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Rumors of a 'Google phone' are almost as frequent as those of an Apple iTablet, but the search giant may indeed release some form of hardware platform in January.

Despite blog speculation, and even 'leaked photos', of full-blown Google smartphones, it is unlikely that the company will compete with its own licensees. Instead, we would expect it to release a series of reference designs that can be used, in particular, by low end or white label suppliers, to extend Android's reach - and that of Google's web services - beyond the smartphone.

Such designs could be harnessed, in particular, to drive closer cooperation between Google and various operators, notably Verizon Wireless, which plans to announce codeveloped devices to drive a midrange, own-branded web services strategy. Operators are increasingly aiming to create their own distinctive mobile web experiences to keep customers loyal, and Google wants to be part of that process, though arguably many carriers will find a more neutral platform like LiMO an easier bedmate (Vodafone has focused its own mobile web initiative, 360, on this Linux-based system).

The January launch will focus on a design that will harness the next iteration of Android, apparently known as Flan. Actual products, based on the designs but launched by Verizon or its vendor partners, would logically be the next step, possibly at Mobile World Congress in February.

Another strong possibility is that Google will indeed brand its own device, but in an emerging category where the cellcos are currently less important, such as tablets or what Qualcomm calls smartbooks. A touchscreen, large-screen device running on a gigahertz processor like Qualcomm's Snapdragon, with Android or even Google's browser/OS Chrome OS, is a distinct possibility for Mobile World Congress.

It would target netbook applications as well as media-heavy functions like gaming, and the branding and experience would be heavily centered on Google apps. Of course, this would appear in about the same timeframe, if the rumor mill is to be believed, as the much anticipated Apple tablet, which might also debut at Verizon.

Or could Google go really radical and put weight behind its open access vision, by debuting a product that takes on the open mobile web in a wholehearted way, bypassing carrier 3G altogether and perhaps running Chrome OS and WiMAX (remember Google is an investor in Clearwire and other WiMAX activities)?

Update

This story originally described the alleged 'Flan' as Android 2.0, but this is incorrect. Android 2.0 is already available.

Copyright © 2009, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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