Google's 7-inch Android tablet is real — it's even being passed around inside the Googleplex.
That's what I'm hearing from Googlers who have seen the device. Backing up what's been rumored for months on CNET, Digitimes and other sites, I'm hearing that this device is aimed squarely at Amazon's Kindle Fire (which runs Amazon's tailored version of Android). It's likely to start in the $200 to $250 range, have a higher resolution screen, and perhaps a camera.
Google needs this tablet to defend Android. The arrival of Amazon's Kindle Fire blew a hole in the ecosystem, with Amazon setting up its own app store and its own look and feel for Android itself. If this 7-inch tablet is a hit, Google can argue that developers should still build tablet apps to Google's specs, not Amazon's.
When will we see it? The Google I/O developer conference on June 25 in San Francisco would be an ideal time to unveil it and maybe hand a few out to developers.
What does it mean for Apple? My take is that it means very little. If Apple's iPad sales were going to get hurt by 7-inch tablet sales, the Kindle Fire would have done it already. Apple is aiming at the higher-end tablet customer, who so far seems to be the larger and more profitable group of consumers.
It's just as likely as not that a 7-inch Google tablet will actually help Apple. While there will be plenty of confusing options at the low end of the market, with the Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble's Nook, BlackBerry's PlayBook and now the Google device, there's just one strong tablet at the higher end: the iPad.
And don't forget: Apple is sure to unveil new iPad features with iOS 6 at its Worldwide Developers Conference in three weeks. That will make the tablet competition even more interesting.