Wolfram Alpha widgets bring computation engine to any website

Wolfram Alpha's new widget builder may just make the search tool accessible to more users than any of their previous efforts.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Wolfram Alpha is not Google. You don't hear anybody using Wolfram Alpha as a verb. "I don't know, let me Wolfram Alpha it" lacks a certain ring. However, Wolfram Alpha is doing a nice job positioning itself as the source for high-authority factual data on the web and, if you can ask it the right question, you'll get a result that beats the socks off anything Google can give you. Today, Wolfram Alpha announced the public beta of its new Widget builder, an easy, intuitive, Flash-based tool that allows users to create that "right question," parameterize the question, and then share it via social tools, a website or email.

This is one of those tools that can make even the most jaded of geeks giggle. It's just plain cool and is oozing with potential. Like most things in this world that I really like (with the notable exception of my wife) it's free and is inherently open. Let me take a step back though, and explain how it works. For any of you who have used Wolfram Alpha, you know that it takes some time to shift from a search engine mindset and really tap the power of Alpha. However, the better you are at crafting queries, the more reliably you get really useful results instead of a message about Wolfram Alpha not understanding your query.

Widgets let you start with any valid query, from something as simple as entering a company name to see summary financial data or as complicated as a mathematical expression to plot, differentiate, and integrate. When you know that the query works the way you want it to (the widget builder lets you test it), you select words in the query to turn into variables. Users of the widget you're creating will be able to populate these variables via text fields, radio buttons, pop-ups, or check boxes. Thus, as a simple example, a query on the word "Google" could be turned into a widget that provides financial data on any company a user enters in a text field.

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Taking this a step further, it's possible to create everything from mortgage calculators to calorie counters. The application, despite just entering beta today, has fairly granular controls over which results are displayed in the widget, how the widget looks (simple drag and drop elements as well as layout controls over individual elements), and how the widget behaves. Users can either create widgets from scratch or can use or modify any of the widgets in Wolfram Alpha's gallery to get started. All new widgets that users create are automatically placed in the gallery under a Creative Commons license. These widgets can then be embedded, emailed, linked to, shown in an iframe, or shared on sites like Twitter. In the future, users wishing to develop widgets that aren't shared (a complicated query, for example, to be embedded on a website as an exclusive feature) will be able to pay for licensing rights.

While the widgets themselves are HTML and JavaScript, the widget builder is a Flash application. Flash has fallen out of favor a bit with the whole Apple debacle and the advent of HTML 5, but the interface is completely effective and quite fast. I would actually argue that the use of Flash makes this feel enough like a desktop application that virtually any user would feel comfortable building a widget. This, in fact, is Wolfram's objective. Although the queries and variables are defined in code that will look familiar to power users of Mathematica (or virtually any 4G language for that matter), this is very much meant to bring the power of Wolfram Alpha to anyone who wants or needs it.

Want to create a nutrition calculator for your blog? No problem. Want to calculate BMIs or research college tuition? Want to make it easy for customers on your site to calculate surface areas for building material purchases? Anything you can find out or calculate on Alpha can be turned into a widget and then reused on a website or blog. This is not the domain of geeks anymore and these aren't your father's widgets. Hats off to Wolfram Alpha for opening the doors to their data and packaging a lot of computational power into very easy tools that everyone can use.

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