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Google Pixel offers cold comfort to silent partner

HTC actually made the Pixel phone, not that you could tell from Tuesday's Google event.

James Martin/CNET

The Google Pixel phone was quietly built by HTC.

James Martin/CNET

HTC needed a break.

It got just that when Google chose the veteran phone manufacturer to produce its newest flagship phones, the Pixel and Pixel XL. The partnership is a testament to strong relationship between Google and HTC, which was also tapped to build the original Android phone, the G1, as well as the first Nexus phone, the Nexus One.

That courtesy, however, did not extend to the actual Pixel unveiling. Google never uttered its longtime partner's name during the roughly 90-minute presentation Tuesday.

That's the kind of semi-win, semi-loss situation that has come to define HTC. The company has a buzz-worthy product in its Vive virtual-reality headset, but its core phone business has struggled. It builds beautifully designed products, but they're often ignored.

As a result, the HTC name sits on the periphery of consumer awareness. You might have recognized it once and even coveted one of its phones at one point, but it's a faded memory. So will the Pixel partnership get folks looking at HTC again?

Probably not.

HTC was just happy to have a part in one of the highest-profile phones of the year.

"We're proud that when Google needed an industry-leading partner for the Pixel, HTC was the clear answer," said HTC spokesman Jeff Gordon.

Google, meanwhile, emphasized the role it played in developing the Pixel.

"There is no HTC branding because this is a Google phone that brings together premium hardware by multiple partners to serve a best in class software experience for users," said a company spokesman.

The deal to be a silent partner hearkens back to HTC's early days as a contract manufacturer, when it built phones for companies like Hewlett-Packard and Palm, which would slap on their own logos.

"HTC started out as an original device manufacturer, so this is partly the company returning to its roots," said Avi Greengart, who covers consumer products for Consumer Analysis.

Not content to let others take the credit, HTC launched its own brand in 2009 with a global marketing campaign. By 2012, it was the fourth-largest smartphone maker in the world, according to IDC. Today, it's been shunted into the "other" category, too small to warrant individual mention.

As such, industry observers see the deal as a slight positive only because Google is throwing some manufacturing business at HTC. It's just the latest product the company has built with better-known partners. It developed the Vive headset in cooperation with video game software maker Valve, and it has built a family of connected health-tracking devices for clothing maker Under Armour.

Few lasting benefits

It's unlikely you're going to wake up today and realize you want an HTC phone.

At least with Google's previous strategy of building Nexus phones, partners like HTC or LG could share in the buzz that comes from a phone with the latest version of Android. Google would talk up its partners during the product unveiling.

By moving to the Pixel brand, the search titan is sending a message to consumers and partners alike that this is the first true Google phone. HTC will get minimal recognition, if any.


The HTC 10 did not resonate with consumers.


"It's way too inside baseball -- most consumers have never heard of HTC, and even fewer will know that Pixel is made by HTC," Greengart said.

HTC's own flagship One series has floundered, including this year's HTC 10. Meanwhile, the company's revenue dropped amid continued losses in the second quarter.

While the extra business will help HTC's bottom line, it isn't sustainable, according to IDC analyst Ramon Llamas. Google has traditionally hopped from one partner to another and could do the same with the next Pixel phone.

Llamas took it a step further, questioning whether the Nexus program offered enough tangible benefits to any of its partners. While Nexus phones drew a lot of buzz from the hardcore Android crowd, mainstream consumers have gravitated towards Android phones from the likes of Samsung and LG. The situation is likely even worse now with the Pixel.

"I don't see anyone getting much of a halo effect from being the manufacturer of Google's devices," he said.

That's little comfort to one of Google's oldest partners.