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Telefonica in latest bid for an operator-driven OS

Mobile operators have been engaged in a largely losing battle to seize back control of the user experience from Apple and Google. Some carriers, especially in emerging markets, have had some success, often by working closely with over-the-top players or by branding strong white label offerings like the Opera browsers. But in the developed mobile markets, where iOS and Android rule, the MNOs just can’t resist going step further than trying to create their own alternative operating system.

Even before the smartphone era, some operators had the foresight to see that a mobile OS would be critical, but investments in platforms like Java-based SavaJe made little impact. More recently, large operators have backed Android variants and brand new operating systems like Alibaba’s Aliyun (China Unicom) and Firefox Mobile (Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom and others), and other Linux-based choices include Ubuntu and Jolla Sailfish.

The latest move comes from Telefonica, which is launching a smartphone running the ‘de-Googled’ Android offshoot CyanogenMod – the operator is an investor in Cyanogen, which has created an OS based on the mainstream open source Android code but with added third party features and different capabilities to those of the Google version.Bravely, Telefonica is doing this not in one of its Latin American territories – where it is pushing Firefox Mobile to entry level users – but in Europe, where the ability of alternative OSs to make their presence felt is very limited (as Samsung found with its Bada OS).

The Spanish operator says it will differentiate its Cyanogen device, the Aquaris X5 (made by BQ), with extra levels of security and privacy. The key feature of the software is that it allows higher levels of customization than vanilla Android, because its creators have not signed up to the Open Handset Alliance – which governs the Google-driven version – but are using Android’s open source code.

The handset has gone on sale first in Spain, priced at €209, and launches in the UK and Germany will follow next month. Although users can download Cyanogen and instal it on any Android handset, this is the first time the software has been pre-installed by an operator in Europe.

Among the privacy features which Telefonica will market are Truecaller, a ‘smart phonebook’ which promises protection against unsolicited calls; and PrivacyGuard, which supports a PIN scramble, password-protected folders and other data protection options.

Other apps include AudioFX, with 24-bit uncut audio, and the Boxer email and productivity suite. The latest version of the OS, Cyanogen 12.1, automatically adjusts display settings according to the time of day and the brightness of the light.

The Aquaris X5 has a 5-inch screen and runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 412 processor with LTE. Telefonica says it has long battery life thanks to OS optimization and low power components, plus a 2900mAh battery.

Telefonica’s approach suggests that Android forks may be the way forward for companies which want to control the user experience – preserving the ability to tap into the Google OS’s huge apps base, while excluding Google’s actual services and user interface. However, the fork strategy has not had a significant impact on the search giant yet – Amazon’s handset failed, several operator efforts have been damp squibs. The security promises may be a good route forward for the lucrative enterprise market, given the vulnerabilities in most Android implementations – BlackBerry is taking that stance with its Priv device.

However, the real threat to Google’s control of the platform comes from within the ‘pure’ Android community – from operators and vendors which do not go to the risk and effort of creating or supporting a full fork, but just overlay Android with their own user interfaces and services. This could become even easier if antitrust investigations of Google’s Android terms and conditions restrict the company’s ability to insist on a presence for its own key applications, such as search, as it currently tries to do via the Open Handset Alliance.

The limited success of Android One, a standardized implementation geared to low cost devices, showed how operators are rebelling against Google control – but most of them are recognizing that they do not need their own OS, and that the relationship with the user is governed by many features which sit above the OS, such as stores, billing, toll-free sites and content, and so on.

This leaves Google with an escalating issue of fragmentation in the Android user experience (including some serious quality issues in some overlays), but that is another reason why operators should give up their OS dreams once and for all and attend to the features which really determine user experience and loyalty.

For Cyanogen, of course, the Telefonica launch is a significant credibility boost, after a successful summer. In August, Lenovo launched a Cyanogen phone through its ZUK subsidiary, and UK-based Wileyfox unveiled two Cyanogen-powered handsets. At the latter launch, targeted at the EMEA region, Cyanogen CEO Kirt McMaster said that the OS now has 50m users and was targeting a tech-savvy consumer who wants premium hardware and highly customizable software. Cyanogen OS contains licences for Google’s apps.

Cyanogen needs more vendors to push its OS to scale, especially as its relations with its original flagship vendor OnePlus have soured, following an exclusive trade deal between Cyanogen and Micromax, which has forced OnePlus to stop selling the phones in India. Though the threat of legal action has now been resolved, through mutual consent, OnePlus has moved away from Cyanogen.

But with the likes of ZUK, BQ, Wileyfox, Micromax (Yu – Yureka), Smartfren (Andromax Q) and the continued availability of OnePlus’s One, Cyanogen is starting to build a portfolio of devices – which it has hinted will soon be bolstered by deals with other Chinese vendors.

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