Wolfram|Alpha: thin line between love|hate

In IT Blogwatch, Wolfram|Alpha, the "computational knowledge engine," finally shows its face to the world. Richi Jennings reviews reactions to the first public outings of the not-a-search-engine that's never heard of Dolla. Not to mention some really hot cameras...

Previously in IT Blogwatch:

John Ozimek takes a first bite, and the backlash begins:

Wolfram logo
Is it the newest rival to Google, likely to knock Google off the top spot? No it isn’t. Does it provides a single answer to complex questions – unlike traditional search engines? Nope. Could it possibly be "a natural search engine"? Not quite.
There is a good chance that in the long term it will revolutionise how we interact with the internet. But not yet. Right now, it is a very good start, and belongs firmly in the area loosely described as semantic web development. The greatest threat to its success is likely to be the enormous hype that has broken out across mainstream press and media this last weeken.

John Timmer has a biologist's take:

"Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." I've been seeing that phrase a lot lately, as I spent a bit of this weekend trying to figure out what the self-styled computational knowledge engine was good for. The conclusion I'm reaching, at least in part based on the frequent appearance of that text, is that the answer will wind up being "not a whole lot."
Alpha will largely be limited to producing information that, on a fundamental level, is trivial. ... I'd generally trust Wikipedia to get those sorts of trivial details right. ... In the process of creating the data store behind Alpha, all the context behind a number ... is stripped (or, if it's there, you can't tell from the results). And, for most things, ... the source and other contextual information is every bit as important as the number itself.

Ryan Singel gives it a wedgie:

Wolfram|Alpha officially launched Monday — and by the looks of it, the computational engine is the nerdy kid the other kids only talk to when they need help with a physics exam.
The technology is quite nice, but Wolfram|Alpha’s ability to crunch data and compile answers to a very narrow set of questions is a feature of a search engine — not a whole one to itself. ... If you want to see search results that are often better for popular queries look to Kosmix, which is spending more time figuring out how to present information, than how to solve physics equations. There’s going to be a lot more money and friends in the former.

Balaji Narasimhan offers this, uhh, niche reference:

There is an excellent line in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's film Namak Haram, where Raza Murad's character says, ... "People who want to live are dying; I want to die, but I'm still living."
When this film was released in 1973, there was no Web, but this line is relevant today in the context of search engines because search engines that have tried to dethrone Google have failed, but a computational data engine that doesn't want to challenge Google may do what competitors failed to do.

Richard Waters drowns in data: [You're fired -Ed.]

Google has nothing to be worried about. Even if a specialised service like this wins a passionate following, it can’t make a dent in the general search market that Google so completely dominates. Most users prefer a single destination for search, rather than trying to learn a range of services that are each optimised for a different purpose (one reason why subject-specific “vertical” search engines have never taken off).

Also, Google already returns direct answers to some questions, whether about tomorrow’s weather or the GDP of France. But Wolfram Alpha is a reminder that it certainly can’t afford to sit on its laurels.

Lisa Hoover agrees:

Some of our Internet experiences already have an automated undercurrent. Google News, for example, spits out stories that computers -- not humans -- have ranked as Best of Breed.
Wolfram Alpha does our thinking for us by relying on "knowledge computation" to provide singular results it thinks we should have, not an assortment of results from which we can choose.

So what's your take? Get involved and leave a comment.

And finally...

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Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/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 or FriendFeed, pretend to be Richi's friend on Facebook, or just use boring old email: contact Richi.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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