day-in-the-cloud-planeGoogle and Virgin America just started their joint “Day in the Cloud,” a daylong event to promote both Google Apps (the company’s suite of web services like Gmail and Google Docs) and Virgin’s fleetwide wireless Internet access. To that end, Virgin is offering passengers an hour of free WiFi to log in to the event site and play the Day in the Cloud game, where they use Google Apps to accomplish different tasks. (Though you don’t have to be on a Virgin flight to play.)

Tom Oliveri (pictured), Google Apps’ director of product marketing, tells me he hopes to expose new users to Google web services and to help existing users explore those tools more deeply. Part of that, of course, is just showing off the “wow” factor of being able into access Gmail and other tools while you’re in the air. (Indeed, I’m writing this post on Google Docs while on a Virgin America flight.) The game shows off some of specific Apps features too, he says.

tom-oliveri1“What’s interesting is how connected they’re all becoming,” Oliveri says. “You’re right that something like Google Talk isn’t as widely used as Gmail, and one of the things we’re trying to do is help people learn to use all the products together, like sharing a document directly from Gmail’s [user interface].”

I played through one round of the game, and I have to say that my main impression is one I was already hearing from other players — the game is actually kind of hard; even though I use Google Apps every day, there were some tasks that had me puzzling over what to do. You’re not just typing in queries to Google search, but also accessing someone else’s Google Calendar, trying to decode jumbled messages in Google Docs, and so on.

Porter Gale, Virgin’s Vice President of Marketing, says the game has already been successful at publicizing Virgin’s WiFi, with an average of 40,000 people visiting the promotional site every day. That WiFi, by the way, went fleetwide in May, and is usually used by around 30 percent of people on each flight. It helps that Virgin has a particularly tech-savvy fanbase, Gale says — the airline’s data that among Virgin ticket-buyers, the most common place for them to use their credit cards is the Apple Store.

To kick off the day, Google and Virgin packed flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles this morning with executives, gamers, analysts, press, and others. The flights competed to win HP netbooks for every passenger on the flight with the higher score. Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as hoped, with many passengers having to wait 10 or 15 minutes to log in to the WiFi, and others not being able to get on at all. The passengers on my flight weren’t too grumpy about it, since Virgin decided to be generous and give everyone on both flights a netbook. But hopefully those problems don’t continue throughout the day, or else the “yay, cloud computing” event will also turn into a demonstration of the cloud’s occasional failures.