also made no friends for Cyanogen when he declared that "Samsung couldn't build a good OS if they tried." Since Samsung is the world's number one Android phone vendor and Kondik's former employer, this doesn't strike me as a way to win sales partners and influence carriers.

Last, but not least, we've seen numerous companies try to seize at least enough market share from Apple and Google to come up with a creditable third-place mobile operating system. These have included Mozilla, with Firefox OS; Canonical, with Ubuntu Touch; Samsung, with Tizen; and on and on. None of them have made a real dent in the market place.

Only Microsoft with Windows Phone has seen even 2 percent of the mobile market. That's not enough. Even Windows Phone fans, given the lack of support for the platform from carriers like Verizon, have given up on Windows Phone. Major companies, including Chase and Bank of America, are also no longer supporting Windows Phone.

So, if none of these companies were able to break Apple and Google's grip on the market why should we believe that Cyanogen can do better? CyanogenMod is a good product, but at day's end, it's just an alternative Android firmware and the company hasn't proven it can successfully partner with major carriers or smartphone vendors.

No, Cyanogen may want to play with the big boys, but, even if the company got Amazon and Microsoft's support, I can't see it.

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