Page last updated at 09:45 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 10:45 UK

Wolfram Alpha first impressions

A search engine that aims to give people direct answers to queries has been launched in the US.

We take a quick look at what industry experts make of the new search engine.


One of the weaknesses of Wolfram Alpha is that a lot of its data is US-centric.

It's also important to note that Wolfram Alpha's strengths are based around information that can be expressed as clear data, which is why when we entered the phrase 'mortality rate Cuba' we were given a decisive figure... but when we entered 'lasagne recipe' we were told 'Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input.'

Expect to see the error message 'I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that' when the servers get overloaded with requests.


To borrow an old advertising tagline from 7-Up, you might call Wolfram Alpha the "un-Google.

It functions in a way that's very different than any other search engine I've ever used. Even beyond impressive, the words that best describe the experience of using Wolfram Alpha are 'fun' and 'enchanting'.

[However] it still faces a hefty awareness challenge to pull in ordinary searches that it hopes [will] also appeal


Wolfram Alpha will do a few things to Google: it will drive it to innovate in semantic search and it will complement its high-volume search capabilities quite nicely. It will not, however, kill Google.

A simple search for the word 'veracity' yields the definition, word origin, pronunciation, hyphenation, and a synonym. A Google search for the same word gives me my choices of online dictionaries.

A search for 'characters on Lost' returns, 'Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input.' Google gave me everything I needed to know about the show.


We're just scratching the surface of Wolfram Alpha here and if there is a downside currently to the project it is that it takes a bit of practice in learning how to phrase things so the engine understands.

That said, there remains no doubt Wolfram Alpha represents a quantum leap forward in compiling data and the next time I need cold hard facts I suspect it is Wikipedia, not Google, which might feel the pinch.


I wouldn't dream of pointing my parents at this. It's too picky about syntax and not intuitive to get into.

I kept trying to figure out how to correlate weather with earthquakes in San Francisco. I can get the data for weather. I can get it for earthquakes. So I know that Alpha has the information. But I can't figure out how to show them together.

Wolfram Alpha, the dorktastic computational search engine, got off to a bit of a rocky start. At least its first fail message had the foresight to include a HAL reference. As it's an alpha, we're not too bothered that it's run into some overload problems. Hey, at least people are using it, right? But be warned, Wolfie: A pithy error message can only charm us for so long.

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