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Google Android tablet rumored to be around the corner

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(Read caption) A customer checks out an Apple iPad at a store in New York City. If the rumors are accurate, Google is preparing an Android tablet, which would go head-to-head with the iPad. What would a Google tablet look like? It's anyone's guess.

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Google is close to rolling out an Android tablet computer that would go head-to-head with the heavily-buzzed – and hot-sellingApple iPad. That's the rumor today from Ashlee Vance and Nick Bilton of The New York Times, and although Google is keeping mum, the Times report already has hundreds of technophiles frothing at the mouth.

According to the report, Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently told friends about the tablet device at an LA party. "People with direct knowledge of the project – who did not want to be named because they said they were unauthorized to speak publicly about the device – said the company had been experimenting in 'stealth mode,' with a few publishers to explore delivery of books, magazines and other content on a tablet," Vance and Bilton write.

If the news is accurate, the Google tablet would be merely the next step in the recent rivalry between Apple and Google. The two tech giants have clashed repeatedly over the mobile phone market, where the Nexus One and iPhone go head to head, and over Google Voice, a VoIP application which Apple has repeatedly rejected from its App Store.

Last month, new Google hire Tim Bray took to his personal blog to lambast the App Store, which he called a "Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger. I hate it. I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient."

No news yet on specs or pricing for the hypothetical Google tablet. Here's what we do know: A Google tablet would run the Android operating system, which many bloggers see as a major leg up over the Apple iPad.

"A Google tablet could be the only tablet capable of actually challenging the iPad," Wired's Charle Sorrel notes. "It would also have some advantages. Google’s services, for one. Apple still doesn’t get the cloud, and getting data on and off the iPad is still largely done over a USB cable. Android is also the only other real player in apps with the Android Marketplace. It is way behind the iTunes App Store in numbers, but is at least in second place."

"Even if you’re a huge fan of the iPad, having Google nipping at its heels will keep Apple focused and everyone will benefit," Sorrel adds. "At least the free market is good for something."

It's worth remembering, of course, that Google hasn't made much of a dent on the smart phone market dominated by Apple. Or, at least its prize pony hasn't.

As Horizons blogger Chris Gaylord recently noted, Apple took 74 days to sell its first million iPhones. The Motorola Droid sold 1.05 million phones in approximately the same time frame. "Compared to these big names, the Nexus One had a pretty wimpy opening," Gaylord writes. "Shoppers picked up only 135,000 of the Google phones in the first 74 days."

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On the other hand, that's only one phone. Android, as a whole, is currently the fastest growing phone operating system. A few more months of catching up and we might have a real race on our hands.

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