Quick, what's Google's oldest service? In a very real sense, it's not the Google search engine--it's Google Groups, which began life back in 1995 as an independent service called Deja News, which provided a Web-based gateway to the array of conversations that went on in Usenet newsgroups.
More than a decade later, and five years after Google bought Deja's Usenet archive and built Google Groups around it, that's still mostly what this service is about--and with postings going back to 1981, it's a remarkable research archive that documents a quarter-century of online discussion. But with much Net chatter having moved to Web-based venues, newsgroups aren't what they used to be. And for the first time since 2004, Google is rolling out a significant update to Groups, one that's less about Usenet and more about creating shared content that lives on the Web. (Note: I'm writing this before the new version is live--Google gave me a sneak peek--but that link should take you to it.)
The 2004 upgrade to Groups added the ability to create very, very simple special-interest discussions that group members could participate in on the Web or via e-mail. It was kind of like Yahoo's venerable Yahoo Groups feature--except that Yahoo provides quite a few features (including customization, photo uploading, polls, and more) and Google's version was remarkably barebones.
This new version of Google Groups, however, offers something that Yahoo Groups doesn't: the ability for group members to create Web pages collaboratively. This feature is a stripped-down variant of Google's Page Creator site designer--itself a pretty stripped-down offering. You can add text, photos, and hyperlinks and do some very basic formatting.
Like I said, the tools are basic. For some reason, you don't get Google Page Creator's templates, and the pages all live within your Google Group, in a section called Pages; you aren't really creating a full-blown Web site. And the text-input feature was a little quirky in my experiments, especially in Firefox.
But as with other Google services such as Google Spreadsheets, Groups what's interesting about Groups' new version isn't its traditional tools so much as its collaborative features. The members of a group can edit pages as, well, a group--the group's creator decides who can see and edit each page, and every version of each page gets saved, so you can skip back to earlier iterations if need be.
And what's interesting about this collaborative functionality is not so much its existing form as the obvious question it raises: What if Google started incorporating all of its Web-based productivity tools into Groups as workgroup features? A Groups that lets teams work with Google Spreadsheets, Writely documents, Google Calendar schedules, Google Base data, and other types of information could be really useful, and distinctly different from Yahoo Groups' offerings.
You gotta think that Google is thinking in this general direction; I asked a company representative what its plans are, and while she said that it doesn't have any announcements about future functionality, integration between Groups and other Google services sounded like a good idea. We'll see.
For now, Yahoo Groups still does multiple worthwhile things that Google Groups doesn't, such as let you create photo albums, polls, and basic databases. (Google Groups did add customizable color themes that are similar to Yahoo's.) Other than page creation, the biggest points in Google Groups' favor are its storage allowance (100MB--that may seem skimpy in an era of multi-gigabyte Gmail accounts, but it's 5X Yahoo Groups' 20MB) and the fact that it doesn't carry any advertising (on Yahoo Groups, ads abound).
Groups may still be pretty darn basic, but Google is on to something here. Let's just hope that the service evolves more quickly than it has in its first half-decade as a Google offering...
(Side note: I've mentioned before that Google Groups may have held some sort of record for staying in beta--a half-decade after Google acquired Deja, Groups was still labeled a beta. At some point in recent months, it lost that disclaimer...but with this new update, it's once again a beta.)