Wolfram Alpha


In scarcely a decade, Google has impacted civilization in ways which will be studied in the decades to come. Ever since the recognition of the impact and success of Google and perhaps more importantly, on the amount of money it makes, boatloads of the same has been sunk into the search for the Google killer. All of them, including the organic improvements to rival search engines like Microsoft’s Live or over-hyped recent startups like Cuil, have failed. Primarily they failed as they tried to out-Google Google based on the rules that Google itself defined – more indexing, ‘better'(?) but still page rank-similar algorithm etc.

Last week, a brilliant web service has been released which has found its niche by redefining the rules a bit and hence maybe able to thrive as a much needed complement to Google. Wolfram Alpha is not quite a search engine, at least in the way that we have come to understand the term and in that may lie the roots to its success in the realm which has eluded others.

Wolframalfa calls itself a computational search engine and the first thing to understand about it is that it does not do phrase searches of weighed and huge database like search engines. So keying in a phrase hoping to find a document hit for it somewhere on the net would not succeed in it. The best parallel is what was attempted to do by one of the oldest ‘search engines’ in the web, Ask Jeeves (same as today’s ask?) which attempted to do natural language processing on the questions which were put into it.

After going through the examples, here are some searches I did in Wolfram.

1. grok

Word meaning of a newer word which is more popular in the technology/design world. The result is super good. In fact even better than what the best dictionaries or and dictionary tools like WordwebPro gives.


But what it really did well was comparison and its visual representation in a single page.

2.  buddha, jesus, mohammed, confucious, zarathustra, aristotle,newton,ashoka, sun tsu, einstein

This was the most fun search I did. Just keyed in some of the most famous people in human history and presto, a super cool results page which shows the fact of Zoroaster, the Buddha and Confucius of being contemporaries and in such a visceral way. As one of the snarkiest (and funniest) tech reviewers on the net mentioned, the best wikipedia search engine today is undoubtedly wolframalpha.

3.  www.manoramaonline.com , www.mathrubhumi.com , www.thehindu.com

The sites of the three newspapers which comes to my home every morn. Returns the alexa ratings. Nothing special here. And as always, Manorama seems to be technologically ahead – seeming to be the only user of Akamai Caching among the three.

4. trivandrum to kottayam

Gave me the (aerial?) distance between the two places.

5. bangalore to paris

Gives the flight time too.

6.  Comparing the gdps of  BRIC.

7.kollam, salem, shimla, allahabad, kozhikode, shillong

Comparing the population of some non-metro Indian cities.

8. Comparing the major NASDAQ listed Indian IT companies.

This page is especially good.

While these are the queries which interest the non-specialized user, what WolframAlpha seems to pack a punch is in the queries and comparisons related to science and mathematics. The mathematica roots really shows and well too.

9. Log(sin x + cosec y)

10. 100 mL of 1.5 molar K2CO3 in THF

The biggest challenge now, seems to me to be in the monetization part. The Adwords model definitely won’t work for them as by design, the user will spend more time on the site rather than the Google way of sending traffic away as soon as possible. It remains to be seen how the methods mentioned – having a ‘paid’ version etc will work in the world of consumer web.

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