Wolfram|Alpha: searching mixed reviews

In Monday's IT Blogwatch, Richi Jennings watches Stephen Wolfram launch his computational knowledge engine, Wolfram|Alpha. So is it Google-killer or Cuil-emulator? Or something else? Not to mention YooouuuTuuube...

Previously in IT Blogwatch:

Steven Levy is breathless:

Wolfram logo
The product of four years of development, Alpha is an engine for answers ... Type in a query for a statistic, a profile of a country or company, the average airspeed of a sparrow ? and instead of a series of results that may or may not provide the answer you’re looking for, you get a mini dossier on the subject compiled in real time that, ideally, nails the exact thing you want to know.

It’s like having a squad of Cambridge mathematicians and CIA analysts inside your browser. ... Wolfram has licensed ? or created ? a whole library of databases and massaged them so the information is pliable. (To date, they include Wikipedia, the US Census, and “about nine-tenths of what you’d see on the main shelves of a reference library,” he says.) ... Alpha is a powerful computational engine that can effortlessly answer queries that no one has asked of a search engine before.

Ron Callari drives a colorful metaphor:

Move over Google, there’s a new race car driver on the track. Expected to launch in late May, 2009, Wolfram Alpha is one of the early leaders in the Web 3.0 race, and its super-charged search formula may be just the design for all future Google contenders to emulate.
Just in case you missed it, for the last decade, the web has taken on version numbers. As the last century came to a close, the dot-com crash ushered in the Web 1.0 era. A few years later, a man by the name of Dale Dougherty dreamt up something called Web 2.0, and the idea soon took on a life of its own as social media emerged to consume our everyday lives.

Christopher Dawson educates us:

The more I read about it, the more Alpha seems like the moral equivalent of LinkedIn while Google is decidedly MySpace-esque. Both have value and both have a solid place in the market.

Used correctly, [Google's] search tools put a whole lot of information at your fingertips. ... However, the sheer volume of results that Google searches can churn up are daunting at best and can make it a remarkably challenging tool in education, especially for those without the wherewithal to search well (and yes, it is our responsibility to give them the wherewithal, but there’s a whole lot of information floating about on the web, in case you haven’t noticed).

Alpha, on the other hand, seeks to make all of this information “computable,” so that when someone asks it a question, it provides an answer.

Adam Ostrow asks the inevitable question:

The Next Google, Or the Next Cuil? ... There’s always an urge to declare a major new player in search as a “Google killer” because of its unique approach to the space, its celebrated founding team, or copious amounts of industry hype.

Wolfram Alpha has a bit of all of these elements working for it, though it’s significantly different than other recent attempts to dethrone Google, such as Cuil, which fell flat on its face on launch day, or Powerset, which was acquired by Microsoft before ever really getting a chance to prove itself as a commercially viable product.

But RoFLKOPTr is frustrated:

It seems, from reading comments on previous articles about Wolfram|Alpha, that people think this is a search engine and is trying to compete with the likes of Google and whatnot. ... Please stop trying to pass off side-by-side comparisons between W|A and Google as journalism.
People, W|A is not a search engine in the conventional sense. It is more of a knowledgebase. It is a computational engine. Rather than finding websites that tell you about what you're trying to learn about, W|A gives you the information you're looking for on their site, pulled from a large 20-someodd-year-old database of verified scientific facts that began with Wolfram Mathematica. If the info you're looking for isn't directly present in the database, W|A will compute it for you if it has the necessary data dependencies.

Michael Cook offers this useful resource:

There is a video called A Sneak Preview of Wolfram|Alpha on YouTube that seems to have been filmed at a talk Wolfram gave. After watching it I think I have a decent idea of what it's like to use, and just how very different it is from every other search out there. I can't wait to try it.

And to see what happens when you search for "Rick Astley".

And finally...

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Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/adviser/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and spam. A 24 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. You can follow him on Twitter, pretend to be Richi's friend on Facebook, or just use boring old email: blogwatch@richi.co.uk.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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