I haven't played CMANO either, but I have watched some videos about it so I roughly know what it is about.
As Alpha77 says it is indeed more an operational type of game and not a strategic board game like WITPAE is.
Also it covers a much broader range of history, I think the earliest possible Scenarios start in the 1950s so you can basically play from the beginning of the cold war to modern day and that on a global scale.
And it has a integrated sandbox mode where you can play around with fictional scenarios as much as you like.
So it is a far more versatile game than WITPAE and targets a much broader audience which is likely its reason for its success.
I actually don't know if it is really far more popular than WITPAE. Luckily with steam, we got some tools at our disposal through which we can analyze, namely the website called steamcharts.
It shows you how many people are currently playing a game and how many played since the release of the game on a timeline.
This doesn't necessarily reflect how many sales a game moved, but it does reflect how popular a game is and how loyal its players are.
Looking at CMANO it has roughly 75 players who play it on average at any given time.
As WITPAE is not on steam I looked up WITE1 for reference and it had slightly lower number for active players with a rough average of 65 players.
At least before the release of WITE2, the number dropped rapidly after that.
So assuming that this ratio also applies for the matrix store and WITE is more popular than WITPAE, it can be indeed safely said that CMANO is more popular than WITPAE.
But given the age of WITPAE it is also very much possible that it moved far more copies over its lifetime than CMANO has as of now and also that WITPAE had far greater number of average players at some point during its life than it has now. So it is very hard to compare the two games given their different age alone, so to conclude I think they are indeed apple and oranges as you said.
On another interesting note: I also looked up War in the West while I was at it and it has a far lower number of active player with an rough average of 10 players.
I would dare to claim that WITPAE has more than 10 players playing it at any given time looking at the activity of this forum alone, so economically speaking a WITP2 would probably be more viable than a WITW2.
Thanks for these insights. It seems to me that with any game, assuming the tech is already there, the research part can be the most time-consuming. WITP:AE has already done that - they have the names of ships, squadrons, pilots, leaders, dates of arrival, performance aspects of airframes, hulls and weapons, etc. So they wouldn't have to start from scratch, and could work with the CMANO engine, if it is as sandbox as you describe.