CyanogenMod: from bedroom Android hack to million dollar mobile OS

CyanogenMod: from Android modding to the mainstream
We are the mods, we are, we are the mods

CyanogenMod is one of the most popular third-party Android ROMs available, with over 8 million users. It's an operating system that's grown from the modding community into a mainstream alternative to what your current mobile phone offers.

Hate Samsung's TouchWiz? Then CyanogenMod offers a more grown-up user interface. Fed up with HTC Sense or the vanilla look of pure Android on your Nexus? Then CM brings a viable alternative but there's a predicament that's been weighing on the minds of its development team.

"I think that for every one person that does install CyanogenMod, there's maybe five or six that try but don't finish. I had one of our board members try to install it, and he actually gave up," laughs Koushik Dutta, one of CyanogenMod's lead developers (known to the community as Koush).

The problem of getting people to actually use its software isn't something the CyanogenMod team has taken lightly. In fact, it's one of the spurs that has pushed the team into turning its community-based, open-source Android spin-off into a full-on business venture: Cyanogen Inc.

With $7 million in funding behind it, the core CM team, including Koush and CyanogenMod's founder Steve Kondik (known as Cyanogen), is now working on turning the enthusiast-friendly ROM into a mainstream hit. And the first challenge is making it easy to install.

Jumping hurdles

"What we hear from everybody is that, 'Yeah, I share this with my friends and I think it's great, but then I tell them what they have to do to install it and they bail'," says Kondik.

"So we've made this installer. We say it's one-click, though in reality it's more like three clicks. But we've been doing some pretty extensive usability testing on it, because the big goal here is to get CM to as many people as possible.

"We think that the whole walled garden approach is fine, but it's getting tired, and people want an alternative, and we've absolutely proven that. By having this installer, the current growth is just going to go crazy. It's just going to sky rocket."


The team behind CyanogenMod

He's not joking – after announcing the Cyanogen business, the brand new servers were brought to their knees from 38 million downloads in just one month. And the team was keen to point out that, while the installer is seen as the crucial first step to making CM more popular outside of hardcore Android users, it's only the beginning.

"We need to make it really easy to install, and then we have to start building compelling reasons for people to install it," says Koush.

"We need to make CyanogenMod really easy to install, and then we have to start building compelling reasons for people to install it."

"Right now, the main reason people install it is because what is out there is just… not very good. And I don't want the reason that users come to us to be because the competition isn't good. I want the reason users come to us to be because we're awesome."

To get to a point where users are being attracted to CM, the team is taking a few different approaches. One aspect is to build more useful services into the operating system, including network-based services.

"We're contracting a really notable security researcher, Moxie Marlinspike, to build a secure messaging/iMessage product for us," says Koush.

In with the new

Another big change will be getting CM installed on phones as the default operating system, starting with a partnership with Oppo on the N1, a new flagship phone.

"Oppo had given us support in the past, and when we were forming the company, I told them what was going on. For the global release of the N1, there's an officially supported version of CM, and there's also going to be a limited edition that will actually run CM by default," says Kondik.