Over the next few days, you're going to hear a lot of spin about "Google phones" and how the Google Pixel and Google Pixel XL smartphones, which are presumably being announced at an event in San Francisco tomorrow, are "made by Google." Even the promotional URL is madeby.google.com.
Google could very well create a solely Google-branded phone, entirely engineered by Google, with the help of a manufacturing partner that likes to sit in the background and just follow orders, like Apple does with Foxconn. And then it could sell that phone, everywhere, aggressively, making itself one of the leading high-end smartphone firms in the world.
But Google isn't doing that. Google has participated in phone design for six years now with its Nexus line. The Pixel phones have been known for months now as the HTC Sailfish and HTC Marlin. HTC has a long history of co-developing and designing devices with partners. That includes Google's original Nexus One and the first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1. Notice that the G1 didn't have the HTC name anywhere on it, but that didn't make it a "Google phone."
Really, the only difference between the most recent Nexus phones and the upcoming Pixel phones seems to be that the name of the manufacturer, HTC, won't be on the body of the device.
The real shift from Nexus to Pixel, I suspect, isn't about how the phone is made or designed. It's in how Google wants to sell it. The Nexus devices were always first and foremost developer phones, giving developers a "clean" copy of Android on which to test apps. Pixel devices may be targeted at high-end consumers as well.
But unlike Apple, Google still has a reason not to try hard to sell many phones.
Why Google Won't Sell Too Many Pixels
Unlike Microsoft, Google's OEM partners have other places to turn. Microsoft can help drive Windows laptops forward with its Surface line in part because laptop makers don't have any other good OS options. They've tried Linux in the past, and they've seen few sales. They can't go with macOS. Consumers and businesses both want either Windows or macOS on their desktops and laptops. So manufacturers will put up with Surface as a competitor.
Google's money comes not from hardware, but from services and data collection. Although "Android" is the global dominant mobile OS, that doesn't mean mobile firms need to go with Google's Android—the version containing all of the Google services and Google data collection. China has an entire separate "Chinese Android" ecosystem. BlackBerry and Samsung have both shown how BlackBerry 10 and Tizen can run Android apps, if necessary. In the mobile realm, Google's position is less secure than that of Microsoft.
In part to keep its manufacturer partners calm, the Nexus devices have always been hard to buy, at least in the US. Yeah, sure, we've seen Nexus TV ads, but Google has never pushed them hard at retail. Most recently, Nexus phones have been sold online and unlocked only, when 90 percent of Americans get their (mostly Apple and Samsung) phones through wireless carriers. That gets Nexus devices into the hands of the developers and geeks who really want them, without rocking the boats of Samsung, LG, HTC, and other Android licensees. I can't see this changing with the Pixel, because Google's position is still insecure.
Just Because We Want It, Doesn't Mean We'll Get It
Why do we want a "Google phone," anyway? Google's products are best known for speed, simplicity, and clarity. (Although in real life, that isn't always the case: look at Google's hideous mess of messaging apps.) But to differentiate themselves, Android phone makers tend to fill their phones with cruft which slows them down. And nearly every Android device except Nexus gets updates late, if ever. At the high end, the only manufacturer close to Google's "stock" Android build that we can think of is Motorola.
There's no sign the overall situation is going to change tomorrow. We'll see a good Android 7.1 phone with a lot of cool features that happens to look like an iPhone. It might even be an Editors' Choice. We won't see a heavily marketed, Google-designed phone available on all four major carriers with a sales push that unseats Samsung in the front of carrier stores across the nation.
The Pixel phones aren't made by Google. They probably won't be sold in a new way. That doesn't mean they're bad. HTC makes great phones, and Android 7.1 will have great features. But if you're looking for a game changer, these aren't your Droids.