Today, Google announced that they plan to turn off the pages and files features in Google Groups “to focus on improving the core functionality of Google Groups — mailing lists and forum discussions”. Google Group members have until November to find a new home for their files and pages, and until February 2011 to retrieve them before they disappear. To facilitate this, Google has added a bulk export feature.
Admitting that this may inconvenience some users, Google reminds us that we can share pages with Google Sites and share files with Google Documents, both of which allow a Google Group to be used to control access.
Shared Files Are Not Core Functionality of a Mailing List?
Of course, core functionality of email groups software is mailing lists and forum discussions. I think of it as providing an email address and an inbox for a group. Send an email to the group, the mailing list sends the email to the group members. Log into the inbox and there is all the group email. Google Groups, Yahoo! Groups and OnlineGroups.Net all work this way, with the bearded GNU Mailman providing only an archive via the web.
Here at OnlineGroups.Net, however, we think that files are core functionality of a mailing list, too. If a group of people are engaged in conversation, whether by email or the web, they are going to want to share a photo, PDF or spreadsheet sooner or later.
GroupServer, the open source mailing list and discussion forum server that powers OnlineGroups.Net allows users to upload files either by email or the web. Files are displayed with the post that they relate to, as in this topic about our group home page redesign. Files can also be viewed on their own, or found by searching for text within the files.
Meanwhile old faithful GNU Mailman dishes files out to group members as attachments, just like regular email, and does not provide an online archive of files.
How About Pages Then?
Looking around the mailing list managers, clearly pages are not core functionality. Of course, it’s nice to have one page, for a description of the group. But the ability to create and edit a bunch of pages in the group context has, until now been the preserve of Google Groups. Even the new Yahoo! Groups has not acquired a pages feature, and with Mailman, well that’s what websites are for.
While you couldn’t call it core functionality, OnlineGroups.Net actually does have a simple page editing feature. Right now there is just one page per site, but the content editor works, and it supports versioning and permissions. It is a start that we plan to expand on, in some way, at some time. When we do that, GroupServer could look a lot like a CMS with an integrated mailing list manager. That’s how we use it for our own sites like GroupServer.Org and OnlineGroups.Net now. And it is where Google is heading.
Is a Mailing List Core Functionality of a Website?
It seems clear that Google is not trying to improve Google Groups as a stand-alone mailing list and discussion forum system, but is moving its users towards Google Sites, and integrating both Google Docs and Google Groups into those. And why wouldn’t they? A suite of applications integrated into a website makes good sense as a multi-purpose online collaboration space for a distributed team or organisation.
We are aiming to achieve the same thing eventually with GroupServer. We know, however that we are a fair way off that. When it happens, it will probably happen by integrating GroupServer with other tools that use similar frameworks. What will differentiate GroupServer at that point? One thing: freedom. Freedom to download and install the software, to look at the code and the data, and to control the implementation and customisation.
For now, we are focusing on one thing: making GroupServer and OnlineGroups.Net the best mailing list manager on the web. And Google just did us a favour. We have one more big difference to add to our feature comparison matrix. OnlineGroups.Net supports and will continue to provide a file library as core functionality.