Wolfram Alpha, the new "computational knowledge engine" from the makers of Mathematica is scheduled to officially launch on Monday next week, but starting tonight, Alpha will 'soft launch,' starting with a live webcast of the launch preparations tonight. After that, Alpha will gradually open its doors to everybody throughout the weekend. We have had a chance to test a preview version of Alpha for the last seven days, and we are quite impressed with what we have seen so far. Here are some resources for getting up to speed with Alpha, as well as some recommendations for getting started with this powerful, but sometimes frustrating new tool.
Update: Alpha is now up and running, though the team might take it down at any point during the weekend to fix any problems it discovers during its tests.
Wolfram and his team will chronicle the launch in a live webcast on justin.tv, which will start at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern tonight. We are not quite sure how Wolfram will manage the gradual launch over the weekend, though we assume that if you are on the preview waiting list, you will get first dibs.
Some Things to Keep in Mind
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you start experimenting with Alpha tonight or over the weekend:
- Wolfram Alpha is not a general purpose search engine - it does not directly compete with Google and if you treat it like Google, you will inevitably be disappointed.
- Check out the copious examples from the home page - they will give you a good idea of the type of queries that Alpha can handle best.
- Here is one thing we can almost guarantee: you will be disappointed at first (especially if you were expecting a Google killer).
Alpha is a great tool, but it takes some time to learn its limits and strengths. Unlike Google, some searches simply don't return any results at all.
Once you get access to Alpha, here are some tips for how to structure your searches and searches you should try:
- If Alpha doesn't give you the results you are looking for, try a different way of phrasing the query - sometimes even capitalization can make a difference!
- Try to search for anything that can be packed into data snippets (height of a mountain, chemical formulas, population stats, stars, planets, etc.) .
- Try combining two searches. Alpha usually does a great job with these kind of queries.
- Feed it some math problems. The fact that Alpha is based on Mathematica really shines through here.
- Do some test searches for food items or drugs.
- Let it solve some word puzzles for you. Just head to the "Words & Linguistics" section for some good examples.
- If you're a sports fan, look up some baseball or football stats: "passing touchdowns Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos."
Our Wolfram Alpha resources
Our Preview: Wolfram|Alpha: Our First Impressions
Wolfram|Alpha will be an amazing product, but it's quite different from Google and other search engines. Indeed, maybe it is actually wrong to call it a search engine at all (and Wolfram prefers to call itself a "computational knowledge engine"). If you wanted to know what sights to see on your next trip to New York City, for example, Alpha, from what we've seen so far, will not be able to help you.
At the end of the day, Wolfram Alpha is a tool; and once you take some time to learn its ways, it can become a very powerful tool. While a lot of media outlets have compared Alpha to Google, we think that this is a moot question. Alpha simply doesn't want to be a Google killer and, in its current form, won't take market share away from Google. As we reported in our first look at Alpha a few weeks ago, Alpha will take away some users from Wikipedia (but it's no Wikipedia killer either), as it can give those users quick and easy access to a wide range of data.
For now, we expect Alpha to remain a niche player. It will be a highly valuable tool for a small subset of potential users. Though, hopefully, over time the team will add more and better databases to draw information from so that Alpha will become more useful to a mainstream audience as well.
First Public Demo of Wolfram Alpha at the Berkman Center:
Stephen Wolfram and colleagues discuss the launch preparations:
Setting up the Wolfram Alpha data center (one of five W|A data centers):
Other Wolfram Alpha Reviews
Technology Review (compares Alpha to Google):
Generally, I did not use search terms that clearly had no computable answer (and therefore would have stumped Wolfram). But I also didn't throw any softballs in areas close to the heart of its makers: physics, chemistry, engineering, and genomics. On hard-core scientific questions, it gives you tons of symbols and graphics and other information that would be useful to a researcher but obscure to most people. But on many common questions for which there is no obvious data element, you will not get much help. In any event, if its plans hold, you should be able to test it out yourself in two or three weeks.
Search Engine Land (very in-depth look):
Wolfram Alpha's edge may be that it's a unique repository of general knowledge that imitates a search engine (unlike Wikipedia, which has no search engine feel). Of course, the killer combination would be for Wolfram Alpha to be partnered with a major search engine. It's something Wolfram said is being considered, though there are no formal discussions at the moment. The focus is really getting the service opened to the public and seeing how the initial reaction goes.
How many times have you used to the internet to calculate the answer to a simple mathematical problem, for help with calculus, or for information on the GDP of Gibraltar? If the answer's, "not often", then it's going to be quite some time before Wolfram Alpha crops up as your search engine of choice.
What Will You Ask?
If you are looking forward to the launch of Wolfram Alpha, let us know what questions you want to ask in the comments. We'll try to answer the most interesting questions (try to give us specific queries!) with links to screenshots from the Wolfram Alpha preview in the comments until about 3pm PST today.