Earlier this month, Google released two new smartphones: the Google Pixel and the Google Pixel XL. These devices are in some respects similar: both use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chipset backed up by 4 GB of RAM with at least 32 GB of internal storage. They both use an AMOLED panel, stock Google Android 7.1 Nougat and the same Sony-manufactured 12MP rear camera. Both of these phones are manufactured by HTC, but you will not see the HTC’s logo on the device, or in any of Google’s marketing material. Instead, you’ll find a single “G” on the back of the device and Google’s engineers proudly state that the Google Pixel is their device from the ground upwards: their hardware design, their software. Although HTC have been contracted as the manufacturer, it would appear that they are to Google as Foxconn is to Apple – an original device manufacturer, or “ODM,” with no input in any respect of the the design of the device.
Given HTC’s experience in the Android ecosystem – they manufactured the very first Android device and have been involved ever since, including designing with Google the first Nexus device, the Nexus One – it might seem unusual for Google to completely ignore their expertise. We have also seen reports that Google and HTC worked together on the hardware design of the Pixel, but given how it is difficult to manufacture a smartphone today that doesn’t look like another manufacturer’s product, it is difficult to draw a conclusion from this. When the Google Pixel family are pulled apart, there is little evidence to show that HTC manufactured or had input in any design decisions. And over at XDA Forums, the team have been piecing together some unusual changes in the source code for the Google Pixel XL device that point towards HTC having had some involvement in the design.
One clue is that both Pixel devices have a Google-internal codename in a similar fashion to previous Nexus devices, being called “Marlin” and “Sailfish.” This suggests that the Google Pixel and Google Pixel XL were originally designed as 2016 Nexus devices but along the design process, the remit was changed and the devices were rebranded with “Pixel” instead. Nexus devices are co-designed with the host manufacturer, which suggests that for at least the early part of the design process HTC were as involved with the Pixel devices as any other manufacturer with their Nexus devices. However, whilst this might make sense, there is scant evidence of this. After investigation, XDA Recognized Developer, Bumble-Bee, spotted that a HTC engineer removed a reference to “htc_cerberus” from the sepolicy line of the Marlin device source code back in August. This might represent Google and HTC removing evidence of their collaboration. Another developer, @jcase, tweeted that the bootchain for the Google Pixel family is: “a standard HTC bootchain with some hardening/changes.” This doesn’t reveal much, but @jcase is experienced with HTC bootloaders and also suggests that the Pixel family were originally co-designed with HTC. Over 350 additional commits to the Markin and Sailfish kernals have been spotted with a clearly visible link to HTC: it very much appears that the Pixel devices were co-designed with HTC.
What does this mean for the customer? Not so much as it happens. That Google partnered up with an experienced – arguably the most experienced – Android manufacturer to release it’s own branded device is encouraging. That HTC have worked with Google to design and manufacturer the Google Pixel family is also encouraging. It doesn’t matter if the Google Pixel was originally going to have “HTC Google Nexus” in the name together with whatever designation used at the end; the end result is one of the finest Android devices to date and something able to take on the rest of 2016’s flagship devices with the backing of one of the largest and most successful software companies in the world, Google.