Wolfram Alpha Takes the Web by Storm, But What Is It?

May 18, 2009 07:00 PM
by Rachel Balik
The newly available search engine Wolfram Alpha offers an entirely new approach to searching online; should Google feel threatened?

Wolfram Alpha, the “Answer Machine”

After weeks of speculation about how Wolfram Alpha will alter the search engine landscape, the new tool is finally ready to be tested by the public. Developed by Wolfram Research, Wolfram Alpha was initially designed with academics in mind. The Independent reports that Wolfram Research’s head, Dr. Stephen Wolfram, has said that his goal is to curate, collect and make use of all the information of acquired by researchers over the years. For example, not only can the tool do things like provide geography statistics, but it can also offer supplemental data such as “geographical location and nearby towns, and other mountains, complete with graphs and charts.”

The tech world is buzzing about whether Wolfram Alpha will be more successful than Google. Dr. Wolfram calls his tool a “supplement” to Google, not a challenger to the ubiquitous search engine.

In fact, it might not really make sense to compare the two. Nova Spivack, CEO of the search company, told NPR’s “On the Media” that Wolfram Alpha is not actually a search engine; rather, it’s an “answer machine.” Spivack explains how Wolfram Alpha could, for example, quickly tell a user how many calories are in a Fluffernutter. It wouldn’t do so by specifically looking up the calorie count for a Fluffernutter; rather, it would aggregate individual calorie information for peanut butter, marshmallow and bread. That’s why Wolfram Alpha is revolutionary: the answers supplied by the tool do not already exist on the Web. They are “created” each time a user asks a question, drawing from the relevant information in the system.

Opinion and Analysis: Wolfram Alpha is no “Google killer”

While Google delivers search results based on a word or phrase, Wolfram Alpha will actually answer questions and make statistical comparisons using data. Although Google and Wolfram Alpha actually perform different functions, that hasn’t stopped observers such as from speculating about Wolfram Alpha’s potential business model and wondering how similar it will be to Google’s. Forbes notes that all the various methods of computation used by the new engine have to be entered by hand, a system that may not be financially viable.

Two CNET staffers appear to have more information about the business model: apparently, Wolfram Alpha will “sell subscriptions to advanced users who want to do thing[s] like blend their own custom data with Alpha’s engine. The bad news is that that's a business dependent on a smaller, elite set.” Regarding that latter point, CNET reporter Stephen Shankland observed that the kind of information delivered by Wolfram Alpha was not the kind that average people were looking for; CNET editor Rafe Needleman said more pointedly, “I wouldn’t dream of pointing my parents at this.”

Needleman praised the site’s potential for “answer[ing] questions that have never been asked before,” but had difficulty wording the questions. He reports the site failed to deliver an acceptable response to his queries at least 80 percent of the time. While Shankland commended the site for its beautiful presentation, he also called it as unpredictable as “consulting the oracle.” Ultimately, while Wolfram Alpha may prove a valuable addition to the search engine universe, neither writer saw it as a threat to Google.

Reference: Wolfram Alpha

A preliminary version of Wolfram Alpha is available on the company Web site. Test out the service, get FAQs or read the company blog.

Listen to Dr. Stephen Wolfram, head of Wolfram Research, discuss the search engine and offer a sneak preview in a videotaped presentation available on YouTube.

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