There’s a way in which the just-released iPhone version of Wolfram Alpha makes more sense than the web version. The web version suggests a Google-like general search engine, which it is not; it’s a “computational” or “fact engine” with a more limited range of use cases. It does what it does well — offer a range of data, calculations and statistics often in a graphical form — but often there are also no results or no directly relevant results for general or conventional search queries.
But holding Wolfram in your hand on the iPhone suggests a “calculator,” which it more closely resembles (especially with the additional keys pictured on the home screen). In addition, there’s a good deal of instruction on how and when to use it, together with example queries and associated results.
I found in testing it over the weekend that I would be much more inclined to use the iPhone version than the online version of the engine. I would even say it was more “fun.” As an added bonus, you can also get access to Google search through the iPhone Wolfram; every result gives users the option to “search the web” (via Google) for any query entered.
But rather than the user experience or capabilities, most people writing about the app today seem to be focused on the app’s price: $49.99. I asked Wolfram’s PR people what the rationale behind the pricing was in an email. Here was what they said:
$49.99 is basically less than 1/2 the price of a graphing calculator with inferior functionality in comparison, which is how the company came to that number. Or, as we’ve been saying, the price of 12 lattes from Starbucks…
Also, looking at the other apps that are $50+, we think that we’re of at least comparable in utility and functionality, if not more. And, part of what the company is also doing is making a statement about the non-trivial nature of WolframAlpha’s capabilities, what we are bringing to the iPhone in terms of making it a more useful device, and how much the system has matured since launch.
When internet radio purveyor Pandora launched its iPhone app it transformed the company and sent it on the road to mainstream visibility and increased revenues. A similar though less spectacular gain might be in order for Wolfram, but for the price. Nonetheless the $50 price tag was a bold statement about the value of the app. And there may be some discounting in the future. We’ll have to wait and see.
By the same token the price has certainly gotten everyone’s attention and thus probably generated more coverage than the app might otherwise have if it had been free. I don’t think that was part of the plan exactly but it may work to get more people to take a closer look . . . and a few of them to shell out the big money.