Wolfram Alpha: Helpful or Hyped?

Contributing Editor

Wolfram AlphaWolfram Alpha is a name that’s causing a huge frenzy of speculation on the web. Cited as being the most important website ever and a Google-killer, wolframalpha.com was launched with a huge marketing blitz on Friday. As is usual with these high-profile events, the site failed almost immediately. It is live again, but this weekend has been re-branded as a “test” launch with the full service expected on Monday 18 May.

Wolfram What?

Despite the odd name, Wolfram Alpha is an interesting project. The system is promoted as a “knowledge engine”. Superficially, it looks like any other search engine, but its aim is to present intelligent data rather than links to other websites.

The project’s creator, Stephen Wolfram, was frustrated that computers had not reached the technical summit people expected 50 years ago. You can not ask a computer a natural language question and have it compute the answer. Wolfram Alpha is possibly a first tentative step towards that goal. The system is primarily aimed at a technical audience so it could become a useful resource for students, researchers, analyts and scientists.

Does it Work?

Although the service remains a little glitchy, I did manage a few test queries. The parser prefers simple language and works best with hard facts. I tried “When will halley’s comet next appear” – that confused it, but “halley’s comet” returned better results. Bizarrely, “halleys comet” (without the apostrophe) provided much more information (click to enlarge)

Halleys Comet

Getting the right phrase is a little hit or miss. The results sometimes give links to other resources on the web, but Wolfram Alpha rarely shows what else it knows or provides a way to drill down into the data.

Meaning of life

Should Google be Worried?

Absolutely not. Wolfram Alpha will never have the global appeal of Google’s search results. It may give intelligent and accurate data, but it does not provide opinion, reviews, or the variety of information sources.

The site will be useful to find facts quickly and obtain attractive graphs or diagrams. Students will certainly benefit and I can see it being used in association with Wikipedia.

Have you tried wolframalpha.com? Did it understand you? Will you use it?

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  • http://www.joecianflone.com ChestRockwell

    I just asked it “Who was the President of the United States in 1932″…and it crashed. Great service….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • awdsgn

    tried a search for “design education” a topic near and dear to my heart. Results = nothing. tried “Cuyahoga Community College” where I teach. Results = nothing. Then the site shut down. I’m guessing Google folks can sleep well tonight.

  • Martin

    hey chest, i tried your query too and for me it worked well.
    herbert hoover… just give it a second try i think its because of the heavy load the servers have to manage

  • justineFranceOver

    “I just asked it “Who was the President of the United States in 1932″…and it crashed. Great service”

    Works for me, just fine.

  • 5x1llz

    Fifth graders everywhere are rejoicing. This should have been an encyclopedia SaaS…. aggregating real knwoledge and wiki to get the best coverage of topics.

    Grownups however, will find it lacking…

    nice try though, but google is still the Bigger Brother

  • Vali

    Crashed the service for “foo”…
    Did work for “cow”

  • peanut

    Did any of you peanuts read up on this before commenting and reviewing, eg. the background, the FAQs?

    The advertised launch was 18th May, Monday. How many of you have switched on a super computer? Friday onwards was planned and advertised as working out the final glitches in the system with external usage.

    Nothing in your review that it “…does not provide opinion, reviews, or the variety of information sources” is a bit like noting that cars don’t fly therefore airlines have nothing to worry about. If you’d done a little bit of backgrounding you’d know it is not a search engine and is not intended to present opinion or reviews and if it was to you’d hope it would present better opinion than the lazy stuff in this article.

    want opinions: type opinion in google

    want earthquakes data, swine flu data or better info on BHPs New York trades than you’ll get on Yahoo or Google then Alpha is for you.

  • Sportsfan

    They listed only one notable ‘celebrity’ on my birthday and it is the very talented Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. Ugh!

  • http://www.jasonbatten.com NetNerd85

    Many “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.”

    No crashes.

  • Benjamin Dobson

    The way I see it, Wolfram Alpha will become a place where people go before Wikipedia for hard facts, especially in science, mathematics and geography (although the CIA World Factbook will remain king as far as countries go). If you want soft information, Wikipedia and Google will be more popular and useful. And if you just want a simple question answering, True Knowledge will come out on top. Wolfram Alpha should focus on its content, which is far more valuable to it than the semantics of the input field.

    They should also get rid of that damn vertical bar from their name.

  • http://www.webflowdesign.co.uk Rob_D

    It works OK for me – it does provide useful data. I’m not sure what the synonym network is supposed to do though as my cursor suggests it has a link/s but nothing happens. Can’t find what it’s function is in the FAQ or anywhere else.

  • http://www.webflowdesign.co.uk Rob_D

    …and it’s different from Google so not a replacement.

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    Crashed Firefox and then couldn’t get it to restart without restarting the computer.

  • Molte

    I tried both to input “iso” and the date of my birth (in ISO 8601 format) and it returned some nice facts.

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    Perhaps the service will be better at the “proper” launch tomorrow?

    I’m always amazed by these companies who run massive marketing campaigns only to totally underestimate the server load on day 1. At best, it looks a little incompetent.

  • NuWeb.co.uk

    I don’t think that wolfram alpha could be any slower.. I do hope this is a temporary problem.

    It is also inaccurate (Out of Date) for example search “Tony Blair” says he is “Head of State” Id think Gordon Brown would disagree.
    http://www15.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Tony+Blair
    It also just has “Gordon Brown” as a politician, he is the prime minister.
    http://www15.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Gordon+Brown

    Dont worry though, they have Obama as “head of state” so at least USA’s data is correct.

  • alzwell1

    For me it fails because it’s not cross-browser or accessible. Any new ap should be both…

  • peanut

    weak as piss. So you only post comments that are negative of WA and don’t challenge your lazy “journalism”. pathetic.

  • Ed

    Trying a bunch of random names, either has no idea or tries to tell me the distance between two cities of the same name. Did I really want to know that Jay (Maine) is 1420 miles from Cutler (Florida)?

    Guess they’ve still got A LOT of work to do…

  • http://fcOnTheWeb.com ferrari_chris

    I just tried a simple search and it gave a message about being overloaded or something.

    Wow, that was a great first impression…

  • http://www.heyraena.com raena

    Outside of the whole information topic, check out the interface on that thing. What’s the deal with the results being presented as images, and why does it require JavaScript?

    Unimpressed, dudes

  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ mmj

    I asked “how to best paginate results in MySQL” over 60 seconds 3 minutes ago and am still waiting for a response. I could have made 10 google searches in this time. Indeed, I posted this comment in this time.

  • http://www.pageaffairs.com/ ralph.m

    I tried “CSS”. No go–it came up with companies. Tried “Cascading Style Sheets”, and it seemed totally lost.

    Happy with Google, thanks!

  • Aarem

    I’m worried about the effect this may have on Google. Going on Wolfram’s current performance, the Google folk might die laughing.

  • rozner

    This sounded cool, but I tried something simple like “what is the earth’s gravitational acceleration” and it came back with “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input”. Not impressed just yet. Although google was able to answer the same query pretty easily. Should google be worried? definitely not.

  • http://www.cemerson.co.uk Stormrider

    http://www05.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=population+of+wales

    Utter fail.

    Way too many problems for it to be trusted at the moment.

  • http://www.webflowdesign.co.uk Rob_D

    WA does not understand questions, just queries. If rozner had input “earth gravity” instead WA provides the answer and lots of other related data and formulae too.

    As I said before, this is not a replacement of Google. It is an entirely different thing altogether.

  • BigBong

    Its pretty brilliant in certain ways. I believe they achieve their objective. It is still very glitchy but I have to complement for their brilliant research. It has lot of potential in comparing computational data. I not sure if they themselves know about that. Alot of space to improve and monetize it.

  • rozner

    Yeah I was playing around with just entering things like that and it does give some interesting results. Although I thought the whole point was for it to be able to parse natural language and answer questions… Reminds of working with prolog. I think it has potential but it still needs a lot of improvement.

  • http://www.webflowdesign.co.uk Rob_D

    I think it’s pretty cool. My ISP is having mail problems again – happens about once a month for what seemed like hours at a time so I wanted to check the duration of acceptable downtime. So, to WA I went and entered this query:

    1 year*0.01% (http://www67.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=1%2Byear*0.01%25)

    A computational knowledge engine it is.

  • Scott Petrovic

    This just seems like a really slow version of wikipedia. Great idea, but it is way too slow and not to where it needs to be yet.

  • http://www.dangrossman.info Dan Grossman

    “I’m always amazed by these companies who run massive marketing campaigns only to totally underestimate the server load on day 1. At best, it looks a little incompetent.”

    Quite an insult considering it’s based on pure assumption. CNN talked about Wolfram Alpha today — the company said it handled 23 million queries during the prelaunch. And Wolfram Alpha queries are *much*, *much* more computationally heavy than a search engine query. To call handling 23 million queries an incompetent launch is incompetent commentary.

    I’m becoming more and more inclined to ignore your posts, Craig. Remember that you’re supposed to be a professional blogger.

  • Anonymous

    HEAR of it today, SEE it tomorrow, FORGET it next week!

  • Stevie D

    Stormrider Says:

    http://www05.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=population+of+wales

    Yeah, I’ve figured that one out. There is a small village near Sheffield called Wales. It doesn’t recognise the existence of the countries of Wales or Scotland – along with a heck of a lot else.

    Given the paucity of data available, the unreliability of what is returned and the inexplicable interpretations of natural language, I can’t see Wolfram|Alpha taking the world by storm any time soon.

    And that’s before you get on to the absolutely appalling interface, code and output format. Back to the drawing board.

    http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=back+to+the+drawing+board
    “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input”

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @Dan Grossman

    the company said it handled 23 million queries during the prelaunch

    The *full* launch was supposed to be on Friday and it went down almost immediately. The company then changed the launch date to Monday. The pre-launch was going on far longer than two days too.

    I’m not saying these things aren’t difficult, but these major launches are seemingly doomed to fail. It doesn’t make the company look good.

    To call handling 23 million queries an incompetent launch is incompetent commentary.

    That’s your opinion, which I respect. My statement about the launch appearing a little incompetent is *my* opinion. You may agree or disagree, but that’s the beauty of free speech.

  • JamDirect

    A couple useful search queries: “swine flu” and “life the universe and everything”

  • Garbage

    DogSheepBeta gave me answers that were closer to what I was looking for.