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Wolfram Alpha Live Review: The Un-Google
The already much discussed Wolfram Alpha official launch is Monday May 18, though the company has said they plan a “soft launch” starting tonight, with access gradually becoming available to everyone throughout the weekend. Some members of the press, like myself, have been able to directly use a preview version to test it out.
Expect to see a flurry of press coverage over the coming days relentlessly pursuing the angle of Wolfram Alpha being a potential “Google killer.” It’s not, and in fact Stephen Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, has tried to deflect the comparisons to Google. But given what we’ve seen with the introduction of other new information-finding services, such as the disastrous launch of Cuil, the comparisons seem inevitable.
“We are not a search engine. No searching is involved here,” Wolfram told Danny Sullivan in Impressive: The Wolfram Alpha “Fact Engine”. “The types of things that people are currently searching for have some overlap [with Google], but it isn’t huge. What’s exciting is that we have a whole new class of things that people can put into a input field and have it tell them what it knows.”
In his post, Danny offered a comprehensive overview of Wolfram Alpha based on demos and his conversation with Stephen Wolfram. He wrote:
“Wolfram Alpha is backed by Stephen Wolfram, the noted scientist and author behind the Mathematica computational software and the book, A New Kind Of Science. The service bills itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” which is a mouthful. I’d call it a “fact search engine” or perhaps an “answer search engine,” a term that’s been used in the past for services designed to provide you with direct answers, rather than point you at pages that in turn may hold those answers.”
So, to borrow an old advertising tagline from 7-Up, you might call Wolfram Alpha the “un-Google.”
I’ve been playing around with Wolfram Alpha for a couple of days. In all, I agree with Danny’s “impressive” verdict. And it functions in a way that’s very different than any other search engine I’ve ever used. Even beyond impressive, the words that best describe the experience of using Wolfram Alpha are “fun” and “enchanting.”
Wolfram Alpha’s interface allows you to enter queries in natural language. It then tries to disambiguate your query and present relevant facts, charts, illustrations and other supporting “tools.” If it can’t understand your query, you’ll see a “Wolfram Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input” message, Sometimes it doesn’t have enough information to work with; in these cases you see a “development of this topic is under investigation…” message.
The system also does intelligent things with non-query related information. For example, in calculating distance or physical space, it infers your location (presumably by reading your computer’s IP address) and adjusts numeric or chart/graph data accordingly.
When you’re first starting out using Wolfram Alpha, I’d recommend checking out the hundreds of pre-populated “examples” to see how certain types of queries are best structured. Many of these examples feature structured input fields (for example, weights, measures, dates, and so on) so you can express your question more specifically than with natural language.
Here are some examples showing what Wolfram Alpha can do that would be difficult to impossible to do in Google—or any other search engine, for that matter. You’ll be able to replicate these once Wolfram Alpha is available to everyone; I’m showing screen shots (rather than including links) because I’m working with preproduction test servers rather than the final system set to be launched later today.
I’m also focusing on categories that aren’t traditionally regarded as computationally intensive. Wolfram|Alpha excels at any type of numeric calculation, but it’s also surprisingly good at “computing” information with non-numeric data.
Note the dates, relevant facts, and map for Hurricane Delores in 1966.
This is a wonderful feature for anyone learning to play an instrument. Not only are notes for a B-flat minor seventh chord depicted in three different ways, there are also links to play either the individual notes or the complete chord.
Everything you want to know about your favorite pharmaceuticals, chemical compounds, and other substances.
Great for students or crossword puzzle solvers.
Nutrition & Food
Tempted to go off that diet?
Whether you’re painting your house or designing a web site.
Useful for certain SEOs…
You know who you are… :-)
What about Google?
Google can’t do many of these types of things using a single query—yet. At the recent Google Searchology event, a new experimental feature called “Google Squared” was demoed. Although it’s nowhere near as ambitious as Wolfram Alpha, Google Squared is trying to do similar things—essentially, trying to structure the data it finds on the web and present it in a spreadsheet-like results format. For a quick demo, check out What Is Google Squared? It Is How Google Will Crush Wolfram Alpha (Exclusive Video). Danny also has some thoughts about Google Squared in Up Close With Google Squared & Some Wolfram Alpha Thoughts.
So Google is working on it—and Google Squared will be released as an experiment in Google Labs later this month). For now, Wolfram Alpha is an entirely different beast than Google or any search engine, but nevertheless is something that most people are going to find incredibly useful when looking for facts.
Postscript From Danny Sullivan: Chris mentioned my Up Close With Google Squared & Some Wolfram Alpha Thoughts post, and I wanted to add the portion relevant to Wolfram Alpha here:
Moreover, since my initial Impressive: The Wolfram Alpha “Fact Engine” post, I’ve had a chance to use a live private version of the service directly. I already knew (as my original review mentions) that it had many gaps in its knowledge base. But running more queries also shows that even if Wolfram Alpha has information, you might not find it, if you haven’t asked in the right way. I’m doing a future post to explain this more.
I’m not sure if I’ll get to that longer look before the service actually goes live. When it does, it will be self-evident to many how much it misses (try “california tax revenue” or “gun deaths in united states” as examples of gaps in its knowledge). I’m still positive that it’s an impressive resource for dedicated searchers. But as I also wrote in my original review of the demo, it still faces a hefty awareness challenge to pull in ordinary searches that it hopes also to appeal to.