Why I’m not a fan of Google’s cease-and-desist letter to Cyanogen

Those of you who follow my blog or are Ubuntu Forums members may know that I often come to the defense of Google. There is a lot of Google-bashing out there. It seems to now be the cool thing to do. I almost laughed out loud when there were blog posts framing the Apple rejection of the Google Voice app as “David and Goliath” with Google being the Goliath!

I generally like Google because Google generally favors open source and open standards, and even does quite a bit of funding for open source. They have not, in the past, engaged in any of the vendor lock-in practices that Microsoft and Apple have. It is annoying if you have a Hotmail account and can’t use a regular email client like Thunderbird with it. It’s annoying if you can’t install a Google Voice app because Apple tells you what can and cannot be installed on your iPhone (and, unlike in Android, the iPhone doesn’t have an override option to say “I understand the risks of installing this third-party unapproved app but just want to do it anyway”).

I have a rooted Android phone. The term rooted in this case is a bit misleading. It isn’t a regular Android installation that has somehow been modified to allow me root access (so I can install apps like wifi tethering). It actually is a special rooted Android ROM I had to replace my regular Android installation with.

The folks who make these ROMs are volunteers who just want to make the most of what Google has advertised as an open platform. One of the most famous is a developer who goes by the nickname Cyanogen. I tried a few ROMS and Cyanogen’s was definitely the best.

He thought he was being careful. He thought (I’m paraphrasing here), “Well, I’ve modified the open source components of Android. The Google proprietary binaries (YouTube app, Google Maps app, GMail app, etc.) I haven’t modified. I’m redistributing these only to people who already have Google-branded phones. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Well, apparently, he was wrong. Google thought it was a big problem, despite the fact that only a few tens of thousands of people were using Cyanogen’s ROM. Google sent him a cease-and-desist letter, claiming he did not have the right to redistribute Google’s proprietary apps in a modified ROM.

Is Google within its legal right to do this? Certainly.

Is this a good idea for Google to do this? Absolutely not. Here are the reasons why:

  • If you look at the billions of people in the world and the millions of Android phone users, only a comparatively small number of people were using Cyanogen’s ROM. This cease-and-desist letter actually brings only more publicity to ROMs (which will continue to exist but now will have to go underground).
  • Google is pissing off the very people who have been the most vocal proponents of Android. These are people who can not only help develop the platform software-wise but can advocate for friends and family to buy Android phones in lieu of iPhones or Blackberries.
  • Even though what Cyanogen was doing may have been legally wrong, it was morally right. He was not stealing money from Google or hurting Google’s business model. Google does sell those “free” apps to phone manufacturers. But Cyanogen was creating the mod specifically for phones that had regular Google Android on them anyway.
  • The real clincher for me is the fact that Google Android has been touted by Google as open source. Yes, technically the OS itself (which is based on a Linux kernel) is open source, but Cyanogen and some other ROM developers have pointed out that the way Android is, it’s basically useless without the core apps (Android Market, Google Contacts syncing, etc.).

My hope is that, for Google PR’s sake, Google undertakes the following follow-up actions:

  • Offer Cyanogen a job working for Google Android
  • Work on releasing a barebones Android framework that is completely open source but also at least basically functional.
  • Provide a way for Android users to actually root their phones without replacing the standard OS with a custom ROM. The wifi tethering app, for example, is hosted by Google. Well, what good is the wifi tethering app from Google if it can’t be used? What good is an “open source” operating system if it requires proprietary components to function?

I haven’t completely turned against Google. I do think they’re still doing a lot of good work, and they’re still more open than Microsoft and Apple. Nevertheless, this incident has left a sour taste in my mouth, and I can’t really enthusiastically recommend Android phones to people now. I like Android still personally. But it no longer has the same open source appeal it used to. So if a friend or family member asks if she should get an iPhone, I’m just going to have to say “Why not?”


  1. Thanks for the post and insight, I will still make my next purchase of a cell phone one with Android OS (specifically HTC Hero through Sprint come October 11, 2009 when it comes available in the USA) while iPhones are now cheaper (about $99 with a 2 yr contract with ATT) I dislike Apple immensely and find their business practices very uncool! I guess it may come down to which is the lesser of evils, I find Google more attractive and would rather put my money in Google powered products then anything that is put out by Apple or Microsoft. When the Google Chrome OS comes to market I plan in advance to convert completely to Google Chrome OS and be free from Windows and OS X (hopefully forever).

  2. Ubuntucat, i share exact the same thoughts. I was wondering why Google haven’t offer Cyanogen a job for a long time. And when people spoke about iPhones i tried to convince the of Android as the better system. Now i think when the iPhone gets multi-tasking and a physical keyboard i will think of buying one myself. I choose Android because it should be an open source system.

  3. Good arguments, but Google has to address this issue NOW as opposed to when it IS 10 million users (ala iPhone). I can agree that the gmail, google maps, and a few others are Google, honestly Google contacts sync is nice but NOT necessary, i am sure someone can easily make a 3rd party. The big kicker, as you mention, is the Android Marketplace, which sucks that they are blocking that. Hopefully Cynogen’s backup plan will work, because otherwise that part will hurt Android bad.

    People associate too often that Open Software does not always = Free. Considering how cheap it is for companies like HTC to develop their own platforms on a usable platform (IE not WinMo), I don’t think Google is in the evil company catagory yet. The nerd community has a right to be upset and argue, but people going apeshit over this is a bit over the top. I agree Google should hire Cynogen, but only time will tell there.

  4. How can you claim that an illegal act is morally right???
    Google is More than generous to its developers and works closely with them…just ask Cy himself…

  5. Here’s how you can claim that an illegal act is morally right.

    Bush II administration single-handedly put the world in danger by refusing the ideas behind the Kyoto protocol (as weak as it was), the Iraq war is illegal and so very dangerous for the US, dissent within Russia under Stalinism was illegal yet everyone would respect those that fought against that repression. I think the point I’m trying to make is that lawmakers rarely get it right, same with those who impose copyright as a form of protecting assets and profits. They monopolise progress in their hands.

    Cynogen was doing something that was natural to humans, improving on already created ideas, a bit like adding a little coriander to a carrot soup, imagine recipes.com sending out a summons to court to discuss your illegal action – you didn’t stick to our recipe ideas and you violated our published work.

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