Is the world's favourite search engine about to make that long rumoured push into the phone market?

The Wall Street Journal thinks so and has published reports that Google has been touting a prototype of its phone product, nicknamed the gPhone, in the States.

Apparently, the online behemoth has been "courting wireless operators to carry handsets customized to Google products, including its search engine, email and a new mobile web browser".

According to "people familiar with the plans" Google has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the phone project.

Google has gone as far as developing prototype handsets, had meetings about tech spec for any final products with phone manufacturers (LG especially) and has been in talks with mobile companies like T-Mobile, AT&T, Vodafone and Verizon.

Google's recent plans to bid for a chunk of wireless bandwidth in the States could have seen the company become a phone operator in its own right.

However, it was decided that not as much of the spectrum was going to be released as Google had hoped, and even if they chose to pursue that route it could be years before the scheme was ready for market.

So Google is going to the mobile phone operators with plans for the gPhone now in the hope of cashing in on the mobile phone advertising market, predicted to be worth $14 billion by 2011.

The Google-specified features for the gPhone are promising - cameras for photo and video, Wi-Fi - and - thankfully, 3G, as well as GPS.

People who have seen the prototypes say one option is a Nokia-style offering with a slide out keyboard while other formats are Treo or BlackBerry-esque.

Google has been tight-lipped about the plans, stating only:
"We are partnering with almost all of the carriers and manufacturers to get Google search and other Google applications onto their devices and networks".

It doesn't look like this is the full-on free, yet advertising supported mobile phone solution (which would be somewhat of a hard sell to operators) although these plans is still in the works according the the WSJ:

"Google even envisions a phone service one day that is free of monthly subscription charges and supported entirely through ad revenue."

Still in planning stages now, and with Google busy beavering away at a "sophisticated" new mobile browser, those previously quoted sources suggest a product will hit the market early next year.