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Cyanogen's next stop is India

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The Android mod-maker inks a deal to come preinstalled on new Micromax phones

Cyanogen, the company that makes the popular Cyanogenmod Android Firmware and that started making its own version of that for new phones last year, is now back for more. Today it's announcing a new deal with Indian consumer electronics company Micromax that will put Cyanogen's software on the company's newest phones. That goes hand in hand with Micromax (which is the second largest smartphone maker in India) launching a new phone brand in India called YU that will sell devices running Cyanogen OS.

Cyanogen makes the software, Micromax the phones

The goal of the new venture is two-fold, the companies say. Cyanogen's pitching a highly-optimized version of Android for people buying mid-range phones, something it says it can do better than most hardware makers who cook up their own versions of Android. Micromax, meanwhile, gets to make the hardware with the help of a software company that will keep them up to date with new software and services. That's been the proposition of Android since the start, though Cyanogen says it does a better job than carriers and major device makers, and doesn't add bloatware apps.

"We can really make an inexpensive device seem like a much more premium-level device," Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster says. "We're masters at that. The OEM may have last stopped supporting a device with Gingerbread, and we have Kit Kat running on those same devices."

Not every smartphone manufacturer deal is interesting. But Cyanogen's march around the world is fueled by $30 million in funding and a fervent fanbase that's eager to get the software onto devices old and new. That's especially true in India, McMaster says, noting that it recently had a 17-year-old fan in India port Cyanogen to brand new devices running Android One, Google's own software push for India and emerging markets. That's also something that makes this deal noteworthy, given that Micromax was one of Google's launch partners for getting Android One launched in September.

Android One is the clear target here

Android One is a clear target here, and many of Cyanogen and Micromax's promises are the same. Just like Google, the companies are promising a steady stream of software and security updates, and localizations. Vikram Natarajan, Cyanogen's vice president of global partnerships and distribution, says the two companies plan to work together to integrate some popular local apps and services right into the operating system, just like Cyanogen did with its recently-announced NextBit partnership. According to both Micromax co-founder Rahul Sharma and Cyanogen's McMaster, that won't result in junk apps, as much as services people in India are already using. "There will be some services we're building in, and they'll be blended completely inside," Sharma said, though he declined to say what those features would be.

Neither company would offer details about the new phone they're working on, short of saying that it will be announced next month and cost less than the $299 OnePlus One. That was the second phone to come with Cyanogen's software pre-installed and from OnePlus, the startup founded by former Oppo VP Pete Lau. That price is in no small part to cater to Indian phone buyers, who typically pay for phones in full, without signing contracts.

You will very likely never see the result of the deal in the US, Europe, or even outside of India due to where Micromax sells its hardware — at least not in the near future. It's a different story for India, Natarajan says. According to him, the plan is to start with deals like this and head to other regions, where they can do the same thing.

"It's always been this philosophy of purity and getting rid of bloatware."

The lingering question with deals like this, where Cyanogen is working directly with hardware makers, is whether that means we'll see a slow creep of bloatware apps — the very thing Cyanogen and its community have fought against. McMaster says that's exactly what he doesn't want to happen, but says there's plenty of room for improvement over what Google's done by bundling in its own services over more popular ones people might be using.

"Cyanogen has always been known as this ‘Android on steroids' and it's always been this philosophy of purity and getting rid of bloatware," McMaster says. "The expectation of this company as it begins to iterate on Android is not to do these iterations that are going to be bloatware 2.0. Everything has to be really meaningful and thoughtful. It has to be something we, ourselves, want to use."