Wolfram Alpha: First-Hand Impressions

March 31, 2009
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You’d think that, after my less than flattering coverage of the Wolfram Alpha pre-launch hype, they would have blocked my IP address even after the public launch. I certainly thought so.

But I was wrong. Last week, someone from their business development group contacted me to arrange a preview of the system. He spent an hour with me today, discussing the system and showing me how it worked. I couldn’t type into the search box myself, but he did let me suggest queries and then entered them for me. He also encouraged me to speak freely about what I’d seen–they’re actually concerned that the hype and its propagation through the echo chamber are setting inappropriate expectations for the product, and eager for cooler heads to prevail or at least temper the exaggeration.

While I stand by my critique of the marketing, I am persuaded that Wolfram Alpha has built something interesting. It is unfortunate that it’s invited so much comparison to Powerset and is being hyped as a potential Google killer.

As Nova Spivack and others correctly pointed out, Wolfram Alpha isn’t really competing with Google, but rather with Wikipedia and Freebase. Wolfram Al

You’d think that, after my less than flattering coverage of the Wolfram Alpha pre-launch hype, they would have blocked my IP address even after the public launch. I certainly thought so.

But I was wrong. Last week, someone from their business development group contacted me to arrange a preview of the system. He spent an hour with me today, discussing the system and showing me how it worked. I couldn’t type into the search box myself, but he did let me suggest queries and then entered them for me. He also encouraged me to speak freely about what I’d seen–they’re actually concerned that the hype and its propagation through the echo chamber are setting inappropriate expectations for the product, and eager for cooler heads to prevail or at least temper the exaggeration.

While I stand by my critique of the marketing, I am persuaded that Wolfram Alpha has built something interesting. It is unfortunate that it’s invited so much comparison to Powerset and is being hyped as a potential Google killer.

As Nova Spivack and others correctly pointed out, Wolfram Alpha isn’t really competing with Google, but rather with Wikipedia and Freebase. Wolfram Alpha offers two major core competencies. The first is a vast amount of curated knowledge: they claim to have roughly 20 trillion “facts” as raw inputs, not the results of any kind of inference process. The second is the capability to relate those facts programmatically by exploiting their formal structure and to generate inferences from them.

Yes, Wolfram Alpha also has a natural language component, but that aspect of their offering is, by their own admission, its weakest point. Having a natural language interface is a necessary evil to provide a way for human beings to access this structured data. But unfortunately its the aspect that people have fixated on most–and will likely continue to do so.

In my view, a more productive way to think of Wolfram Alpha is as a highly structured content repository that offers an API in order to get at the content programatically. I saw example queries like (population of china) + (population of japan) / (population of USA). By itself, that’s a parlor trick that feels a bit like Google Calculator. But the ability to include expressions like is_a (china, country) and population (capital_city (china)) in an application (e.g., Excel) would create real value. Note: this is my fanciful syntax, not theirs.

In May, Wolfram Alpha plans to open up their web site to the public, which means that people will have access to the natural language interface to their content. While the launch will surely generate a lot of press, I suspect that most people will focus on the natural language interface, or on the inability to handle subjective information needs.

That’s a pity. The technology has challenges, but I think the questions people should be asking are if, when and how they will be able to integrate it with business applications. Wolfram Alpha may have value as a stand-alone alternative to Wikipedia for objective data, but its real potential is as a service to use in other applications.

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