Geeks love jokes that require some level of smarts to appreciate, which is probably why April Fool’s Day pranks are so big with the techie set. For example, the Internet Engineering Task Force releases a faux-RFC on the first of every April, once even asking for feedback on a protocol for omniscience, and BMW annually touts a humorously fictional technical innovation for its luxury cars, like insect deflector shields. And then there’s Google.

Our benevolent search engine overlords have made a habit of producing headline-grabbing product announcements every April 1st. It all started in 2000, when Google revealed the MentalPlex, a new search engine technology that finally solved the long-running inconvenience of having to actually type a search query by instead simply reading the user’s mind.

The April Fool’s shenanigans resumed in 2002 when Google mocked the budding ranks of search engine optimizers screeching that they didn’t know how PageRank worked (and thus couldn’t game the system). The answer? PigeonRank, a search hierarchy run by humanely treated trained pigeons. (Scam that system, black hatters.)

Then, in 2004, Google mocked its own reputation as an almost science-fictionally geek-friendly workplace when it started “hiring” for positions at its new branch office — on the surface of the moon! The Google Copernicus Center grabbed serious online buzz, and Google has maintained the tradition of annual April Fool’s announcements every year since:

  • Google Gulp (2005) – An energy drink that supposedly boosted drinkers’ intelligence, allowing them to use Google more efficiently.
  • Google Romance (2006) – An online dating service powered by Google’s search algorithm, offering “contextual dates.”
  • Google TiSP (2007) – A Toilet Internet Service Provider that mocked Internet-via-power-line services by promising broadband ‘net access via your sewer line.
  • AdSense for Conversations (2008) – One of about a dozen hoaxes in ’08, this product offered to serve contextual ads — via a large LCD whiteboard hat — based on what you say out loud to other human beings.

While these April Fool’s traditions garner Google loads of positive publicity and enhance the brand as a fun place to work, they have upon occasion backfired. In one rather notorious instance, Google announced a real product on April 1st, one so apparently too-good-to-be-true that observers initially assumed it was an April Fool’s prank.

WHAT REAL — AND HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL — GOOGLE PRODUCT WAS ASSUMED TO BE AN APRIL FOOL’S HOAX WHEN FIRST RELEASED?

Get the answer.

What real announcement for a highly successful Google product was assumed to be the latest in the company’s long line of April Fool’s hoaxes — both because the product seemed too good to be true, and because Google made the “mistake” of announcing it just before April 1st?

Some of you may be reading the newsletter version of this very column via the product in question, as Gmail was released on March 31, 2004. Some have suggested that Google timed the product release intentionally to imply it was a prank, if only to capitalize on the word-of-mouth marketing that would result when users realized that Gmail was in fact a serious product.

For the sake of context, Gmail was released with one gigabyte of storage at a time when other competing free Web mail products were placing restrictions on storage — often in the range of less than 10 megabytes. (In-house e-mail storage issues were also becoming an increasing issue for corporate IT administrators, thanks to the archive requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.) The idea that Google would give away a gigabyte of storage for a free product seemed impossible.

Google went back to the same publicity stunt in 2005, announcing that Gmail storage was doubling to two gigabytes. Astute observers weren’t so incredulous this time around, though many folks still thought Google’s Ride Finder service, released the same day, was a joke. (Granted, Ride Finder is now defunct, so maybe the nonbelievers were on to something.)

In 2007, the Gmail hoax came full circle, as new fake features for Gmail became a signature April Fool’s prank from Google. In 2007, users were offered Gmail Paper (as in, a print function), which was touted as an analog version of the e-mail system that would be supplemented by couriers (mail carriers) who visit a Gmail box outside your house. In 2008, a whole host of Gmail hoax options appeared, but the most high profile was Gmail Custom Time, which let you send e-mails backwards in time to create alibis and excuses.

That’s not just some snarkily circular verisimilitude; it’s an annually ostentatious example of offbeat Geek Trivia.

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