Wolfram Alpha, kinda cool, kinda like a big almanac…

So I finally got around to playing with the Wolfram Alpha… beta… Aside, from the fact that I simply can’t get over the stupid trivia that the site is named after two big bads from two different Joss Whedon shows, I kinda like the service. I don’t think it’s going to succeed, though, where succeed means become a viable standalone business.

It’s not a Google competitor – it doesn’t seem to spider the web, although I couldn’t really tell from my perusal of their docs and what not. Their source material seems very specific. It’s quite a bit like a big alamanac/encyclopedia. You search for a topic and instead of getting links to information about it, you actually get some hard information back. Search for a name (say… “felix“) and it gives you all sorts of charts about how popular it’s been over time and how many people currently alive in the US are expected to have that name (42,656 felix’s!). Search for a plant and it tells you its place in the plant kingdom and some scientific names. Search for a date and it gets you interesting tidbits about that date and interesting things that happened (of course, I think there’s something wrong with their algorithms, because I searched for my birthday and it didn’t list that in there! come on! :).

Clearly this isn’t generally targeted as a mass market type of situation. If I’m looking for a plant, I want to know about how much sun it needs and when to water it, not its kingdom and phylum. It’ll probably prove useful for researches looking for some top level facts, although, really – Wikipedia does a pretty good job of that and more. Compare the return result for platinum on Wolfram Alpha and Wikipedia. The Wikipedia has all the basic summary information plus lots of text, possibly this is a turn off for some. I don’t know.

I guess the technology behind the scenes could be the amazing part – if they’ve built some way to automatically extract semantic information from all sorts of source content then that may be something that they can license out or provide as a paid service. It may be valuable IP that someone like Google simply wants to buy outright. But as a front end site – I’m not really clear how they could make money. Search ads are the most obvious, they being a search site, but given their almanac-y, science-y content they’re not really going to get any good ads on these pages. Could they put it behind a pay wall? I doubt that public would pay money for access to this data.

So, I’m curious to see what happens with the site. I think it’s genuinely neat – very different from other search startups I’ve seen (and subsequently seen fail) – which is great. I can see myself using it every now and again but as it is now, I don’t see it as an important part of my online usage. I wonder what their medium term business plan calls for. What do you think of it? How much lamer is your name than mine??

  • Molly

    howie,
    That's my primary question as well. Even Encylopedia Brittanica was/is inaccurate in some major ways on certain subjects.

  • Molly

    I, too, don't see an every day use for WA in my online work/play.
    Thanks for the review, it's a good one and useful to those wondering what all the fuss is about.

  • It will definitely be interesting to see if they can make a paid model work. I suppose access to a wide variety of structured data is interesting, kinda like a automated FreeBase I guess. Sort of like a one stop shop for a huge variety of information. I'm definitely not convinced, though, unless they've got something up their sleeve that we haven't seen yet.

  • Daniel

    I first heard about this on Newsy, but since then I've been doing a lot of digging (being vaguely geeky, computery myself) and turns out they evidently plan to feature paid subscriptions that will allow you to do more with the data and possibly compute your own data through their supercomputer. Provided it can get enough publicity, I'd say that would be an intriguing option.

    Howie, the program has access to a number of databases (though I don't know which ones specifically) that it works through and compiles its information from. I agree it is starting to border on AI, but of course there's still a long way to go before we get to that point. Still, a step in the right direction (assuming you think AI is the right direction)...

  • howie

    People are comparing it to google but as you mentioned, it seems to be more of a wikipedia competitor. It would be interesting as just a proof-of-concept that an AI or algorithm could create a dynamic almanac/encyclopedia/wikipedia. But as a search engine, i dont think it will give people what they want. What i want to see is an accuracy comparison with wikipedia. Where does it get its info from, really?

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