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Wolfram Alpha : 5 Things You Need To Know

Much has been said about Wolfram Alpha, the computational knowledge engine that many claim could soon rival Google for search supremacy.

But the service does not market itself as either a search engine or a rival to Google, leaving this task to the online tech community who have been too keen to bring forward other alternatives to Google.

Wolfram Alpha, which looks like a cross between a traditional search engine and a service like Wikipedia. It doesn't try to be a Jack of all trade, preferring to be best at what it does.

Here are five things you should know about the online service which, unlike Twine, Cuil or Hakia, make Wolfram Alpha an excellent complement to Google.

(1) Wolfram Alpha is a software developer first

Wolfram Alpha, the computational knowledge engine, is a subset of Wolfram Web resource. The company behind it is better known inside the scientific community as the maker of Mathematica, a £2035 application that runs on Windows, Mac, Linux and Solaris. It is billed as the "World's Most Powerful Global Computing Environment". It is therefore not a surprise that Wolfram Alpha itself is built primarily using Mathematica; it contains 5 million lines of symbolic Mathematica code.

(2) Wolfram Alpha offers its APIs to developers and then some..

The online service allows you to connect any website or application to its technology through a custom set of API. Furthermore, developers can call the Mathematica engine directly or create their own customised web interface using webMathematica. But that's not all, Wolfram Alpha will be available in a professional version which will allow data to be downloaded or uploaded (XML, CSV, Images etc) and allow different visualisation formats. There is also the possibility for enterprises to get customised installations of Wolfram Alpha.

(3) There are already ads on the site

Lenovo and Scottrade are two early (only?) sponsors for Wolfram Alpha which according to the company get access to a unique audience as well as brand enhancement opportunities. That's only part of the equation though as Wolfram Alpha is also seeking to pioneer a new generation of targeted transactional advertising model.

(4) The human is definitely the weakest link

Wolfram Alpha is not for everyone. There are many instances where you will be either greeted by the “Wolfram Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input” or when Wolfram Alpha will automatically substitute your search word and produce a result. Trying to "google yourself" will not necessarily bring up. There are a few things that may help though; be more specific, objective and query about things in the public domain.

(5) Wolfram Alpha's homepage is 9 times heavier than Google's

Wolfram Alpha's homepage weighs a staggering 213KB the last time we checked, 9 times more than Google's 26KB. The reason why Google succeeded has always been because it was faster and whatever way you look at it, a 26KB page will show up faster than a 213KB one. Furthermore, there are a number of idiosyncrasies like its propensity to depend too much on Javascript which can harm your sanity (and make your browser as slow as a three-legged turtle).

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.