Is Wolfram Alpha a threat to Google's search engine dominance? Since the "computational knowledge engine" launched yesterday, that question has been posed enough times in enough different ways to make for an interesting Wolfram Alpha search query.
In a Macworld story, Theodore Grey, Wolfram Research's co-founder, notes that Wolfram Alpha isn't a "Google-killer" and that its purpose is in fact very different:
"It's been a dream of many people for a long time to have a computer that can answer questions," said Grey. "A lot of people may think of a search engine as that, but if you think about it, what search engines do is an extreme limited subset of that sort of thing."
Of course, finding the right kind of question to ask Wolfram Alpha -- and phrasing it in a way that the application can understand -- can be frustrating. Given that it's based on Wolfram's Mathematica software, it's hardly surprising that Wolfram Alpha is very good at performing calculations and displaying them visually. But people like Ted Dziuba at the Register, who is not alone in trashing Wolfram's effort, are pointing out that that may just be the extent of the engine's utility:
I know that in evaluating a Stephen Wolfram production, my meager intelligence quotient may not be sufficient to grasp the gravity of what I'm dealing with. So I don't feel all that put down that I can't figure out how Alpha is useful to anyone outside of a small audience of college professors and professional engineers.
Wolfram Alpha certainly doesn't act like a traditional search engine. Inputting a general topic like "virtualization" or "SOA" tends to generate the ubiquitous "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input" message (if you play around with the program, you'll see a lot of those words). But that's not exactly a hard-and-fast rule. Type in, say, "Mike" and you get an array of statistics: in 2007, one in every 7,463 people born in the U.S. was named Mike; and the name peaked in popularity around 1960. If you try "1 terabyte" you get the typical unit conversions, but you're also told that 1 terabyte is 1/20 of the size of the text content of the Library of Congress. That may be interesting, but is it particularly useful?
And how does Wolfram monetize its not-a-search-engine? Search Engine Land posted today that the first ad had appeared on the site. A search for "pi" turns up a Lenovo ThinkPad ad at the bottom of the right-hand column of the page. It's so subtle, it's easy to miss.
In any case, the site is still very much a work in progress, according to Wolfram's Gray :
And maybe it will get around to making the site something that can build an audience beyond mathematicians, engineers and stat-heads.
Wolfram will continuously improve the Alpha engine to better understand what people are asking it. Wolfram plans to add additional data to search, as well. "Many people over the weekend went looking for sports statistics, for example," he said -- an area that Wolfram hasn't gotten to yet, but will.