The rebel ROM builder grows up — and starts making hardware plans

Cyanogen, makers of popular software based on Android that extends the abilities of smartphones, is making a bid for the mainstream. The four-year-old company, which began as a one-person side project, said today that it has raised $7 million from Benchmark Capital and Redpoint Ventures. The goal is to vault past Blackberry and Windows Phone to become the third-most popular mobile operating system, after traditional Android and iOS. And the company is already closer than you might think.

CyanogenMod, the company’s free open-source replacement firmware, has more than 8 million users, CEO Kirt McMaster says. But that counts only users who have elected to share data with Cyanogen, he says, estimating that the true number is two to three times that amount. "There’s always been lot of talk around who’s going to be the third dominant mobile computing platform," says McMaster, who previously co-founded Boost Mobile. "Windows Phone would probably be number three now. If you look at what our actual user base is, we might be equal to or greater than that." Microsoft estimates Windows Phone’s current market share at 4 percent.

Cyanogen’s growth is all the more surprising given how difficult its software is to install. One guide lists 23 steps, and warns users that installing the firmware could damage your phone and void your warranty. Some carriers lock device bootloaders to prevent anyone from installing custom ROMs. "The install process still sucks — it’s pretty brutal," says Steve Kondik, who started building Cyanogen in 2009 while working as a developer in Pittsburgh. He spent 19 months as a software engineer at Samsung before quitting in March.

But millions have waded through that process to access the benefits that Cyanogen affords. Cyanogen brings the latest version of Android to phones that carriers have long abandoned, helping to extend the life of the device. It strips out bloatware installed by the carriers in favor of a near-stock version of Android that can spruced up with thousands of themes. More recently, Cyanogen has introduced a new camera app and a more secure messaging system. "It’s a pretty crappy experience on Android," McMaster says. "We think we can change that. That’s the biggest draw to CyanogenMod."
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