Sorry, Google. The apps (and by that we mean appetizers) won out.

At long last there is proof of Google’s GOOG  long-anticipated smartphone. Late last week, the online advertising giant started handing out an Android-powered phone to employees. While refusing to detail the specs, the official Google mobile blog refers to it as a “mobile lab.”

The Googley vagueness continues on the blog, where it is described as, “A device that combines innovative hardware from a partner with software that runs on Android to experiment with new mobile features and capabilities.”

Of course, the gadget-obsessed immediately ran to the Federal Communications Commission to get those specs, and photos have been popping up all over. So, we now (mostly) know that it is a sleek-looking touch-screen phone made by HTC, powered by a high-end Qualcomm QCOM processor and featuring the latest Android 2.1 OS. From the looks of things, this GSM phone could operate on any number of networks abroad, but seems destined at least for T-Mobile in the United States.

With all the Googlers eager to show off their new gizmos, and this, the calendric peak of the holiday party season, it was inevitable that in the Bay Area at least, the two would combine.  Sure enough, a friend attending a holiday party over the weekend in San Francisco with a number of Google folks making merry was presented with the new phone. “Mostly, I wanted to see the photo of the engagement ring that was on it,” she says, requesting anonymity. “It wasn’t an iPhone, and besides, there were pigs-in-a-blanket and these really good mini-cheeseburgers, and I was hungry, so I didn’t pay too much attention. “ So there you have it.

Table stakes: iPhone quality hardware

Discounting for a moment that this occurred in gadget-jaded Silicon Valley (and that the mini-cheeseburgers were really good), it does offer a point worth examining. Great hardware is the minimum starting point in the smartphone market these days, and it doesn’t get anyone’s blood racing by itself. As a piece of hardware, the Google phone, dubbed the Nexus One according to employees, had better be on par with an iPhone. If not, as we have seen time and again with would-be competitors, it will be a non-starter.

Let’s assume Google’s phone is tip-top in the hardware department. What sells smartphones these days has as much to do with the software running the phone and the applications available as the hardware. Again, Apple AAPL leads the pack by a wide margin with its mobile apps store.

Google’s open-source mobile OS Android has been getting mostly good reviews, especially in its latest incarnation running on Motorola’s MOT Droid phone. What Google needs to do, however, is get more Android phones out there to attract more developers and get the critical application mass it needs.

What has everyone most excited at the moment is the (rumored) prospect that Google will sell its Nexus One as an unlocked, carrier-agnostic piece of gear starting in January. Fine, as long as the phone is still relatively cheap. If Google comes out with a $500 unlocked phone, it will fade as quickly as all of Nokia’s similar unlocked and pricey efforts.

But if Google sells its phone contract-free for the same $199 the iPhone sells for (with a two-year AT&T T contract) it will have a monster on its hands. How could that happen? Google, rather than a carrier could subsidize the phone, and make up the cost via mobile advertising (it just bought AdMob), or maybe just take a hit to build a market. Google can certainly afford it. Either way, Android gets very huge, very fast, and that is what Google really wants.

Would that upset Google’s roster of current Android customers, including Motorola, Samsung and some of the wireless carriers? Sure it would, but this isn’t about the old-school wireless ecosystem, it’s about the mobile Web and Google’s designs to own it. If Google wants it, it needs to step up. If not? Those pigs-in-a-blanket sure look good.