Until now, Wolfram Alpha‘s computational knowledge engine was mostly tied to the project’s website. Starting today, however, users will also be able to use the Wolfram Alpha Widget Builder to bring some of Wolfram Alpha’s power to their own sites. The service, which is launching as a public beta today, allows anybody to quickly create a Wolfram Alpha-powered widget without any programming knowledge. Later this year, Wolfram also plans to re-launch the Wolfram Alpha API, which is currently too expensive for most developers (even students currently pay a minimum of $60 to use the API).

Marching Towards Ubiquity

As Wolfram Alpha’s product manager Schoeller Porter and managing director Barak Berkowitz told us last week, making the service as ubiquitous as possible is currently the main mission for the Wolfram Alpha team. The recent pricing change for the iPhone app and launch of Wolfram’s iPad app were some of the first steps in this direction (sales for the iPhone app increased by over 100x after the price drop). Now that more users are aware of the service, getting the API into developers’ hands is the next step in the company’s march towards ubiquity, with the widget builder being the first step in this direction.

Building Widgets

We were able to preview the application over the last few days. What makes it stand out from similar products is how easy the company has managed to make the creation process. To get started, you simply perform a regular Wolfram Alpha query. From there, you choose which parts of your query should become variables in your widget.

If you are trying to build a widget that compares the cost of living in different cities, for example, you start with a query like “cost of living New York Boston.” Then you highlight the name of the cities and declare them as variables. In the next step, the layout editor, you can then add additional text, choose the color of your widget and add additional choices to your widget’s popup menus. In the following steps, you can select which part of Wolfram Alpha’s results will appear in your final widget and choose the form in which the results will appear on your site (iFrame, lightbox or popup).

During the beta phase, you will have to publish your widget to Wolfram Alpha’s widget gallery (under a Creative Commons license) before you can embed it. If you find an interesting widget in this gallery, you can also modify and re-purpose it.

Simple and Straightforward

According to Wolfram’s Schoeller Porter, the philosophy behind building the service was to make creating these widgets “as simple and straightforward to build and embed as possible.” Judging from our experience with the application, Wolfram succeeded in this while still giving users access to a lot of Wolfram Alpha’s power without giving up too much flexibility for the sake of simplicity.

Wolfram on Wikipedia?

The app makes it easy for users to embed their newly created widgets on most of the popular blogging platforms, including WordPress and Blogger. In addition, the service also offers the ability to export a special embed code for MediaWiki-powered sites. The most popular of these, of course, is Wikipedia. While we weren’t able to get much information about this from the Wolfram Alpha team, it seems like there have been some discussions between Wolfram and Wikipedia about possibly integrating some of Wolfram Alpha’s capabilities into Wikipedia articles. Wolfram Alpha already features links to Wikipedia in its results pages.