Why Microsoft really isn't taking Android's future out of Google's hands

Earlier this week, Cyanogen Inc announced that it has entered into a partnership with Microsoft to bundle some apps into its future Android-based operating system.

While the companies meticulously chalked out most of the specifics of their collaboration - and how it wouldn't much affect consumers in the coming months - many people and even some news outlets are having a hard time understanding these facts, and have started to make bold, misleading conclusions.

Wired, for instance, believes that this tie-up between the two companies will end up taking Android’s future out of Google’s hands. I think they are wrong, and much to the contrary, I believe that this alliance will only be good for Google (and Android). Here’s why.

First up, I think this coalition is getting more traction than it deserves. Many are so busy reading between the lines that they are overlooking what is happening.

Here’s what Cyanogen and Microsoft actually said. “Under the partnership, Cyanogen will integrate and distribute Microsoft’s consumer apps and services across core categories, including productivity, messaging, utilities, and cloud-based services. As part of this collaboration, Microsoft will create native integrations on Cyanogen OS, enabling a powerful new class of experiences".

On another blog post, the company clarifies that these "nightlies will not see a sudden influx of Microsoft applications" and "CyanogenMod has historically stayed neutral on your services of choice, whether you use Google, Amazon or Fdroid; we leave that decision to you and we have no intention of changing that". The company has also confirmed that Microsoft’s services and apps will be made available as an optional choice. Those who don’t wish to use Microsoft services are free to look at other choices, and furthermore, they have the ability to remove Microsoft's apps from their device. So much for Microsoft apps taking over your phone. Huh?

One of the reasons that people are getting it wrong has something to do with Cyanogen itself. The software firm, which develops a commercial Android-based operating system, and a non-commercial CyanogenMod Android build, earlier this year announced that it plans to "take Android away from Google". As ambitious as this plan may sound to you, the company also noted that it hopes to pull it off in the next 18 months. The company wants to put a stop to the monopoly Google has over Android. "I’m the CEO of Cyanogen. We’re attempting to take Android away from Google", Kirt McMaster, the CEO of Cyanogen Inc had said.

The startup believes that by doing this, it will be able to provide its partners with a platform where they can prominently showcase their apps, referring to over a dozen of Google apps and services that the Mountain View-based company pre-bundles with its operating system.

"We’re making a version of Android that is more open so we can integrate with more partners so their servicers can be tier one services, so startups working on [artificial intelligence] or other problems don’t get stuck having you have to launch a stupid little application that inevitably gets acquired by Google or Apple. These companies can thrive on non-Google Android", it said.

One of the only ways Cyanogen Inc will be able to achieve this goal is by opting to use Android’s AOSP project that doesn’t ship with Google Mobile Services like Gmail, Google Search, Google Maps, and Google Drive among others. This will require the company to find an alternative for all these apps and services, however. Microsoft could help the company fill those pits with Outlook, Skype, Bing, OneNote, Office, and OneDrive among other services.

But then again, I would argue that it isn’t enough. People love choosing what they want on their device. Gmail is by far the most widely used and popular email client available today, and most people like to use Google to look for things on the Web. The alternatives have been available for years, but a vast majority of people have - for whatever reason - opted to use Google services.

If Cyanogen someday announces that its operating system won’t ship with Google Mobile Services, the company is likely to lose a number of customers. And even if users stick to the platform, there are only about 50 million of them using Cyanogen’s software anyway - compared to more than 750 million standard Android users. Whichever company it partners with, Android’s future remains in the hands of Google. Besides, Cyanogen also tells that its existing users won't see any influx in Microsoft apps and services.

The Android code is, and has always been, open source, letting people do whatever they want to do with it. This is why companies like Cyanogen exist today. It’s not new news. Many have tried to modify Android, but it has only been a marginal success at best. Amazon is the only company - on the global scale - that seems to have hit a home run, but that wasn't enough to convince people to buy its flashy flagship Fire phone last year.

Forked versions of Android - the ones that don’t ship with Google Mobile Services - haven’t been able to get much traction. As critics have repeatedly pointed out, they aren’t worth the trouble and a regular Joe is better off without ‘em. Sure, they can provide other companies some new users and open new revenue channels, but it can’t be characterised as a move that could take over Android's future.

The collaboration could actually help Google in many ways. The Mountain View-based company is under competitive review by regulatory authorities. Google has been accused of maintaining a monopoly over search, and Android operating system.

This new partnership could help it improve its image in front of these pesky regulatories by showing that it doesn’t have any monopoly over what is being shipped with the Android operating system. It will help Google prove its point that Android is vibrant, and competitors - including new players - stand a fair chance to mold the operating system as they see fit.

Microsoft isn't taking Android's future out of Google's hands, it is likely taking Cyanogen's future out of Cyanogen's hands. It will be interesting to see how things pan out in the coming months.