When android had a bigger brother

The rise and fall of Cyanogen Mod

The updated logo of Cyanogen

The origin story of Custom ROMs

The true essence of android is that it is open-source (i.e. the entire source code can be modified by anyone interested, and google won’t mind). This code is effectively documented in a repository called the Android Open Source Project (AOSP).

So what this means is that anyone with the right “technical” skills can exploit this resource to build an entirely new android interface. These custom interfaces are commonly called custom ROMs, and they are notoriously famous for unlocking the true potential of Android devices.

Visualization of why source code is gibberish to non-tech people

The rise of Cyanogen Mod

Cyanogen mod is a custom ROM amended from AOSP in 2009 by a small group of developers. This initiative gained a lot of traction and caught the attention of Steve Kondik, who was a software engineer at Samsung. He eventually set up a company called ‘Cyanogen Inc.’ in 2013 to commercialize this operating system.

Creative boot animation of Cyanogen

Over the years, Cyanogen earned the title of being one of the most popular custom ROMs’ clocking at a staggering 50 Million users in mid-2015 and with compatibility on 350+ devices. Statistically, it was the most downloaded Custom Rom on the planet, with over 60 million+ downloads.

Why do we need a custom ROM in the first place?

To understand this, we need to identify the restrictions offered by a company-specific firmware. We are all aware that every major mobile manufacturer has a signature firmware of their own; some examples are Samsung Touch wiz and HTC sense. All these firmware, like custom ROM’s, were built using AOSP.

Samsung Touch wiz and HTC sense

The first major problem is that this firmware embraces bloatware apps for obvious “profitability” reasons. The problem arises because these apps are terribly optimized, and they enjoy draining battery and slowing system processes by constantly running in the background. This was a concerning problem, especially with devices having minimal RAM. Furthermore, it is also prevalent to spot duplicate apps gobbling storage space.

Most phones come with duplicate apps.

The second issue was that most of this firmware was not customizable. Utmost it could offer was to change the background wallpaper, icons and text colours. Adding new functionalities or hardware tweaking was not possible due to firmware limitations or compatibility issues.

These limitations were not sufficient to convince the dynamic needs of people in the long run; hence, the Custom ROMs play a major role as they override all the above restrictions and offer a seamless experience.

What did Cyanogen offer?

Noteworthy Benefits -

  • Stable and fast OS
  • System apps can be removed with built-in root access
  • Bloatware is eliminated
  • Enough customization to keep you engaged for years
  • Enhanced privacy (You can control what information is shared)
  • It’s completely free
  • Supportive and active community for troubleshooting and development
  • Effective RAM management for multitasking
  • Cross-functional integration of 3rd party apps and services

Most importantly, custom ROMs offers you the chance to install newer versions of android well before they are officially launched or supported by the manufacturer.

Cross-functional integration with Cortana on One plus 1

Shortcomings -

  • Installation is a difficult and time-consuming process
  • Device warranty is void once rooted
  • Having unstable bugs is quite common
  • Tweaking hardware components beyond their capability leads to permanent damage.
  • Improper installation can lead to bricked devices
It’s true!

Cyanogen also launched a dedicated installer that automatically roots and installs Cyanogen on several supported devices to make it easier. This approach was straightforward and reliable. The traditional process was time-consuming as it involved installing necessary files and flashing using a computer manually.

The interface of the Cyanogen installer

Midlife choices

Due to its stellar performance in the android community and the increasing fan base, Google and Samsung tried to buy Cyanogen. But instead of selling the firmware, Cyanogen started producing commercial versions of its custom OS installed in some popular devices such as the One plus, Lenovo and Oppo. This was the time when the potential of Cyanogen was known globally for the non-tech community. It also allowed people to experience this OS without voiding their warranties.

One of the first phones to run the commercial version of Cyanogen

Every story has an end

In 2016 Cyanogen stopped its services due to internal reasons. After years of tumultuous turnovers in the company, Cyanogen announced that the company would consolidate all of their efforts into a new project and rebrand themselves as Lineage OS.

Logo of lineage OS

However, in present years the number of users of Custom ROM users have dwindled significantly due to the following reasons -

  • Mobile manufacturers have grown wiser and have polished their firmware to match user interest.
  • Bloatware is either minimized or developed into more useful applications
  • Hardware capability is more of a deciding factor of quality than the software potential
  • Bootloaders are locked these days hence making it harder to install ROMs
  • Googles Safety Net feature restricts Custom firmware from using their services, and this is again a huge compromise for Custom ROM users

So, in a nutshell, we can say that Cyanogen played a critical role during its developmental years. Having a modest beginning, it provided something that other ROMs could not. It was also partly responsible for making “One plus” what it is today. Currently, Cyanogen still lives on, as its source code is extensively used to develop other ROMs. As for Lineage OS, only time will tell whether it could live up to its predecessor's expectations.

Kudos Cyanogen

Hi, I am an engineer by profession and a content writer by passion . I enjoy writing about arcane topics from a wide spectrum of domains !