Is Microsoft Investing in a Google Android Competitor

Anyone who still thinks that Android is truly open source, move along, there’s nothing here for you.

For those that believe Google has imposed too much control over it, then news that Microsoft may be investing in a small start-up called Cyanogen that is setting itself up as a competitor to Google will probably be welcome.

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that Microsoft has plans to become a minority investor in Cyanogen, which is building an Android platform that is outside the control of Google and which it defines as open source.

Millions of Dollars

Microsoft will be a minority investor in a $70 million round of equity financing that values Cyanogen in the hundreds of millions, the WSJ reported, citing unnamed sources close the deal.

According to Cyanogen’s website, the company is “reimagining the mobile operating system,” giving people back the power to customize their mobile device and content experiences. The Cyanogen operating system is built on Android and has "strong personalization features driven through an intuitive interface with improved speed and battery life."

Called CyanogenMod (CM), the operating system also gives Android owners a more customizable, secure and speedy experience than the standard version of Android that comes on smartphones out of the box, the company boasts.

Cyanogen doesn’t say how many people are on board for the funding round. But it does say that its global user based is growing rapidly, which we can probably take at face value given that Microsoft doesn’t generally get involved in failing companies.

Behind it all is the drive to reduce Google’s hold on the Android operating system.

Why Oh Why?

What would Microsoft get? It could be that Microsoft is just accepting the fact Windows Phone is not going to unseat Android. Windows Phone has only 3 percent of the market, significantly behind after Android and iOS, market estimates find.

Whatever it is, Microsoft has been trying to make up for the late start in the smartphone market. And this deal has the added incentive of stealing thunder from Google.

For hardware makers, forcing Google’s hand would also be welcome. Android is supposed to be an open source system that hardware makers can put in their devices for free. However, while  Google releases its source code under open source licenses, most Android devices ship with a combination of open source and proprietary software – specifically proprietary software developed and licensed by Google.

The result is that manufacturers are often forced to ship with Google apps and use Google as the default engine, enabling Google to force its ads onto Android phones and limiting the reach of other vendors, including Microsoft and its Bing search.

Whatever happens, Cyanogen sis thriving. This round of funding follows a $22 million series B round in December 2013, which in turn followed a $7 million funding round in three months earlier. According to its own figures the company has 80 people working for it with 9000 software developers working on its version of Android.