Want Android your way? Stay tuned for Cyanogen’s hardware partnerships

logo (36)Cyanogen, maker of CyanogenMod, one of the most popular third-party respins of Android, is planning something major. It isn’t just a new version of its CyanogenMod software, it’s a full-blown business plan that may include making CyanogenMod available as a preload on at least one phone maker’s hardware.

Like the DD-WRT or Tomato firmware for routers, CyanogenMod’s grown famous with some 8 million-plus Android fans. It adds tons of useful features not found in stock Android, removes carrier- and device-maker’s bloatware, and works with a plethora of devices, both new and old. Other respins of Android are in turn based on CyanogenMod as well (such as Miui), as the project is open source.

Unfortunately, CyanogenMod — and third-party versions of Android generally — is notoriously difficult to load onto phones. Most Android devices ship with locked bootloaders, which requires a different installation process for each device. itvoice

Cyanogen co-founder Steve Kondik has decided it’s time for a different approach. After raising $7 million in funding from Benchmark Capital, he left his previous job (working for Samsung since 2009, which gave him little time to run Cyanogen), hired a team of 17 developers, and formulated a plan to make CyanogenMod into a mobile OS that’s all the more “by the users, for the users.”

Aggressive end-user testing and feedback has long been a staple component of CyanogenMod’s lifecycle. Kondik wants to not only keep it that way, but make it even easier to get on board the CyanogenMod train.

Among the first things Kondik has announced is a streamlined CyanogenMod installer that will soon be delivered through Google’s Play store. The idea is to automate the install process as completely as possible, the best solution for end-users short of delivering CyanogenMod as a preload.

But plenty of gray areas remain. For one, whether or not Google will allow such software to be delivered by way of Play hasn’t been established. Worst-case scenario: The user would have to sideload the CyanogenMod installer, which might prove little better than performing the whole process by hand.

A second question that’s been asked (by The Verge, among others) and answered only vaguely: How does Cyanogen plan to make money if its core product — the firmware itself — remains a free item?

One obvious possibility is via a cut of hardware sales via a partner. That’s Cyanogen’s other big push. It wants to make a deal of some sort with a device vendor, although the name of the partner hasn’t been announcer yet. (An educated guess: It’s Samsung, by way of Kondik’s previous job.)

Cyanogen could also make money by way of offering multiple versions of the product — a free core version, with other features available either only as a for-pay item or only shipped with a hardware purchase. Yet another possibility is offering for-pay services of some kind: file storage, phone backup and restore functions, and so on.

What Kondik is trying to avoid, though, is becoming the very thing he hates. In his mind, the biggest issue with mobile devices running Android is that Google has turned them into “mobile cash registers” — systems designed to monetize the users’ behaviors first, with everything else a distant second. That’s going to prove difficult, as software and hardware both become race-to-the-bottom commodities.

One other plan that Kondik has in store, though, makes perfect sense on the face of it: A name change and rebranding for the company, probably sometime next year. Let’s see if the company’s up to the task of delivering itself to consumers as frictionlessly as Google has.