Cyanogen Inc. – A Betrayal to the Spirit of Android

This post might draw me a lot of heat but please hear me out before automatically coming to a conclusion.

I like you have been a lover of all things CyanogenMod for years. My first ROM flash was CM 6 for the Motorola Droid, I can still remember just how fricken excited I was to get off the stock nightmare and into something so much more usable. CyanogenMod definitely made the phone feel new and alive and the glory the CM guys received helped convince me to get into Android development myself. I honestly admired these guys and all their hard work.

Enter the Corporate World…

CM has gone corporate, you all know by now CM has become Cyanogen Inc. (“CM Inc.”) with $7M in funding and new offices in a couple a States… This for me is unfortunate for three reasons:

  1. CM Inc. is the resulting hard work of individuals who thought the project was going to remain open source;
  2. CM Inc. used the spirit of Android to draw us together and grow, only now to become a potential adversary to the platform; and
  3. CyanogenMod ROM’s are like the icing on the best cake you’ve ever had, without the cake, you don’t have a lot.

Contributors Didn’t Know they Were Creating a Corporation

For me, this is the most damning revelation of the corporate move. In this post about CM losing Focal, the developer of Focal xplodwild explains that he created Focal under GPL licensing only to have Koush suddenly and unexpectedly ask him to change licensing. This came as a shock to xplodwild, after all he thought, “if this is an open source project, why is GPL not suitable?” Ultimately the answer to his question was exactly what he didn’t want to hear: the rationale was to ensure that Focal was proprietary to CM in some aspects making it valuable in licensing negotiations. But what about xplodwild’s hard work developing this major contribution under the context of open source? Would xplodwild even have create the Focal app, off contract, for a commercial entity? You can easily answer that I’m certain.

Clearly, CyanogenMod is a brand built through the work of many volunteers like xplodwild. Brands are the most important part of your corporation, in CM Inc.’s case the brand is even more important than usual as the code (their other major asset) requires frequent changes or it would become obsolete. Just look at Coca Cola or any other major brand, without a brand they wouldn’t have much because they wouldn’t be selling products, no one would know about them… The same is true with CyanogenMod, except their brand was built under the premise of an open and essentially not for profit environment, while Coca Cola paid others billions of dollars to establish a market presence. If contributors were told they were working toward building a corporation for a select cross-section of the team to join and profit from, things would be different, but I doubt they were aware of this intention from day one. Xplodwild’s experience, if accurate, leads me to this conclusion.

CM Inc. Took Advantage of Android’s Spirit Only to Now Turn on It

Android is the best piece of software I’ve ever used, it’s made my life easier and more enjoyable in so many ways, I owe a lot to Google and honestly so does Cyanogen Inc. CM Inc. said during their Reddit AMA, “Creating disruption in a multibilion dollar market is enough to make any investor raise their eyebrow”… Isn’t that exactly what Google did years ago when it purchased Android and threw it into the ring against Apple’s iOS?

CM Inc. talks proudly about attracting investments due to their ability to disrupt the market, but I can’t help but think that’s a false sense of bravado given CM is literally riding Google’s coattails here. The reality is the CM team could never have launched an OS like Android on their own and I think they need to be reminded of that. Given my love for Android, naturally anything that could potentially impact it’s dominance is going to be seen as a threat to me.

Yes, open source is just that, open, but in my opinion this doesn’t feel right in the spirit of Android and I strongly believe one shouldn’t forget where they’ve come from. This brings me to my final point…

Android’s the Best Cake You’ve Had and CM’s the Icing

Yes, CM is great and in fact I’m still using CM 10.2 right now. CM 10.2 is a fantastic modification and the result of thousands of contributions, go take a look at the nightly changelogs, you will be blown away by the amount of work that goes into most releases. All this hard work, combined with Google’s exceptional code base produces a very polished product. CM is admittedly more polished than stock Android 4.3. You can customize CM more, CM offers some cool unique features, toggles and settings while also offering additional performance and battery life in most cases.

Take Android away though and what do you have? Just some frosting really. CM as it stands is not differentiated enough from stock Android 4.3 for me to consider it a viable product on its own. To me, it’s the 20% for which Android represents the other 80%. How can you create a company on this premise? What substance is there really without Google’s contributions and hard work, heck, what if Google decides not to license their apps to CM Inc.? From various accounts this is a possibility and may be likely given what happened with Alibaba’s Android spin-off.

I don’t hate CM by any means. I still very much appreciate their contributions and I will still promote CM 10.2 to everyone I see with an Android phone.

This is my opinion of the CM Inc. spin-off, what’s yours? Do you feel CM is a threat to Android, if not, why?

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  • http://goo.gl/5KL2BI Out of the Park Apps

    If you don’t like this article, tell me why, let’s discuss this in public! :)

  • Chris Halsey

    I too hate to see go corporate,but hey,they have a goldmine.I would like to see them getting listed on NYSE,I would invest

  • Vinnie

    I wonder myself what this will lead to. Whenever money and investors are involved you can bet that eventually the little guy is going to get the shaft.

  • Luis

    Its Cyanogen Inc.!

    I can totally see your concerns and points you bring up. Very interesting!

  • lukev

    - people who contributed code under a highly permissive open-source license have no room to complain when that license is used, a la Cyanogen Inc. If you wanted to contribute to a GPL android mod, you can do that.

    - the average Samsung phone owner doesn’t know what stock android is. Cyanogenmod is a huge upgrade to them.

    as to the rest of your complaints, well, if it fails as a business that is for the market to decide. Some wealthy investors have faith in it. Good enough for me.

    • xavier cordova

      What your saying is true, but your comment doesn’t seem to invalidate the argument of this article, and the worth of voicing this articles viewpoint.

      It seems that CM is trying to monetize and basically gain credit from something that is not theirs to do that with. Can they, Yes. Should they, I don’t think so. Hopefully the market will see that and treat is as it is. An attempt to make money off of a collection of peoples work, that only profits a handful of those people.

      • lukev

        did you have the same reaction when Google monetized the work of so many Linux developers to create Android?

        • xavier cordova

          That’s a good argument.

          I think that at the very least Android is very different and not even competing in the same arena as linux. While Android is based on linux its also very different.

          Also as far as I know Google didn’t work with those developers as closely as CM. If you can point out a situation like the Focal situation then maybe you can win me over. I feel like its one think to take a whole framework and use it for your own goals, and its another to have people help you develop something on maybe an unspoken understanding, but an understanding none the less, and then change that later. Google isn’t the first to monetize linux. Niether is CM to monetize Android, look at Amazon. Amazon made thier own fork and didn’t take from other developers work.

          • xavier cordova

            After thinking a little more I think that part of the argument is that open source doesn’t necessarily mean its ok to steal ideas. Granted Google is using Linux. So the parts of Linux that Google is using so is Amazon, but Amazon isn’t using Google’s apps to make money. Nobody is at arms about that. It even seems like a weakness of basing a monetary plan on open source. At no point did Google and Amazon have the understanding that, what they were working for was each others interest. Each has their own interests, and there for separate works based on the same core. I don’t think the developers before the privatization of CM knew they were developing for CM inc’s. interest. It seems that CM was trying to privatize and make money on other peoples work. Its the privatization of open work that is the problem.

          • $8487774

            Where is CM “stealing ideas”? All code committed to CM by various developers were committed with a licence permitting CM to do what they are doing.
            Would you be happier if some _unrelated_ company did the same thing? Eg. Nokia?

          • xavier cordova

            Their trying to privatize public work. If they want to use public work that’s fine, and that public work can also be used any anybody else. It seems that CM inc. is trying to say that apps like focal are CM inc.’s property and cannot be used by others for the purpose of making money by exclusivity. It also seems like this wasn’t the understanding that the people developing said apps were under. This seems evident by CM inc. asking developers to change the open licencing that their app may be under to a more closed licencing to suit CM inc’s entrepreneurial efforts.

          • $8487774

            How is that “stealing ideas”, as you stated in a previous comment?

            Focal is on Google Play – not exclusive to Cyanogenmod.
            Exactly the same can be done with all the other features in Cyanogenmod – it’s currently open source, and this cannot be retroactively changed. Anything developed from now on, however, may not be treated the same way.
            And if the developers don’t want their licence to be changed, CM will have to remake the missing features.

          • http://goo.gl/5KL2BI Out of the Park Apps

            Android was a brand built and paid for by Google, CyanogenMod is a brand built by volunteers, but now, it’s been capitalized.

        • SHeadius

          Wait, aren’t we buying the hardware? The draw of Android for me is I can change to any interface I want (including Ubuntu). And, are they really monetizing the OS, or simply using it as an avenue to display ads (which has become painfully evident with the recent removal of adblockers from the Play Store and I see the Adblockers do not work on the Chrome beta)?

          If Android was locked down I would see your point.

  • AJ

    This is spot on. It’s a damn shame to see a company like this taking advantage of it’s contributors.

  • Darren

    AOKP is probably the best alternative. It has some nice features CM doesn’t.

    • J Schippnick

      Now if only they can get their butts on getting 4.3 working properly :P

  • NLer in Ottawa

    “…CM is literally riding Google’s coattails here.”

    Literally?

    • jaduncan

      Depressingly, even dictionaries now list literally as a synonym for figuratively.

  • http://facebook.com/zacharyalexstern Zachary Alex Stern

    This is what open source software lets you to.

    In the most extreme case – I can literally sell a precompiled set of gnu compilers if I like, without contributing a single line of code.

    I can sell pre-burned copies of Ubuntu.

    There’s nothing wrong with doing that.

    And there’s nothing wrong with selling an easily-installable CyanogenMod as long as it remains open source.

    • xavier cordova

      Yes everything you said is true but it seems that CM inc. is trying to change parts from GNU so they can have exclusivity. Inherently there’s nothing wrong with that either except that CM is a contribution of GNU work.

  • Master K

    You miss the point entirely. You cite Focal as an example but you get that wrong too. Sure they asked Focal to change licensing and there were talks about him getting a job out of it. Not a bad deal. In the end he did not get a job and he did not change licensing and Focal is out. They did not “steal” anything. Leaving out the final result skews your point badly.

    • xavier cordova

      No just because they didn’t succeed with taking ownership of Focal doesn’t mean that there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with changing the nature of a partnership all of a sudden. It didn’t seem to be an open discussion with all contributors. Its not just focal, and the reason I mentioned Focal was to point out what seemed like a betrayal. The developer seems to be ok with others using focal hes even posted source. So hes not really claiming ownership. CM tried to take ownership. That’s the problem. So whether they did, or didn’t I’m talking about the attempt, and that seems wrong. How many other developers are in the same situation or have lost their work?

      • $8487774

        They’re not “changing the nature of a partnership all of a sudden”. They’re asking the developers – not pulling the rug from under their feet, as you seem to imply in several comments.

        CM doesn’t try to “take ownership” over Focal more than they’re “taking ownership” of the rest of Android and CM. That’s just ridiculous.

        • xavier cordova

          So why ask them to change licence?

          • $8487774

            Many reasons. Take Focal as an example: Without a more closed licence, they wouldn’t be able to use Focal with a proprietary camera firmware. As the hardware enhancements are trade secrets (and not under CMs control), they cannot be made public. Which the GPL requires.

          • xavier cordova

            I can understand the need for a more closed licence but that’s the problem. Up until now devs have been developing for open source so anybody can use it. Now that they want to comply with GLP that obviously changes everything. CM Inc. just received a lot of money why can’t they start from scratch and not use open developers work to comply with GLP?

          • $8487774

            With “not use open developers work”, do you mean “start from scratch without linux, without android and without CM improvements”? Because that is what you’re saying when you exclude the open code.

            If the developers whose code need to be relicenced do not approve, that code continues to be GPL, and CM cannot use it the way they wish. For the code that does not need a licence change, developers have already (via the licence) given CM permission to do what they are doing.

            If enough CM (or ex-CM) developers feel that this sucks, they’re free to fork CM and continue their work in a clean tree, and no work will be “lost”.

          • xavier cordova

            I should be more clear. They could have forked Focal and called it something else. Then they would have the Focal framework but have their own app. They would also have to maintain it themselves. But changing the licence of Focal would mean that others couldn’t fork Focal after that. That’s how a compilation of work can be taken hostage in an open environment. At least that’s how I understand the situation. So it’s a big deal.

            They should fork all the work and create their own product instead of trying to licence the original work and make money off of the publicly built brand that is CM.

            Android isn’t Linux inc.

          • $8487774

            No, they can’t fork Focal and use it the way they wish. Not without the developer giving the OK to change the licence.

            Even if they did change the licence to Focal, the current version would still be as GPL as ever, and whoever wished to could fork it. No existing code is “taken hostage”.

            It seems you have some issues understanding GPL, forking and changing licences. CM can’t “fork all the work”. They already have all the work – which people can still fork. The parts that require relicencing must either be relicenced, or dropped from CMs tree. It’ll still exist in a fork.

          • xavier cordova

            I must not understand it correctly. I’m going to have to do some reading in order to feel competent enough to continuing this discussion.

            Let me ask this though if the problem is relicencing then why not built their own apps. It seems that developers licensed their work under the licence they intended to. If that’s limiting to them well that’s a consequence of going to CM inc. from CM dev. community.

          • $8487774

            It’s easier for CM to ask developers to relicence their code than for them to rewrite identical/similar functionality.

          • xavier cordova

            Yea it is.

            I feel like I could argue this into never ending circles. Thanks for the discussion. You have definitely influenced my viewpoint. Even though I still feel there is some betrayal. I guess that cant be helped.

          • $8487774

            NP.
            What CM has done isn’t really that bad. How they’ve handled the issues they’ve gotten in the process (eg. with Focal) has been terrible.

            But in the end, this may be beneficial to the Android modding community in a number of ways. That we’ll just have to wait and see for however. I like the idea, not as much the execution.

  • brommas

    I think I actually agree with you on the whole. money always motivates some people in the end, I was living the open source concept in cm.

  • HTC_One_X_evita

    Just switched from CM to CodefireX after the announcement…. There are so many other options with awesome developers that dont want to kill the community spirit… I won’t go back to CM!

    What a Betrayal!!! They gonna sink without the community…