Wolfram|Alpha–the “computational knowledge engine” that lets you pose questions about math, history, and other factual stuff and get reliable responses, often in the form of beautifully-done infographics–is an extraordinary creation. But more than two and a half years after its debut, it’s still not the Google-like breakout hit I keep thinking it should be.
On Wednesday, the site’s creators are launching the most ambitious update its gotten since it launched, a premium version called Wolfram|Alpha Pro that will cost $2.99 a month for students and $4.99 a month for the rest of us. Dieter Bohn of The Verge has a meaty look at what’s new, including the ability to upload your own data sets, fiddle with the visualizations and download the data behind the engine’s answers.
Data geeks should enjoy these advanced options. Even if I don’t sign up myself, I’m rooting for the Pro version to be a success, since a Wolfram|Alpha that’s a thriving business has the best shot at being around for a very long time to come.
I’d still love, though, for the site to figure out how to appeal to people who are less sophisticated than its current users as well as those who are more so. To me, it’s one of the web’s three core reference tools, along with Google and Wikipedia. It’s just that most of the people who use the web don’t know that yet.
Part of the problem is that Wolfram|Alpha doesn’t do that great a job of explaining itself to the masses. For one thing, the tagline “computational knowledge engine” doesn’t explain in plain English what it does. For another, the industrial-strength example queries it provides, such as “density 3M ethanol” and “d/dx Si(x)^2” can be a tad intimidating. They don’t make clear that the service works equally well for lowbrow questions such as “How old is Nick Jonas?”
The good news is that Wolfram|Alpha is already helping plenty of non-eggheads who may not even know that they’re using it–because it’s one of the primary data sources that the iPhone 4S’s Siri calls upon. So if you like Siri, you should try using W|A. And if you don’t own an iPhone 4S and therefore haven’t used Siri–well, you should try W|A, too.
Can you tell that I really like this website?