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Tracking the elusive Google 'cube'

Speculation that Google is about to launch an Internet appliance-like device for the home started last November and picked up speed this week on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Google co-founder Larry Page is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech. Here's a not-so-brief history of how this story started.

On Nov. 17, Robert Cringely wrote a column describing a Google project in which a data center is being built inside a shipping container. According to Cringely, "Google hired a pair of very bright industrial designers to figure out how to cram the greatest number of CPUs, the most storage, memory and power support into a 20- or 40-foot box. We're talking about 5000 Opteron processors and 3.5 petabytes of disk storage that can be dropped-off overnight by a tractor-trailer rig. The idea is to plant one of these puppies anywhere Google owns access to fiber, basically turning the entire Internet into a giant processing and storage grid."

The following week, after correcting a couple of mistakes in the first column, Cringely links Google's desire for data-centers-in-shipping-boxes to the home. "But the most important reason for Google to distribute its data centers in this way is to work most efficiently with a hardware device the company is thinking of providing to customers. This embedded device, for which I am afraid I have no name, is a small box covered with many types of ports--USB, RJ-45, RJ-11, analog and digital video, S-video, analog and optical sound, etc. Additional I/O that can't be seen is WiFi and Bluetooth. This little box is Google's interface to every computer, TV, and stereo system in your home, as well as linking to home automation and climate control. The cubes are networked together wirelessly in a mesh network, so only one need be attached to your broadband modem or router. Like VoIP adapters (it does that too, through the RJ-11 connector) the little cubes will come in the mail and when plugged in will just plain work."

Cringely's column caught the attention of analysts at Bear Stearns. On Dec. 19, the investment company issued a report on Google in which "Google Cubes" was the top bullet point under the paper's "key points."

"Through recent conversations with a technology pundit, we think Google could be experimenting with new hardware endeavors that could significantly change potential future applications by Google, creating another advantage for Google over its competitors. Investors may currently under appreciate Google as a potential hardware company."

Later in the report, the Bears Stearns analysts cite and summarize Cringely's first column on the data-centers-in-a-box. The report then continues: "In our conversations with Mr. Cringely, it appears that this may not be all that Google has up its sleeve on hardware. While Google is potentially thinking 'big,' it may also be thinking 'small,' 'very small.' Through our conversations, we have learned that Google may be considering developing Google Cubes (we have dubbed them this, as we are not sure what they could be called). Basically the device would be a small box with many connections ports on it, in addition to wireless (Bluetooth/WiFi). Its potential purpose: it could connect to your TV or PC, or PVR, or stereo. As long as one of them is connected to a broadband connection, the Cubes could form a mini mesh home network. What could this enable? Many things--the obvious applications would include: enabling IPTV to easily connect from the web to your TV and enabling the transfer of video downloads from the computer to the TV, enabling easy transferal of MP3s on your computer to your stereo (or vice versa), and VoIP connection to all existing phones in your home. However, the cubes could potentially work with your home security or even your home climate controls (imagine turning your air conditioning on in your home right before you leave work so that your house is cooler when you arrive, and you didn't waste money cooling it all day). Now imagine that you live in an apartment complex and the neighbors wanted to share 1 broadband connection--all the neighbors cubes could 'talk' to each other (if desired). However, should this be in Google's plans, it would take a lot of network support--enter another role of the widely distributed data center containers. One could even fathom the cubes (or one main cube) talking directly to a nearby data center container, which could eliminate the 'last mile' problem completely. The idea sounds intriguing but what would it cost? The cubes would be designed to be as 'dumb' as possible (which is the whole point of making the network the computer), and Google would probably subsidize them so that they cost $20 or maybe even free (like AOL CDs).

"HARDWARE CONCLUSION: We underscore to investors that for now, any potential development by Google of data center shipping containers and Google Cubes has not been confirmed. However, one could see how these ideas could prove interesting to Google, should they be feasible. Further, we think that at minimum investors should takeaway from this that Google is not just a software/programming company. In fact, Google could over time become more of a hardware company than anything else. At the very least, we think investors should at least consider these possibilities."

The report also noted that a conference call would be held "with technology analyst Robert X. Cringely to discuss hardware possibilities in more detail--please contact your Bear Stearns sales person for conference call information."

On New Year's Day, the Los Angeles Times jumped into the fray and added a retail wrinkle. "Sources say Google has been in negotiations with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., among other retailers, to sell a Google PC. The machine would run an operating system created by Google, not Microsoft's Windows, which is one reason it would be so cheap--perhaps as little as a couple of hundred dollars. Bear Stearns analysts speculated in a research report last month that consumers would soon see something called "Google Cubes"--a small hardware box that could allow users to move songs, videos and other digital files between their computers and TV sets."

That LA Times story was linked Tuesday on the Drudge Report, with this teaser: "REPORT: GOOGLE TO LAUNCH RETAIL COMPUTER; OPERATING SYSTEM, NOT WINDOWS?..."

And on Tuesday, Google issued this statement: "We have many PC partners who serve their markets exceedingly well and we see no need to enter that market; we would rather partner with great companies."