Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wolfram Alpha (Still in Beta?)

Wolfram Alpha is the latest in a long-line of would-be "Google-killers".  Please take a moment to note that Google is still very much alive.

WA is not a search engine, per se; rather, it returns answers to structured data queries.  It gives you some sample searches on the front page.  Try one: "7/8".  Google will immediately tell you that 7/8 is equal to .0875.  WA will take about two seconds and will provide prime factorization, Egyption fraction expansion, and a few other metrics.  And this is the crux of the problem with WA: it takes too long to give you information you don't need.  Try another: they suggest you search for "population France/Germany", which will give you the ratio of the two populations.  Google can't do that.  But, Google can give me the population of either, and it's not like it's information that I would ever, you know, need.

So, WA appears to be geared towards people looking for very specialized information, and it retrieves that information in a way that is more or less ok.  It doesn't seem to understand pop culture references, so that sort of rules out your everyday user.  But that's fine, there's nothing wrong with making a niche product.  But if you're going to make a niche product, don't tout it as the next Google-killer.  It won't work.  Why not?

First, you can't bill your product as being nothing more than an alternative to what's already out there.  It needs to be able to stand on its own merits.  Just ask John Kerry.  Google didn't enter the market because it was going to be a Yahoo!-killer, it was created by a few smart people who had an interesting idea about how to generate search results.  They killed Yahoo! because they were better than Yahoo!, not because they were trying to kill anything.

Second, why exactly are we trying to kill Google?  When did this become an admirable goal?  I recently read an article from PC Authority in which one of the authors was descirbing how they were anxious for some competition to come in and force Google to step up their game.  Seriously, what internet have they been surfing?  Google is constantly refining its algorithm and constantly coming up with new features and products that it often-as-not gives away to users.  Also, their products work extremely well.

And, hold the phone, here's another thing: there is competition!!!  Yahoo! has been around longer--just because they're losing doesn't mean that they aren't competing.  Plenty of people use it--hell, my parents have Yahoo! e-mail addresses.  Maybe it's Yahoo! that needs to step up its game, ya?

Not to be a Google fanboy (which, admittedly, I am), but there are plenty of huge corporations out there making crap software that could use to be killed.  I'm looking at you, Microsoft, with your hardware-eating OS's.  Why are we focusing on obliterating a search engine that works really freaking well?

As for Wolfram Alpha, it needs a better name, but I think it could be intersting.  It could provide an alternative to Google for people looking for specific types of information.  It could broaden the market and wind up being a major player in the world of IT.  It could.

But it won't.

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