Wolfram Alpha is live. For those of you who haven’t heard of Wolfram Alpha, it’s the very recently launched massive knowledge base from the makers of the premier mathematics program, Mathematica. It’s a massive computation engine but it’s not like any search engine you’ve ever seen. The best way to learn about it is to try some examples. Alpha’s visual gallery of examples is a good source of query ideas.
I think that Alpha is pretty cool and that what it does it does remarkably well. However, I think the Google generation isn’t going to like Alpha for some of the same reasons that they don’t like federated search; Alpha doesn’t offer instant gratification the way Google does. There’s actually a learning curve, something that Googlers are not used to. Plus Google always give you something interesting to read regardless of how badly you butcher your query. Not so with the narrowly focused federated search engines and definitely not so with Alpha.
If you think I’m wrong about how Alpha will be perceived just check out some of the zillions of tweets:
john_chr: Wolfram Alpha: if a search engine had autism this would be it. If only you can figure out how to ask the right question…
K_Bob: Heh. I tried three queries in a row at wolfram alpha. It didn’t understand any. One was “average farm income” #hhrs
bharat: I thought wolfram alpha could answer anything! http://tinyurl.com/qfhtuj.
(in reference to this Alpha query:
carbohydrates in chicken / ((population of france + germany) * mass of the moon * speed of light in furlongs per fortnight squared))
Kenneth_Jackson: Just checked out Wolfram Alpha. It sucks and there is no hope! Great for checking your kids math homework but that is about it.
I’m sad that Alpha is being received poorly by lots of people. A huge part of the problem is the query interface. Daniel Tunkelang, Chief Scientist for Endeca and a huge proponent of usable user interfaces writes in his blog:
… I’m pretty sure that many of the people who’ve been waiting for this access will be disillusioned as they struggle with the NLP interface. None of the marketing team’s attempts at expectation management can mitigate the frustration of an undocumented, brittle interface. Ah well. I did try to tell them. I hope they can make it past that initial blow and then reconsider their approach to the interface.
Daniel recently wrote a book about faceted search which is all about building search interfaces that are intuitive and that provide navigation features to help users create effective queries that bring back useful results. (See my review of Daniel’s book.) I agree wholeheartedly with Daniel and I wonder if there isn’t an opportunity for someone to build a faceted search interface on top of Alpha, assuming Wolfram doesn’t rethink the interface itself.
My aim isn’t to beat up on Alpha. I just know from personal experience how difficult it is to get the Google crowd to slow down long enough to learn to use a search program. I don’t have any statistics but I bet very few federated search users ever used advanced (fielded) search capabilities. I do know that many users give up on federated search because it takes seconds, rather than nanoseconds, to get results.
I do hope that Wolfram improves the usability of Alpha and that Alpha doesn’t become this very niche application that only a few people can use. That would be a loss for everyone because Alpha is an amazing discovery tool, if only people can discover how to use it.