Set to launch this month, Wolfram Alpha promises to be the next big thing from the same guy who transformed mathematical software. Ahead of its launch, though, we're seeing some details emerge that may position it as more of a Google Supplement than a Google killer. In fact, 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.
Don't get me wrong. Regular readers know that I have quite an infatuation with Google. Used correctly, its search tools put a whole lot of information at your fingertips and its Apps suite is about the best thing since sliced bread. 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. Google is giving this a shot with their Public Search tool, but as Hiawatha Bray points out in the Boston Globe,
For now, Google Public Search is rudimentary. Users who type queries like "unemployment in Massachusetts" see a graph at the top of the page. Clicking on it provides a more detailed view of the data, as well as links to let you compare Massachusetts with other states and break out the numbers by county.
But Wolfram Alpha, which will be available for public use later this month at http://wolframalpha.com, offers detailed, math-based responses to a huge variety of questions.
Google has also attempted to add semantic search capabilities (and I'm sure will get there sooner than later; they're Google, after all), but so far, this doesn't give you much. On the other hand, Alpha already seems to be pretty good at knowing what you mean. For example,
Type "snickers," and Alpha assumes you are talking about the popular candy bar. It displays a complete list of ingredients, nutritional values, and total calories. Type "half snickers," and it shows how many calories you will save by not finishing the bar.
Google currently has the advantage of volume. Its bots and spiders give us access to whatever we want, as long as we can come up with a good search term. Alpha, however, relies on some serious computation and a bit more voodoo. Again, as Bray notes,
Wolfram says Alpha is still relatively ignorant. His team of developers is constantly adding statistical databases to expand the range of the service.
Google's not going anywhere. However, I can't wait for students to get their hands on Alpha in the fall after I've had the summer to learn its ins and outs.