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CyanogenMod users - read before updating!    
By Alan Zisman

If you've followed this irregular blog, you've seen reference to CyanogenMod - an alternative version of the Android smart phone operating system. It describes itself as " aftermarket firmware for a number of cell phones based on the open-source Android operating system. It offers features not found in the official Android based firmwares of vendors."

I first started using CyanogenMod a couple of years ago when Google wouldn't update my Galaxy Nexus smartphone past Android version 4.3, but CyanogenMod released a version for that phone built on the much-improved Android 4.4. Along with the upgrade, I found myself liking the 'features not found in the official Android'.

When I replaced my Galaxy Nexus with a Nexus 5, even though that phone was - at the time - the poster child for 'pure Android', I found my self sticking with CyanogenMod. But that meant missing out on the opportunity to install Google's latest and greatest Android versions as soon as they're released; CyanogenMod, like smartphones running customized versions of Android from Samsung, HTC, LG, and other manufacturers, needs to get each new Android release, cook in its customizations, and test with the multiple models it supports.

Back in August, I wrote about the convolutions I had to go through in order to move from CyanogenMod version 11 (based on Android 4.4 Kit Kat) to version 12 (based on Android 5.x Lollipop). I hadn't seen any 'over the air' update from CM11 to CM12, and ended up downloading an image file, erasing everything on my phone, installing the new image and then going from there. Time consuming and awkward.

So a week ago, I was pleased to see that at the top of the list of available updates were three 'daily' updates promising CM13 - the newer version based on Android 6.0 Marshmallow - generally only available to a tiny fraction of Android users. (CyanogenMod offers users a choice of stable 'release' versions or more cutting edge 'nightly' builds). Choosing one of these offered the promise of a quick over-the-air update that would not require erasing my current set up and starting from scratch.

So hey - let's do it!

A few moments to download the 310 MB file, a few more moments to reboot and install, more time to 'optimize' my 100 or so apps, and my phone started back up to my customized desktop wallpaper and....

... an error message that I needed to update Google Play Services. Clicking to close it just opened it again along with error messages from other Google Apps. I couldn't make the error messages stop, couldn't get to my home screen, couldn't pull down the notification bar. Couldn't connect the phone to my computer. Not so good!

Let's see what CyanogenMod has to say about this. On November 23, they published a blog posting announcing the release of the CM13 nightlies. They note that users of the current 12.1 nightlies can update "as long as you also update your third party addons in the same pass" (their underlining).

Now you tell me! Pity that there's no warning on the phone's Update screen!

To know what that means, you need a bit of a backstory. I'll try to be brief.

The Android operating system comes in two main varieties - each of which then sub-divides further.  If you've got a phone from one of the major manufacturers or a Nexus phone, you're running 'stock' Android, a Google product. While you may hear that Android is an open source operating system, that's not quite true. Most mainstream phone manufacturers license Android from Google, getting a license that allows them to customize Android, adding their own apps and features, a customized skin and more. But the license requires them to include a specific set of Google apps including the set of Google Play stores - they can include their own customized alternatives for the Google apps but the Google apps must be there too.

But there's also an open source version of Android - the Android Open Source Project, free of the Google licensing requirements - but also free of the various Google apps - Gmail, Google Maps, (etc) and the Google Play stores and the - invisible to end users - Google Play Services. AOSP is used as the basis of Amazon's Android devices, the devices of a variety of Chinese phone manufacturers (mostly not available in North America), and custom 'aftermarket' installable versions of Android like CyanogenMod.

In updating CM 12 to CM 13, I had installed an updated version of the operating system that was no longer compatible with the older versions of Google apps and services installed on my phone.

And as the CyanogenMod blog underlines, I needed to update these 'in the same pass'. Trapped in error message hell, I couldn't update them now, after the fact.

All was not lost, however.

Hard restartI could hard-boot my phone - by pressing the power button and choosing to restart it, then as soon as it restarted, pressing the Volume Down and Power buttons at the same time. This loads a Start screen. Press the Volume Up or Down buttons to change that big green Start to read Recovery Mode. Press the power button to choose this.

Because I'd previously installed TWRP - Team Win Recovery Project - onto my phone (recommended!) I got a screen offering me a number of options; I chose to wipe the phone (sigh!) and restore a previously made backup, putting it back to the way it was in October, running the older CyanogenMod version. A step backwards, yes, but one that got me out of error message hell.

That allowed me to go to the website of the OpenGApps Project and download an installer for a set of Google Apps and services compatible with my phone's ARM processor and the new Android 6.0. (OpenGApps offers a variety of different-sized packages from Pico (described as 'the bare minimum to get Google Play functionality') to Super ('all Google apps ever shipped on a Google device').

With that download safely in my download folder, I again ran the over the air installer to CM13. But this time, immediately following the installation, I restarted back into Recovery Mode, this time using TWRP's install option, pointing it to the OpenGApps package. After that installed, I let it boot normally.

With the updated Google Apps installed, the new version ran as promised. (Mostly - it is a somewhat experimental nightly build. But that's a subject for a future blog posting).

The moral - you can update CM 12 to 13.... but unless you know to update your Google apps and play services at the same time, you won't be a happy camper! And the online articles that briefly mention the availability of the new version for your phone may not mention that.

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About This Blog...

I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Twitter or Google + for notice of new blog postings.
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