Google has dusted the cobwebs off its Groups discussion forum service with a redesigned interface and new features such as the ability to create and edit web pages and upload and share files.
Those and other new features had been available in a beta test version introduced last October, but the test is now over and the improvements have been implemented in the main Google Groups service.
The improvements attempt to give the relatively old Google Groups a facelift and keep it relevant as a tool for people to share information online. Once the most common way for people to form online communities, discussion forums must now compete with many newer services such as blogs, social networks, photo and video-sharing sites, social news and bookmarking sites, virtual worlds, multiplayer games and wikis.
Google Groups went live in February 2001 but it dates further back. Google launched it after acquiring Deja.com's Usenet Discussion Service, whose archive of forums and messages dated back to 1995.
The question is whether, in this era of Web 2.0, social media and user-generated content, it's worth investing time and effort in a discussion forum service such as Google Groups or instead let it fade into obsolescence.
At least one analyst believes keeping Google Groups alive is the right thing to do because discussion forums are still useful to people interested in exchanging information on specific issues in a simple, mostly text-based, and controlled online environment.
"Yes, you can argue that in the Web 2.0 world maybe discussion forums look a little dated," said Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst. "But while discussion forums may not seem very 2007, the inherent beauty that made the Usenet model so appealing is that it allows passionate, like-minded people with a very granular interest to come together, in more of a closed community."
Web 2.0 sites such as social networks and blogs, for now, seem to work best when they appeal to a broad, massive audience, and seem to wither and wilt if they can't reach a certain scale, Weiner said. "Google Groups is certainly not Web 2.0, but I would label it Web 1.5," he said.
Existing Google Groups users will see the new interface and features the next time they visit the site. Other improvements include the ability to customise the look of forums, along with a new layout for threaded conversations done in the style of Google's Gmail webmail service.
To join a Google Groups forum, users need only to provide a valid email address. Those with a Google Account get access to more features.