The much expected Wolfram alpha has gone for a soft launch since last night. It had some start up glitches, as Wolfram briefed during the live demo, but nothing major fortunately, prevented me from getting a first feel of it. Erick Schonfeld has a nice blog with a detailed first hand feel description of this new computing web search engine. He also did a one to one comparison with Google for a few specific search queries.
My first impression is in much the same line as what I expected after reading Wolfram’s pre-launch blog. This is not a Google competitor for sure, but instead an incredibly complementing brother. Wolfram alpha is more of a scientific and quantitative information search engine. For instance, if you want to know the Taylor series expansion of exponential function , you can do it easily by entering “Taylor series of Exp[x/2]“. As you would imagine, Google does not give this precise answer, but instead give you a list of documents matching this query, for instance a set of PDF links where this is already calculated. Clearly, Wolfram gives a more accurate and clever presentation of this query result. Wolfram alpha seem to use quite a lot of Mathematica capabilities too, like plot etc. Any mathematical query, will lead to pretty good result, sometimes including plots, histograms, Taylor expansions, approximations, derivatives, continuity etc. It is a nice feature to have for students and engineers.
This is the sort of query it likes the most and not something like “proof of Sanov’s theorem”. Google will incredibly list a set of documents which has the proof one is looking for, since it simply search down the web and display a listof matching queries, ordered based on pagerank, which is loosely speaking in the order of relevance.
Not all queries are bound to get a result with wolfram alpha, atleast for now. That is expected since it is not yet in launch mode, but on soft launch. In the coming days they are likely to have it running full fledged with all kind od queries supported.
So, the wolfram alpha is definitely going to be useful for very many cases and it surely is going to rock in scientific searches. I initially thought the Google squared which is going to come from Google shortly is addressing the very same segment of search area, but it is clearly different.
I tried “tallest mountain Switzerland” . It gave a very nice cute quantified table. I love this kind of result. It is also state things with less ambiguity. For instance the height is mentioned in meter, but there is a list of unit conversions listed along, which help people to map them into the units of their convenience.
I tried a query “Who is Claude Shannon”. This is what it displayed. Of course, the result you get is a very brief information about him. Same query in Google will lead you to the more detailed Wikipedia entry of Shannon or may be the Mathworld entry of Shannon among the list of hits . Wolfram alpha gives information more like in capsule form. If you need to know more, you should ask more. Clearly, what search engine to use is thus subject to the query type. I strongly see Google and Wolfram alpha are complementary. Wolfram alpha gives more or less one reply to a single question. Of course you can renew the query and then get answer to that. In some sense, this is like people asking questions to one another in real physical scenario. Imagine you ask a friend, knowledgeable pal that is: Who is Shannon? He would perhaps start answering in those lines as Wolfram Alpha do. On repeated question he will give more details. On the other hand, Googling is like broadcasting your query to a large pool of friends, each one of them sends what they know or heard about Claude Shannon. It is you,who decides whichamong the many answer(s)/explanation(s) suit your need!
We can afford some amount of spelling errors while entering the query in wolfram alpha. Since it is natural language based, that is a decent feature to have. I deliberately typed the query “distnace from Bangalore to geneva ” instead of “distance from Bangalore to geneva “. It understood the intended query and displayed the result in a nice quantified table. Eve the geographical trace between the two places is shown. Incredible!
When I tried “weather in Lausanne”, this is as good as it gets. Spot on with all possible things you want to know in one screen! It had a list of mountains and their heights mentioned!
In a nutshell, Wolfram alpha give you the best cooked food, given a user recipient as input. Google will give you a list of foods available and then you pick the one tasting suit . It really then is a question of preference, time, and satisfaction of the end user on what to choose from. As far as I am concerned, it is subjective. I see both of these are invaluable and both will co-exist. Scientists,economists, finance folks, mathematicians, historians are all bound to benefit from this new computing engine. I am waiting for a full release!