Wolfram Alpha is like a cross between a research library, a graphing calculator, and a search engine. But does Wolfram Research's "computational knowledge engine," set to debut publicly later this month, live up to its hype as a Web site that Google needs to be afraid of?
Wolfram Alpha creator Stephen Wolfram on Tuesday gave a demo of the service to a crowd of online reporters. Few have access to the private test version of the service itself, but we got access Monday night. We found it compelling, if limited.
We're eager to see this site develop. It does things with online information that Google does not. Here are our impressions of the current version of Wolfram Alpha.
Who's it for?
CNET reporter Stephen Shankland: Today at least, Wolfram Alpha is for the tech crowd--the kind of people who want to dig into the data. It's a great exploration tool to find out whether somebody who's 5 feet 5 inches and 160 pounds is overweight, the chemical properties of boron, and whether you're going to get a full moon during the evening of September 4 in Buenos Aires when you want to propose to your fiancee.
It'll tell you the family, genus, species, and caloric value of an apple, and it'll forecast Apple's stock price, but it won't give you apple pie recipes. It'll tell you the box office take of the first "Star Trek" movie, but it won't tell you the theater where you can see the newest "Star Trek" movie.
But a technical audience is still big. This could unlock a lot of data that students, research assistants, lawyers, marketing managers, financial analysts, and scientists might not have readily available. And those folks are important, too--just the kind of influential folks people with Web sites like to reach.
CNET Editor Rafe Needleman: I wouldn't dream of pointing my parents at this. It's too picky about syntax and not intuitive to get into. When I saw Stephen Wolfram give a demo of the system I was blown away. He ran through dozens of demos from weather to genetics to calculus to finance, each resulting in beautiful and informative results. But when I tried the service I'd say maybe only 10 or 20 percent of my queries actually worked.
Shankland: On the other hand, my dad has a Ph.D. and I most definitely will point him at it. He bought Wolfram Research's all-purpose computation software, Mathematica, though, so for him Wolfram Alpha is like preaching to the choir.
Needleman: My dad has a Ph.D., too, but in philosophy. There is no Wolfram Alpha for that.
Shankland: Yet. Alpha handles numeric data well, but loosey-goosey stuff like art or philosophy is tough. But maybe in some glorious future Alpha will be able to chart the trains of thought from the Enlightenment to the present.
Is it easy to use?
Needleman: You need a clear mind to take advantage of this service. Again, it's picky about syntax, and in the pre-release version we tried, if you got a query wrong--if it didn't return what you were looking for--it wouldn't offer you much in the way of help to refine the query. I kept trying to figure out how to correlate weather with earthquakes in San Francisco. I can get the data for weather. I can get it for earthquakes. So I know that Alpha has the information. But I can't figure out how to show them together.
What the system does know is beautifully presented. Type in the name of a city, for example, and it will give you some fun stats on a clean and clear Web page. But from that sort of page you'll probably want to start exploring the data available: Maybe you want to know about population growth, economic information, or weather trends. Alpha doesn't give you hints as to what's available, nor a good way to drill into data. You have to take stabs at re-typing your query. I tried a variety of queries like "test scores san francisco schools" and "population of portland by year" and got, respectively, no result and a pointless result (533,429 person years: what is that?). The system that interprets Wolfram Alpha queries needs a little bit of help. It may be improved by the time the system is opened to the public, later this month, but I think that this will be the product's Achilles heel. … Read more