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Lessons from the rise and fall of an open source project

Paul Rubens | Feb. 9, 2017
The story of the CyanogenMod mobile firmware project perfectly illustrates the opportunities and perils presented by the open source software model.

In the face of criticism from developers and others in the open source community, Google changed tack and said that the proprietary GApps could be backed up from a phone's original firmware and then reinstalled with CyanogenMod. (Today, an app called OpenGApps, which, ironically, is available on Google Play, makes it easy to install GApps onto a modified firmware that does not include them.)

Then, in 2013, Kondik decided a change of approach was needed for CyanogenMod to continue to thrive.  He started a venture-backed business he called Cyanogen Inc. as a vehicle to commercialize CyanogenMod. Seventeen employees were based at two offices: one in Seattle and the other in Palo Alto.

Kondik outlined his motivation in a blog post:

"What we have with CM (CyanogenMod) could not have happened any other way — a huge community came together and created something awesome that did not exist before, because it was needed."

"We have had some serious growing pains though, and scaling with this kind of growth has been incredibly hard. What could we build if all the barriers were removed and we could dedicate our time to it?"

The backer that put up $7 million in the Series A funding round for Cyanogen Inc. was Benchmark Capital, a company that also backed such well-known open source companies as Red Hat and HortonWorks, a company that sells a commercial version of the open source big data analysis project Hadoop.  

CyanogenMod timeline 

Now, Red Hat and HortonWorks appear to have built thriving businesses based around open source software, but it's not clear that Cyanogen Inc. was able to generate significant revenues in the first months of its existence from its commercial product, Cyanogen OS. This was a firmware distribution based on CyanogenMod but with additional proprietary apps such as Google Play and a collection of its own apps including AudioFX, Gallery, Theme Chooser and Themes Store, known collectively as C-Apps.

That's despite CyanogenMod boasting a user base in excess of 10 million and forging licensing deals with Chinese phone makers Xiaomi, OPPO, and OnePlus (which is connected to OPPO) to use Cyanogen technology. Now here's where things get slightly bizarre. In October 2014 it was reported that Cyanogen Inc. had rebuffed overtures from Google about a possible acquisition. Instead, Cyanogen was valuing itself at close to $1 billion and was seeking investment from major tech firms.

Then, at the start of 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft was about to invest in Cyanogen, leading to speculation that Microsoft was planning to abandon its failing Windows-based mobile platform and use something based on CyanogenOS as the basis for possible new Android-based Microsoft phones.


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