Google plans today to release another beta version of its free, downloadable PC and web search application that expands the functionality of the product's Sidebar feature, a panel that provides information from a variety of information sources.

In the Google Desktop 3.0 beta, the Sidebar can be broken up into individual panels, which can in turn be placed in different parts of the screen, according to Sundar Pichai, director of product management at the firm. The Sidebar panels give users access to email, news, weather, photos, stocks, syndicated website feeds and other sources of information.

Another enhancement to the Sidebar is the ability to share content with other users by sending it directly to their Sidebar or via IM (instant messaging) – in both cases thanks to an integration with the Google Talk IM service, so both users need to be logged into Google Talk. Content can also be shared via email, by launching an interface from Sidebar. To share directly from one Sidebar to another, both users must have Google Desktop 3.0 beta installed. This isn't a requirement for sharing content via Google Talk or email.

This new collaboration and sharing capability is the upgrade's most compelling feature, because it adds a social computing dimension to the product, said Greg Sterling, an analyst at the Kelsey Group. Because Google Desktop's functionality can be extended through its APIs (application programming interfaces), it will be interesting to see how third-party developers broaden this social computing aspect of the product, he said.

Beyond the Sidebar enhancements, the application's new version also lets users search for information across two or more of their computers. This way, someone could search their work PC from their home PC. To use this feature, Google Desktop 3.0 beta must be installed in each computer and the 'search across computers' feature enabled. After a user chooses files he or she wants to be able to find on all the computers, Google will make copies of the full text of all those files and put them on each computer. The copies of the files will contain no special formatting or pictures. During the replication process, the files will be temporarily stored on Google servers.

Google Desktop 3.0 beta currently runs on Windows XP and Windows 2000 Service Pack 3.0 and above. It is currently available in English, but Google plans to release versions in 15 other languages later.

The application can be downloaded here.

The enterprise version of Google Desktop is still on version 2.0, so these features haven't been added to it.