CyanogenMod is one of the biggest hacks to ever hit the Android mobile platform. It’s got an estimated 500,000 users. Many Android programmers use it as a starting point for their own coding projects. And according to the project’s founder, a number of Google employees have it installed on their Android devices.
Essentially, CyanogenMod is a tricked-out version of the software you’re already running on your Android phone.
Every Android-powered device comes running a version of the operating system, from 1.5 (Cupcake) all the way up to 3.1 (Honeycomb).
CyanogenMod replaces that stock OS with a custom build, letting you make adjustments to your phone that the official version prevents. It opens the door to more sophisticated custom wallpaper, changing the graphic that appears when the phone boots up, or more significantly, tethering your laptop to your phone’s data connection. With CyanogenMod installed, you can even overclock your phone’s CPU, so you can wring every last drop of processing power from it.
“You can customise the hell out of it,” says Steve Kondik, founder of the CyanogenMod project.
How a Hack Got its Start
Of course, it all began with a phone.
Debuting in 2007 as the flagship device for Google’s Android mobile platform, HTC’s G1 smartphone was the alternative to Apple’s immensely popular iPhone.
Steve Kondik had been waiting for a phone like the G1 for a long time.
“I had followed a few other Linux-based phones before,” says Kondik, citing offerings from Motorola and Nokia, “but they never had the sort of momentum that a company like Google could bring.”
And Google’s philosophy fit with what Kondik, a software developer working for a mobile content delivery company in Pittsburgh, was looking for: a more “open” platform for coders coming from a background in open source code, like Linux. Android, after all, is built on the Linux kernel.
‘You can customise the hell out of it.’
After each version of Android was made available for download to the public, Google pushed all of the code to an online repository called Kernel.org, free for all to poke, prod and play around with. Developers could take any and all of that code and modify it to their heart’s desire.
Which is exactly what Kondik proceeded to do. “I had been using desktop Linux for ages,” he says, “and I just tried using some of those concepts to tweak the code. I had no idea what I actually wanted to do with the phone.”
After finishing his first version of CyanogenMod, Kondik posted the file to XDA forums, a popular message board in the Android modding community. “All of a sudden, my single-page thread is one hundred pages long,” Kondik says.
Cyanogen Comes of Age
CyanogenMod was a hit. It racked up downloads from community members, each expressing how they liked the amount of control they finally had over their phones.
“As a mobile enthusiast, I like the ability to make changes to the way that my operating system runs,” says Chris Soyars, who works on CyanogenMod.
In essence, CyanogenMod’s popularity can be attributed to the very thing that draws so many to the Android platform: openness, flexibility, control. The Google-led Open Handset Alliance – a coalition of 80 carriers, manufacturers and tech companies all backing the Android platform – espouses these principles, as seen in the Open Source Project mission statement: “We wanted to make sure that there would always be an open platform available for carriers, OEMs and developers to use to make their innovative ideas a reality.”
Apple, on the other hand, fought aggressively to outlaw the practice of jailbreaking its phones, which is akin to rooting an Android device. The U.S. Copyright Office ultimately granted a three-year DMCA exemption for rooting phones, so iPhone users are free to jailbreak their devices without any legal repercussions for the time being. They don’t, however, have access to the operating system’s underlying source code to the same extent Android users do.
While Apple’s controlling, “walled garden” approach has obviously worked well for the company – the company has sold 100 million iPhones as of March of this year – Android has become the alternative solution for geeks and hackers who want more control over their devices.
For many, CyanogenMod is the key to unlocking that control.
But while Android allows more access to things Apple doesn’t allow, such as unofficial app markets, there are still some things that the OS places off limits. CyanogenMod takes it to the next level. For example, installing it allows you to remove all that pesky bloatware that came preinstalled with your device. Or as Kondik says, “You don’t have to have weird NASCAR apps stuck on your phone anymore.”
Coders must create a different version of CyanogenMod for each new release of the Android operating system. But the proliferation of different Android devices across multiple manufacturers meant many different versions of code to be dealt with. And with Google beginning to operate on a six month release cycle for each version of its software, Kondik needed help.
Chris Soyars, a tech company project manager from the Gainesville, Florida area, runs the servers that host all of the CyanogenMod files available for download. “We need some pretty high horsepower to handle the amount of traffic we get,” says Soyars. After meeting Kondik over the XDA forums, Soyars set up the file-hosting infrastructure for Kondik after Cyanogen began to take off.
CyanogenMod expanded into a team of 35 different “device maintainers,” who manage the code for the 32 different devices that the project supports. Like Google, the team publishes its code to an online repository and accepts online submissions for changes to the code from other developers. Seven core members decide which of the submitted changes make it into the next release of CyanogenMod, and which don’t.
Ricardo Cerqueira, a mid-level manager at a telecommunications company in Portugal, got involved with the project after being promoted to a management position.
“I missed getting my hands dirty,” says Cerqueira, who had worked as an engineer before. Now, CyanogenMod is a major part of his life.
“Right now, I’m in charge of four or five different devices,” says Ricardo Cerqueira. “When Gingerbread [Android OS 2.3]came out, I barely slept for days.”
The Future of the Hack
Ultimately, CyanogenMod aspires to be more than just a software mod.
“I think one of our biggest dreams is to see a phone ship with Cyanogen on it,” says Soyars.
But pairing the software with a phone is no easy task. First, CyanogenMod would have to pass the tests required by Google’s certification program in order to bundle Google’s proprietary apps – Gmail, Calendar, etc. – on the phone.
CyanogenMod initially tried bundling the apps in its software, but Google slapped the group with a cease and desist letter, barring the team from producing any further versions or distributing its software until the two parties settled. Kondik eventually dropped Google’s apps from inclusion in the CyanogenMod download, although obtaining those apps after installing the mod is as easy as going to the Android Market.
Google declined to comment on this story.
The group would also need a willing hardware manufacturer to partner up with. The Geeksphone is one tantalising option. Based in Spain, the company offers a prerooted device straight out of the box. But Geeksphone is still a small enterprise, miniscule in comparison to the hardware giants that currently dominate the industry.
And third, says Kondik, “to get anything like this off the ground, you have to be partnered with a carrier. And how do you do that unless you’re one of the giants, like LG or HTC?”
While its following is impressive, it’s likely CyanogenMod won’t grow into a giant.
“The mainstream consumer isn’t at all interested in this,” says Al Hilwa, mobile platform analyst at research firm IDC. “However large a group they are, I can’t imagine it being more than 5 percent of the market.”
But it was never about the money, anyway. Virtually all of the team members have day jobs. Kondik says it’s difficult to manage the time spent on CyanogenMod and his actual paid work.
“There are donations here and there,” says Soyars, “but there’s no real way to monetise this.”
In the end, it’s about a love of tweaking code, figuring out how things work, and making them work your way.
Image Credits: Jim Merithew/Wired.com, Bill Bradford/Flickr
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