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Wolfram Alpha challenges Google's dominance

David Coursey | May 15, 2009
Wolfram's new search tool, called Alpha, is a mix of human-selected and edited content mixed with more traditional search engine features.

SAN FRANCISCO, 14 MAY 2009 - The problem with Google is a lack of human contact. Not at the end of the process, where we humans consume a machine's idea of what we are interested in. That is too late. We need people at the beginning, where the information is gathered and developed.

Wolfram Research is trying to change that and Friday you may get to see how they have done. Wolfram's new search tool, called Alpha, is a mix of human-selected and edited content mixed with more traditional search engine features.

Early reports make Alpha sound ultra geeky, as befits a search engine developed by a company best known for Mathematica, a leading program for doing complex math on desktop computers.

Alpha may not be publicly available until tomorrow, but some people are who have seen previews are already deciding it is not for them. My PC World colleague, Edward Albro, says he is not smart enough for Wolfram Alpha, but does an excellent job of putting the first release through its paces.

I don't think it's an issue of Albro's IQ or even Wolfram Alpha's IQ, so much as it is an issue of how different WA is from the search engines it will doubtless be compared to.

The Wolfram people say in interviews that it would be, to paraphrase, stupid to compete with Google. At least not head-on, though Alpha takes a glancing blow at both Google (all machine) and Wikipedia (all human) as information resources. Both have a place and WA seems to be attempting to split the difference.

Alpha tries to combine the best aspects of both all human and all machine content generation, but the first release will doubtless be less-information rich than anyone would like. Maybe it is best to think of WA as a Science Fair project writ large, but it already does things Google does not.

Can it be, then, mere circumstance that Google put on its Searchology media event the same week WA goes live? Forgetting that the unfortunate word "Searchology" makes me think of Tom Cruise doing odd things, I was happy to see Google is evolving by adding new search features and ways of displaying results.

It is important to remember that Google was not always the colossus we have today. Before Google, other search engines led the pack, including at various times both Yahoo and AltaVista.

A better search engine can beat Google still. Google is not forever and the company, realizing that, is not sitting still. Will Wolfram Alpha take huge customer share away from Google, probably not. Will Google evolve enough to hold onto its lead for the next decade? Maybe, and I would not bet on it.


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