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Will Google say hello to IM?

Company downplays rumors, but new clues keep speculators buzzing about secrets of "Fluffy Bunny."

Google watchers abuzz about the search darling's new desktop tool are already betting on its next product: instant chat.

Such speculation isn't new, but it's gained legs as some intriguing facts have come to light this week. First, although few people seem to realize it, Google already owns an instant-messaging (IM) client called Hello that it picked up this summer with its acquisition of photo-sharing service Picasa.

Meanwhile, code uncovered in the Google Desktop Search tool released Tuesday suggests that the company may have broader plans to integrate IM into its growing list of products.

Richard Smith, a well-known security consultant, said he examined the code in the desktop application and found included in the program files a new protocol: "google_im://". (A protocol allows desktop software to interact with the Web browser.) "This is a good sign there's an IM client," he said.

A Google representative said the protocol flagged by Smith does not hint at a pending Google IM product; rather, it is merely a component used to capture IM data from America Online Instant Messenger and make it searchable on the desktop.

Smith also unearthed some of the history behind the desktop search application, the most ambitious new product launch for Google since its $1.7 billion initial public offering earlier this year. For example, before it was named Google Desktop Search, the software was code-named Total Recall, according to a file name detected in the software by Smith. Google confirmed the handle and said the project had also previously taken the code name "Fluffy Bunny."

Right or wrong, the guesswork is a seemingly irresistible sport among technology buffs and investors, driving endless speculation about Google's next steps and perpetuating a Wonka-like mystique about the company. Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, founded in 1998, has also been rumored in the last year to be working on a Web browser, a thin-client operating system, and a searchable digital archive of library and reference material, supposedly code-named Project Ocean.

To be sure, it's not a stretch to imagine Google's future. Just look at its past. In six years, the company has gone from a straightforward search engine to a Web portal extraordinaire, with an advertising network, comparison shopping service, e-mail and Web publishing products.

Perhaps half the fun in the conjecture is the detective work involved in tracking a highly secretive company.

Smith ran a string utility search on the binary files in the desktop application, found the protocol "googlemail://" and next to it "google_im://." He speculated that the Google e-mail protocol could eventually help the desktop application interact with the company's free Web-based search service, Gmail.

Web loggers at the Digital Life conference in New York were atwitter with the possibilities of a Google IM tool.

Google has incorporated Picasa's photo-sharing technology into its Blogger Web publishing service to help people publish photos to their blogs. But it has largely kept Picasa's IM technology under wraps.

"It's a good bet that as Google integrates Picasa better with the rest of its services, Hello will be its chat client, with full feature support for Gmail and Google Desktop. And if you are worried about security, Google claims that it's more secure than AOL Instant Messenger," said Nathan Weinberg, who runs the InsideGoogle blog.