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??