One of the key benefits of Android compared to other major mobile platforms is flexibility. Users are able to change or modify major parts of their device to suit their needs — something not possible in the likes of iOS or BlackBerry, for instance. Case in point: you can actually change the default apps in Android, including SMS app, browser or even call handler. This is something that cannot be done as easily on an iPhone, if at all.
You can even change the entire operating system itself. Not quite satisfied with your phone’s Android build, or the slow roll-out of official updates? You can simply switch to an alternative operating system, such as CyanogenMod, AOKP, MIUI and the various third-party ROMs that can be found on enthusiast sites.
Unfortunately, the word “enthusiast” here has an important implication. In most cases, to be able to switch to an alternative ROM, one would need some intermediate knowledge in tweaking with their mobile device. While the idea of downloading a ROM ZIP file, booting to recovery, wiping data and then installing the ROM from ZIP, and then restoring data from backup, might be easy enough for an advanced user, not everyone has this level of mastery over their Android device. And this is even considered the easier method, compared to flashing individual components (baseband, phone, PDA, etc.).
To someone new to mobile tweaking, changing ROMs would come off as a daunting idea. The thought of bricking your phone because of a botched ROM update, or even losing all your data due to a backup gone awry is a scary proposition, regardless of whether you’re dealing with a cheap phone or flagship hardware.
Even for enthusiasts, the thought of sleepless nights, wasted man-hours and the possibility of botched installs might be a turn-off. You do have a real life outside of your mobile tweaking hobbies, after all. Should tweaking ROMs take precedent over, say, being productive at work or spending quality time with your family?
To my mind, the idea of a one-click pain-less installer is a potentially game-changing one. This is why I got excited when the CyanogenMod team announced receiving funding and re-organizing as a more formal effort. The newly-established startup, launched as Cyanogen Inc., would now have better resources in building and supporting their third-party ROMs for Android devices. In fact, two months after the team announced funding, Cyanogen has released its one-click installer app on Google Play, plus companion PC software.
It’s time-saving. The ability to do a one-click upgrade to a third-party ROM is promising. For non-enthusiasts, it gives a better way to customize their devices over and beyond simply downloading skins, apps and launchers. For advanced users, it does save a lot of time, lost productivity hours and insomnia-induced headaches. It also reinforces Android’s advantage in terms of community support.
It leads to growth. This effort also gives CyanogenMod the potential to have an even bigger market share. With an install base of at least 8 million (with some estimates putting it at up to 24 million), the startup is hoping it could eventually become the default OS for devices. “It’s not just about building a user base,” said CEO Kirk McMaster in an earlier interview with The Verge. “It’s about building great services you can’t get anywhere else.”
But there is still fragmentation. The disadvantage here, however, is that not all devices will enjoy the ability to get easy installs. Even CyanogenMod’s official releases, so far, are limited to certain devices, mostly flagship smartphones and mainstream devices. Users with lesser-known or obscure devices would still have to use custom builds made by community members. It’s an expansion of the classic Android fragmentation problem. Because of the differences in hardware — chipset, screen size, storage, memory, etc. — it’s not easy to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. KitKat’s support for lower-spec’d devices might help resolve this, but there is still no question that there are thousands of device types out there, which leads to challenges in support.
The third ecosystem. Looking at the bigger picture, CyanogenMod may have the potential to become the supposed “third ecosystem” in smartphone platforms after Android and iOS. Sure, it’s still technically Android, although in terms of install base, it has the potential to quickly catch up to Windows Phone (40 million) and BlackBerry (62 million) — big enough to have more clout in the smartphone industry.
The even bigger potential here is if other developers can come up with one-click (or two-step or whatever) solutions for other custom ROMs, as well. This would further cement Android’s strength as a platform that’s great for customization.