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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.

This never happened, but Microsoft did launch an initiative to get its applications and services running on Android, and in April 2015 Cyanogen announced a partnership with Microsoft which involved Microsoft apps and services being integrated into Cyanogen OS. Later, (following the 12.11 update) Cyanogen OS started suggesting Microsoft apps and services in the "open with" menu when the operating system encountered file types it couldn't already handle.

In the meantime, the partnership with OnePlus evaporated due to a reported clash of personalities at the two companies, as well as a fiasco in India caused by Cyanogen Inc. signing an exclusive deal for the sub-continent with low-cost smartphone manufacturer MicroMax. This resulted in sales of OnePlus handsets powered by Cyanogen OS being temporarily banned in India.

But in 2016 things rapidly went downhill. In the middle of the year a large number of staff were made redundant, and the Seattle office was closed. CEO Kirt McMaster stepped down, and Kondik was removed from the board. In November he officially left the company, and has not responded to a request for comment for this article.

Finally, on December 23, Cyanogen Inc. released a curt notice  that read:  "As part of the ongoing consolidation of Cyanogen, all services and Cyanogen-supported nightly builds will be discontinued no later than 12/31/16. The open source project and source code will remain available for anyone who wants to build CyanogenMod personally."

The result is that CyanogenMod as an active project is no more — in name at least. The good news for users is that they have not been completely abandoned, because it is a simple matter to switch to an actively maintained alternative firmware or a device's stock firmware. (That contrasts favorably with the situation that can arise if a business relies on an open source project when the sponsor walks away and no obvious alternatives exist.)

Of course in that situation it is always possible for a company to take the source code and take on the development task itself (or pay someone else to do so), or hope that someone else will take over the project.

And that, in fact, is what has happened with CyanogenMod. The code has been forked and a new project, called LineageOS, has been started by some in the CyanogenMod community to continue the CyanogenMod project under a new name, independent of Cyanogen Inc.

Continuing a project after it is abandoned by a commercial organization is not without precedent. The LibreOffice project was forked off when OpenOffice was abandoned by Oracle; SuiteCRM emerged after SugarCRM stopped releasing open source versions of its CRM product; and Nautilus (now Gnome Files), the file manager for the Gnome Linux desktop environment, is still thriving long after Eazel went out of business. And something similar happened when MySQL was acquired by Oracle, but in that case it was the developers who abandoned Oracle rather than the other way around, preferring to continue a parallel project called MariaDB.


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