Cyanogen is following a path well established by some giant Seattle-area companies that successfully challenged big competitors from the start.
There must be something in Seattle’s water.
Maybe the city’s mountain reservoirs capture a forest essence — the juice that gives salmon confidence to swim upstream and saplings the moxie to take root below a giant fir.
It has an effect on local technology enthusiasts who emerge with the confidence, drive and enthusiasm to challenge even the largest competitors with their products.
What it does: Develops Android-based operating system.
Genesis: Co-founder Steve Kodnik released a modified version of Android in 2009 that has since been loaded onto around 15 million devices.
A century ago, William Boeing took on the early aviation establishment.
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Forty years ago, Bill Gates and Paul Allen started a company that outmaneuvered the almighty IBM, putting Microsoft in the sweet spot of the personal-computing era.
You could say that spirit continues in companies like Amazon.com, which may eventually dethrone Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, and T-Mobile US, which is disrupting the AT&T-Verizon duopoly in the wireless industry.
I saw some of this essence recently in the Belltown office of a startup called Cyanogen. It’s packed with software developers building a mobile operating system to challenge the ridiculous stronghold Google’s Android has on the global smartphone market.
Like Microsoft in the very early days, Cyanogen rose from the community of software hobbyists and tinkerers trying to build something better than what was available from the establishment.
Cyanogen began as an open-source project by Steve Kondik, who released a modified version of Android back in 2009 as a side project while working at a startup in Pittsburgh.
Called CyanogenMod, the project took off, developing a huge following. It’s now used on about 15 million devices. It also attracted the attention of Samsung.
Some phone-makers that embraced Android after its 2008 debut have since explored alternatives, prompted by strict requirements that Google imposes on those also using Google apps such as search and YouTube.
The underlying Android operating system is still freely shared and used as the basis for projects such as Cyanogen. But you’re more likely to be using a version bundled with Google apps and more tightly controlled by the search giant.
This creates friction because apps and services are where the most money is made on mobile.
Samsung hired Kondik in 2011 to lead a research and development team in Bellevue. Later he connected with a startup veteran in Palo Alto, Calif., and in early 2013 they started Cyanogen to commercialize the software.
While the fully open-source version of Cyanogen continues, the company is developing and selling a version for phone-makers.
“The company’s become more than just trying to build stuff for the geeks and the enthusiasts,” Kondik said. “We’re really trying to enable more companies that are building cool stuff and let them be players on the platform.”
Last week, the company announced the fourth handset to come loaded with Cyanogen OS — a $299 phablet made by Alcatel — and a deal with Qualcomm to bundle its software with some reference designs that Qualcomm provides to phone-makers to simplify their product development.
Cyanogen has a knack for getting in the news. Early on, it made headlines when Google made legal threats, which raised the profile of Cyanogen’s Android alternative.
Then in January word leaked to The Wall Street Journal that Microsoft was going to invest in a $70 million round of funding, adding to $30 million already raised.
Kondik said that was unfounded speculation, and Microsoft declined comment, but Cyanogen could announce new financing soon.
It makes sense for Microsoft to get on board, especially if Cyanogen provides a neutral way for the Redmond company to draft Android’s growth without benefiting archrival Google.
Just 2.8 percent of the 1.2 billion smartphones sold around the world last year were based on Windows, down from 3.2 percent the year before, according to a Gartner report last week. Android’s market share grew to 80.7 percent — up from 78.5 percent — while Apple’s iOS was flat at 15.4 percent.
Cyanogen OS takes advantage of Android’s scale — it’s compatible with Android apps and hundreds of Android handsets — but it has additional features and enables users and phone companies to do more customization.
“The thing is, everybody wants to be a bigger player on the platform,” Kondik said.
As a hypothetical example, he pointed to Microsoft’s Skype service. If Microsoft wants to integrate Skype into an Android phone’s dialing feature — and not just have it run as a separate app elsewhere on the phone — it needs deep access to the operating system. That’s the flexibility Cyanogen offers.
“These hooks should be there,” Kondik continued. “You should be able to write applications like that — where you just sort of become part of the system. That’s the platform that we’re trying to build.”
There’s a lot of work still to be done. Cyanogen continues to use Google features such as maps because it doesn’t yet have alternatives lined up. To build out its platform and add more core features, Cyanogen plans to partner with additional companies and perhaps buy others to integrate their technology.
It’s also hiring like crazy to build more stuff in-house. The company now has 60 employees in Belltown, where Kondik leads technology development. A number of employees were recruited from the CyanogenMod community and brought to Seattle. Others were lured from Microsoft, Amazon and Google.
About 20 people work at a headquarters office in Palo Alto, where co-founder and Chief Executive Kirt McMaster is based.
Could it consolidate here? “We go back and forth,” Kondik said. “Having a presence in both places is pretty good. This is like the two best places to be for technology.”
Cyanogen should have 160 employees by the end of the year and be worth $1 billion “in the near term,” Kondik said.
It better start raining soon. Seattle needs to keep that water flowing.