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Cyanogen has quietly become the most important company working on Android not named Google.
On Monday, it announced a new partnership with chip giant Qualcomm which will result in Cyanogen’s version of Android being pre-installed on Qualcomm’s reference designs. Given that Asian smartphone manufacturers often heavily rely on reference designs to build the devices that they ultimately take to market, this could lead to a significant spike in devices sold with Cyanogen pre-installed.
To date, Cyanogen has been pre-installed on three devices, the Oppo N1, the OnePlus One, and the Micromax Yureka, according to the company. None of them have been huge sellers or widely available in the United States. On the tails of this announcement with Qualcomm, Cyanogen will be announcing later this week that its software will be pre-installed in at least one new device.
The Qualcomm deal means that Cyanogen’s software will be provided for devices running low-to-mid range Snapdragon 200, 400, and 600 line of chips, as opposed to the 800 series that’s used in pricey devices like the HTC One M9, so it’s unlikely that there will be a truly premium device with Cyanogen pre-installed in the near future. It’s more likely that Cyanogen will start popping up in affordable devices in developing markets.
It’s hard to tell what Google thinks of Cyanogen. Google’s head of Android Sundar Pichai commented earlier on Monday that he played with Cyanogen’s phone but he doesn’t “know their value yet” and he questions “the premise of building something without Google services.”
Google’s version of Android is built on top of an open source version of Android. But most of Android’s best features are closed-source and come directly from Google. If Cyanogen was to build up its own app store, and possibly use Microsoft’s office and mapping software — certainly possible, given that Microsoft is rumored to be an investor in Cyanogen — then it could become a real rival to Google’s global Android ambitions.
Cyanogen already sports a few interesting features that Google can’t match at the moment, like Nextbit’s cloud-based device syncing. Cyanogen also supports theming, which is a popular feature not included in mainstream Android. Cyanogen could become an attractive Google alternative for Chinese phone makers, who don’t usually pre-install Google services.
Cyanogen started as a alternative firmware project for Android tinkerers, and it’s starting to grow up as a company, releasing a new logo on Monday. As it gets its software into more devices and raises more money, it could end up becoming a bigger rival to Google itself.