Perhaps you’ve heard of the latest brainchild of the Wunderkind Stephen Wolfram: Wolfram|Alpha. Matthew Hurst nicknamed it Alphram today and I agree that’s a much better name. Wolfram|Alpha (W|A henceforth) is not a search engine, it’s a knowledge engine. It will compete with Google on a slice of traffic that Google really isn’t all that hot in for now, comparative questioning answering. When you ask Google something like “How does the GDP of South Africa compare to China?” you hope you get back something relevant in the first few results (spoiler alert: you don’t). When you ask that of W|A, you get exactly what you’re looking for. Beautiful. W|A’s so-called natural language interface isn’t perfect, though. You get a lot of flakiness from it until you start to recognize what works and what doesn’t.
Now let’s be honest. How often do we search for that kind of thing? Not very often. I think that’s partly because Google is notoriously bad at it. Once we start to get a handle on what W|A is capable of, I think people will start expecting more of their friendly neighborhood search giant. Google claims to have a few tricks up its sleeves, but everything I’ve seen out of Google lately has been such a disappointment I am deeply skeptical. The new trick is called Google Squared and it returns search results in a spreadsheet format, breaking down the various facets of the things you are searching for. In the demo, it shows stuff like rollercoaster drop speeds, heights, etc when you search for roller coasters. You can add to the square and do some pretty nifty stuff. TechCrunch claims this will kill W|A. I think the two could be complementary. Based on the demo, I expect W|A will return results of a higher calibre, but will miss out on a lot of queries because the knowledge is just missing. Google Squared appears to be doing something fuzzier and will return results that might be really bad. So while W|A just says it doesn’t know, Google Squared will let you pick through the junk to find the gem. Google Squared is expected to launch later this month in Google Labs.
Many have said that where W|A will really compete is against Wikipedia and I am inclined to agree. There are plenty of things I go to Wikipedia for now that I probably will switch over to W|A for, like populations of countries, size of Neptune’s moons, and so on. Wikipedia still wins for more in-depth knowledge on a topic. W|A also does some pretty cool stuff when you search for the definition of a word (use a query like “word kitten“). You learn that kitten comes from Classical Latin, and entered English about 700 years ago. You can find out a similar thing (and go further in depth for the etymology at least) using the American Heritage dictionary on dictionary.com, but W|A requires less digging.
And this brings me around to a key point with W|A. It’s an awesome factoid answering service. It does it well and it does it in a pretty way. Stuff you can find in more depth elsewhere you can get quickly and easily, but only superficially via W|A. There are links to more information, though, so you don’t lose much by relying on W|A — assuming it has knowledge about what you’re looking for. You’re still going to be more likely to hit a brick wall with W|A.
And of course, since Wolfram developed Mathematica, W|A is backed by it. Enter an equation and you get some really handy math info back. Need to quickly know the derivative of a fairly complicated equation? Presto. Probably the most satisfying feeling I got today was from a query similar to “what is the area under x^4+3x^2+4 from 1 to 8?“ Let’s see you answer that, Google Squared.