After launching in May of 2009 to no small amount of buzz, Wolfram Alpha is up and running but is anyone using it? Created by Stephen Wolfram, the genius responsible for the creation of Mathematica, a popular computational software program, one would expect a high level of competence from such a product. Indeed, Wolfram Alpha has over 5 million lines of Mathematica code under its hood, running on a total 10,000 CPU’s. Although this all sounds very impressive there are still massive limitations in its usefulness to the average user.
Unlike Google and other internet search engines, Wolfram Alpha is an Answer Engine. It prompts the user to input a question and then gives back an answer. Instead of returning SERPs, it instead uses an internal database running on Mathematica to return an answer page to the user. I experimented a little bit with this to see what kinds of results it would give.
I entered a calculus based mathematical expression, and as expected was quickly returned a correct answer. Certainly this is a useful tool for students that don’t want to spend the money on acquiring a Mathematica license. However, it lacks the full functionality of the Mathematica software program which limits its usefulness.
Question with a Numerical Answer
I then entered a simple question with a firm numerical answer. Wolfram Alpha again handled this quite well, returning the answer I was looking for. It also returned a ton of additional information along with the answer.
Certainly this provides students a good starting point into a research project, particularly since they provide a link to the source information. It could also be useful to bloggers and journalists researching a story, and looking for a quick numerical answer to a question. In my opinion, this is the most useful aspect of Wolfram Alpha.
Contextual Based Question
To finish up my little experiment, I entered some contextual based questions to see what kind of results I would get. I was unimpressed with the results to say the least. This is what the average user is most interested in, so it certainly limits the software when compared to conventional search engines.
Clearly the results show the limited usefulness of this Answer Engine to the general public. As a tool for students, researchers, and bloggers looking for a quick answer to a numerical question it is a bit more lucrative. However, school computers have all the necessary software to perform these types of functions, and Google already provides relevant answers to most of these questions.
What I find to be particularly troubling is that the backend of Wolfram Alpha is completely internal to their database. It would seem to me that a combination of the current incarnation of Wolfram Alpha with a search engine would allow results to be cross-referenced, and provide a much more useful product to the average user. Until that time we can expect this to remain a niche product .
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