HTC logo

With less than a week to go before launch, Android fans are eagerly expecting Google's Pixel phones. But just a couple of months back, the idea of a fully Google-branded phone hadn't yet dawned, and instead the rumor mill swirled around two new HTC Nexuses. (Marlin and Sailfish, if you want to get really nerdy.)

The difference is an important one. As we've already explored, the Nexus program was much more a partnership between Google and its chosen manufacturer. Although in recent years Google has hogged the limelight, there's still a Huawei logo on the back of the 6P, and it still appears right there on the manufacturer's website, alongside the likes of the P9 and Mate 8.

'Nexus' and 'Pixel' mean vastly different relationships between Google and the manufacturer partner.

With the Pixel phones being pitched as the first handsets "made by Google," the relationship becomes vastly different. Essentially, HTC becomes an ODM — an original device manufacturer, which assists in the design and manufacture of the end product, but basically works to Google's direction. Ideally, an ODM should be invisible to the consumer. (Most people buying iPhones, for instance, don't know that they're manufactured and assembled by a company called Foxconn.)

Then again, Foxconn doesn't also directly compete with Apple — it doesn't stick its own logo on the back of phones and sell them in carrier stores, like HTC does. And because of the transition from Nexus to Pixel, people who follow these things in the Android space are very much aware of HTC's role in making the Pixel phones.

Yet when Hiroshi Lockheimer or Sundar Pichai takes to the stage on October 4, don't expect any mention of the company that's actually making the first phones "made by Google." (Even if most of the journalists in the room know the Pixel and Pixel XL come out of the same factories as the HTC 10.)

Xperia X1 Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, made by... HTC!

HTC is no stranger to the ODM game.

Of course HTC is no stranger to the ODM game. Before it was a big brand in smartphones, it made phones for Sony Ericsson, Palm and others. To some degree or other, HTC's smartphone endeavors have always been about strategic partnerships in which it was the junior member. And following a rapid decline in its own phone business, perhaps it's not surprising to see HTC going back to its roots. Its two other business areas — connected devices and VR — have centered around partnerships with Under Armor and Valve. A closer partnership with Google is an extension of that for its phone biz.

But there is a certain tragedy to the possibility that best-selling HTC-made phones of 2016 might not even bear its logo — considering that the HTC 10 doesn't seem to have moved the needle much, and that Google has vast resources to deploy to market the Pixels. Depending on the terms of its agreement with Google, HTC might not even be able to take credit for its role in creating two of the year's most interesting Android handsets. (The "made by Google" marketing line makes this vanishingly improbable.)

HTC needs cold, hard cash more than brand exposure, though. And selling what's likely to be millions of phones to Google as an ODM will be a great way to boost the bottom line, ensuring HTC is still around to sell its own phones in the years to come.

It's an important deal for HTC, to be sure, but at the same time sign of just how far it's fallen since the glory days.

Google Pixel + Pixel XL