Tech blogs have been aflutter recently with rumours that Microsoft will make a major investment in Cyanogen Mod, the most popular alternative Android distribution currently on the market. If the rumours of the investment are true, then this could be a canny defensive move by Microsoft in the mobile ecosystem battlefield and may push Cyanogen onto a much bigger stage. Here’s why.
First of all, the company behind Cyanogen Mod has made clear its intention to disrupt Google’s control of Android. As we all know, the mobile market is a battle of ecosystems and for Google to make money out Android it must circumnavigate the OS’ open source nature by strengthening its control of content, apps and their distribution channel. Therefore Google forces Android OEMs to pre-load and emphasise its own apps – and app store – and doesn’t allow any tinkering with their source code. Indeed, Google is becoming more and demanding of OEMs and OEMs are by-and-large complying. You can see the impact of this in the increasingly tense relationship between Google and Samsung, which saw Samsung trying to launch its own Tizen OS to escape Google’s tightening grip (and not doing a very good job of it).
Looking toward growth markets
So how does Cyanogen fit in and why would Microsoft want to support this mod? Google has pretty much dominated mature smartphone markets such as Europe and the US with its official distribution of Android. But the US and Europe are rapidly approaching saturation. That’s not the case in emerging markets. Latin America, India, China and the African continent have still have a huge amount of smartphone growth expected. There’s everything to play for and these price-conscious markets probably won’t be too concerned about getting the latest official Google Android update.
Samsung has pivoted Tizen to focus on developing markets, so has Mozilla with FireFox OS, and Cyanogen Mod itself teamed-up with Indian manufacturers (with some controversy). Microsoft is also ramping-up its focus on Asia with the Lumia brand and has proven that it’s not averse to sticking Android on its devices. Obviously Microsoft would prefer its own Windows Phone platform to gain a foothold here, but if it fails – a very plausible scenario given the continuing lack of developer support for WP – then backing a strong alternative Android distribution would be a solid contingency plan.
Defense is the best offense
Teaming-up with Cyanogen could allow Microsoft to pre-load its own apps onto Android and push users into its own ecosystem of content and apps. But moreover, it’s a defensive move that stops Google’s platform gaining dominance in these rapidly growing markets, much like Android itself was originally a defensive play against iOS, during the early days of mobile app stores and ecosystems.
Of course, this is all speculation. Microsoft hasn’t even confirmed the investment. But despite what many commentators think, there’s still a lot to fight for when it comes to global smartphone market, over 75% of the world still hasn’t picked-up an Apple or Android device. Microsoft may realise that it’s lost the battle in the short term with Windows Phone, but by backing disruptive companies like Cyanogen it has a shot at preventing any one company outright winning the war.