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Android ROM maker Cyanogen Inc. fires 20 percent of staff, may pivot to apps

CyanogenMod has been a big name in the Android modding community since the early days of the platform, but Cyanogen Inc. only appeared a few years ago. This commercial entity was founded by Steve “Cyanogen” Kondik and CEO Kirt McMaster in 2013 to create a licensed version of CyanogenMod for smartphone OEMs to pre-load on devices. Despite some early successes and lots of venture funding, things aren’t looking good at Cyanogen Inc. right now. The company began a round of firings late last week that resulted in the elimination of almost the entire open source arm of the company.

The relationship between Cyanogen Inc. and CyanogenMod is sometimes fuzzy and difficult to grasp. While there are a small army of contributors and volunteer maintainers for CyanogenMod, Cyanogen Inc. also had employees who would work on code for CyanogenOS (the version licensed to OEMs) and contribute much of it back to the open source project. CyanogenOS also contains proprietary code that wasn’t sent back up to the open source side.

The first big project from Cyanogen Inc. was a deal with Chinese phone startup OnePlus to equip the OnePlus One with CyanogenOS (at the time still known as CyanogenMod S). For a few months, everything was fine, but then Cyanogen switched tracks and signed an exclusive deal with Micromax in India. This led to the OnePlus deal falling apart — OnePlus now runs its own ROM called OxygenOS. The Micromax Yu phones with Cyanogen have done well, but that’s really the only bright spot. There hasn’t been a high-end phone running CyanogenOS since the OPO, and even some midrange ones have been cancelled.

According to reports from now-former employees, it’s the open-source side of the company that took the brunt of the layoffs, and they were handled with surgical precision. Those who weren’t being let go were told to take the day off, and when everyone else showed up, they were ushered into meetings with Kondik who delivered the bad news. In all, about 30 of the company’s 136 employees were let go. Cyanogen Inc’s remaining employees are back at work this week, but what are they going to do now?

The company is reportedly looking at a “pivot to apps” and away from full ROMs. This development is expensive, and most established OEMs want to do the customization and updates themselves. Having an outside firm doing software simply adds an extra layer of complication. Cyanogen Inc. recently announced a platform for deeper app integration confusingly called “Mod” that included things like native Skype in the dialer and Hyperlapse built into the camera. Perhaps the app pivot will have something to do with this initiative.

Development of CyanogenMod will probably suffer without the help from employees of Cyanogen Inc., but it will continue on. CyanogenOS, on the other hand, might be dead.

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