Will CyanogenMod Get the Business Blues?

Last week, I wrote an article pointing out that the NSA's assault on cryptography, bad as it was, had a silver lining for open source, which was less vulnerable to being subverted than closed-source applications produced by companies. However,...

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Last week, I wrote an article pointing out that the NSA's assault on cryptography, bad as it was, had a silver lining for open source, which was less vulnerable to being subverted than closed-source applications produced by companies. However, that raises the question: what about the mobile world?

Even before Snowden's revelations about the massive, global spying the NSA is undertaking (with a little help from GCHQ), we knew that mobile phones were effectively tracking units that gave key information about us – our position, for example. And now we know that it's actually much worse than that.

Although Android is built on an open-source foundation, there's no way it can be considered "safe" or even "safer": it seems that Google services are badly affected by the NSA's snooping activities, which means that Android phones can't be trusted. Luckily, there are alternatives.

One of them is Replicant, but the project that has attained the greatest momentum and built up the widest user base here is CyanogenMod:

CyanogenMod (pronounced sigh-AN-oh-jen-mod), is a customized, aftermarket firmware distribution for several Android devices... Based on the Android Open Source Project, CyanogenMod is designed to increase performance and reliability over Android-based ROMs released by vendors and carriers such as Google, T-Mobile, HTC, etc. CyanogenMod also offers a variety of features & enhancements that are not currently found in these versions of Android.

That makes CyanogenMod a key part of the open source ecosystem since it offers the hope of greater control over smartphones, which are now an important and nearly omnipresent part of many people's digital life.

CyanogenMod began in May 2009, as a blog post from its creator, Steve Kondik explains:

Shortly after releasing the first version, I pulled it together and started putting my changes on Github for others to use. I've always been a big advocate of open source, so this was the logical next step. A few other people who were also making their own ROMs decided to send patches to me that I quickly merged. Some really great features were born that you couldn't get anywhere else, and certainly not on any phone you could buy.

The project continued to grow rapidly, adding ever-more supported devices. But inevitably this success meant the people behind CyanogenMod were faced with a classic question: how could this be sustained without any money coming in to pay for basic infrastructure, or to provide wages for the hackers who were spending an increasing proportion of their time on the code? As Kondik writes:

What we have with CM 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? I asked [fellow team-member] Koush if he wanted to help me build this thing bigger, and he was onboard. Kirt [McMaster] got us introduced to a number of potential investors in Silicon Valley and we started working on our pitch. The first meeting was set for 12-13-2012 in Palo Alto, and Cyanogen Inc. was born.

Here are the stated goals of the new company:

* Organize, lead, and support our community

  • Create amazing user experience centered around how YOU work
  • Security solutions that really work
  • Stay committed to building the features our users need
  • No junk
  • Constant updates
  • Available on everything, to everyone

To which, presumably, can be added "make money"; the question is how. One hint is the following:

The biggest obstacle we wanted to get out of the way is the hideous installation process. Today there are more open and unlockable devices than ever, but they all have their quirks and wildly different installation procedures. We've done our best to document the process for every device we support on our wiki, but it is still a daunting process for mere mortals. This is not sufficient—installation needs to be easy and safe. This is a great deal of complexity to manage when you are talking about almost a hundred different devices, but we decided to tackle it.

Our installer will be available on the Play Store in the coming weeks.

Making that a paid-for app is an obvious way to generate revenue by providing added convenience over the basic code, which remains free. Doubtless, we'll see other ideas come through in due course.

Although there will be concerns about this latest move by CyanogenMod, and fears that going commercial could see it lose its way in the pursuit of money, it is great news that yet more dedicated coders are reaping some reward for their selfless work of the last few years. Whether there are any direct benefits for the free software world in terms of extra code, or whether closed-source "extras" start to creep in, remains to be seen. But almost certainly there will be important indirect benefits in terms of better infrastructure, and less stressed coders, now able to earn a decent wage – something surely to be welcomed. Besides, if anything did go wrong, there is always the ultimate protection that open source uniquely enjoys: the option to fork the code.

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