Over at TIME.com, you’ll find my new Technologizer column. It’s about Bing, Blekko, and the whole idea of competing with Google–and in it, I mention how dangerous it is for a new company to set itself up as a Google rival, or to be perceived as a Google killer. I mention Cuil, the definitive failed Google killer. But there’s another example that’s worth remembering: Wolfram|Alpha.
The service debuted last year, accompanied by a generous helping of hype and general high expectations. My friend Nova Spivack said it could be as important as Google. Its creators did a live Webcast of its servers powering and and connecting to the Web for the first time, as if it were an Apollo launch. They released an iPhone app that cost fifty bucks and seemed startled that people thought that was a tad high (they later reduced that a more sensible $2).
But the thing is–it’s an extraordinary service. Many Web sites have claimed that they let you ask questions in English, but Alpha is the only one I’ve ever used that delivers. If I want to know who was president in 1843 or what percentage of 12.95 7.04 is or how much $500 is in Pesos or how many people live in Brazil or when Danny Bonaduce was born, it’s superb. Kind of amazing, actually. Every time I use it, I wonder why it isn’t wildly popular. Maybe people are too busy using Google to look up photos of Justin Bieber or videos of piano-playing cats; Alpha can’t help them there, and doesn’t claim to be able to do so.
Part of the problem may be positioning. The site describes itself as “the world’s first and only computational knowledge engine,” which is probably clear to its creators but doesn’t do a great job of explaining it to normal folks. (Me, I think of it as the modern equivalent of an almanac, combined with a really smart calculator.) And its moniker–including the name of creator Stephen Wolfram and an unpronounceable character–is clunky. (There’s a reason why Google isn’t named Brin|Page|Google.)
You also need to use the service enough to understand what it does and doesn’t do: “Where was Lady Gaga born?” is a good Wolfram|Alpha question, but “Where does Lady Gaga live?” is not. (More on Time.com: Bing Gets Facebook Integration: Be Careful What You ‘Like’)
I think it’s worth the bother–and if you’ve never used Wolfram|Alpha, or think of it only as something that didn’t live up to initial expectations, I think you should check it out.
More on Time.com: