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Wolfram Alpha's API sees big pickup, may just change how we look at a search engine

We've been following Wolfram Alpha for since its introduction as this search engine promises to open search to dramatically new realms, such as math and the sciences.  Located in Champaign, Illinois, Wolfram Research produces Wolfram Alpha.  Founded by Stephen Wolfram, Ph.D, the company's past works have included Mathematica and Wolfram Workbench, utilities commonly employed by college students and researchers.

Wolfram Alpha returns answers to complex questions like plots of mathematical functions, geometric shapes, nutritional information, and more.  Previously, these results had been offered solely through Wolfram's search engine site.  There had been some recent chatter that Wolfram was working on APIs for other search engine firms to use, but the results remained unrevealed -- until now.

Microsoft and Wolfram Research just announced that Microsoft's Bing search engine will bring the Wolfram API onboard to provide richer search results.  Wolfram's blog describes, "Wolfram|Alpha provides immediate, unbiased, and individualized information, making it distinctly different from what has traditionally been found through web search. By using Wolfram|Alpha, Bing recognizes the complementary benefits of bringing computational knowledge to the forefront of the search experience... By using our API, Bing will be able to seamlessly access the tens of thousands of algorithms and trillions of pieces of data from Wolfram|Alpha, and directly incorporate the computations in its search results."

The Wolfram team relates a humorous story of Stephen Wolfram presenting the engine to Microsoft's senior executives.  Stephen Wolfram typed in the query "2^2^2^2^2" and a number popped up.  Semi-retired founder and former CEO Bill Gates inquired, "What, is that right?"

Mr. Wolfram replied, "We do mathematics!

And that they did, finding that the result is indeed correct. The Wolfram team writes, "Microsoft continues to pepper us with questions to this day, reflecting its continued enthusiasm in Wolfram|Alpha."

The deal is not an exclusive one, however, so those hoping to see Google+Wolfram aren't out of luck just yet.  We caught up with Wolfram's publicist, John Ekizian.  While he told us he couldn't discuss financial details of the deal with Microsoft, he was more than happy to clarify the question of exclusivity.  He states, " We have talked to everybody in the business about using our API, and then we'll have more announcements about whose using. But no, there's no exclusivity with Microsoft."

He says Microsoft was the first to jump on the deal, though.  Asking him about the direction he sees the company's search endeavors going in, he plugged both the API (and partners), Wolfram's own site, and the company's iPhone app, stating, "I think its a little bit of everything. Its a great complement to search. Therefore its the perfect API. But also, we've had a lot of traction on the actual website and our iPhone app has been doing incredibly well. We've been on the top grossing apps and on the hot apps and we've only been out about three or four weeks with the iPhone app."

For now, you can go to Bing and test out the feature for yourself.  Microsoft suggests using it to search for health information, such as body-mass index (BMI), nutrition information, to plot math equations, or to look up geometric information like "pyramid".

Update: Thur., November 12, 2009, 2:10 p.m.:  

We spoke early this afternoon with Wolfram's Schoeller Porter who leads Wolfram's developer relations program and works more closely with the technical aspects of the API. 

We began by asking some questions about how Wolfram collects all of its data.  Mr. Porter explained that some data is internal, other from reputable sources (government data, etc.).  However, with all information, before it can be entered into the search engine it must undergo "curation" -- named after museum preservation.  Describes Mr. Porter, "It's a process to help ensure that we're providing quality data to our customers."

Next we inquired about whether Wolfram had plans for a Android OS (Google) or Blackberry (RIM) version of its popular iPhone app.  Mr. Porter said that the various platforms are indeed being looked at and that the main limitation was screen size.  The iPhone app sends queries to the API, which Mr. Porter describes as a "restful API" and gets information back to display.  Mr. Porter said that the iPhone was first targeted due to its "large and vibrant market."

One interesting thing Mr. Porter mentioned was that Microsoft was Wolfram's customer (and not the other way around).  This may cast a bit of light on the business arrangement between the pair, which is being kept closely guarded.

We closed with discussing the future of Wolfram Alpha, which seems bright.  Mr Porter states, "Wolfram Alpha will continue to grow in scope of information and depth."




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End of Days?
By Mitch101 on 11/12/2009 10:36:40 AM , Rating: 4
Its silly for anyone to think that a better search engine than google can't be written. Will this be what Microsoft needs to topple google search? I dont think so as long as Google has good search people wont go elsewhere quickly. But then again AltaVista and Yahoo seems impossible to beat in search. I forgot who I used between Alta Vista and Yahoo.




RE: End of Days?
By Drag0nFire on 11/12/2009 10:55:05 AM , Rating: 1
Although I agree that Google's dominance as a search engine in the long term will have to be based on continued innovation, I do not see this as the end of days for Google.

I am a researcher in the health sciences. Having tried Wolfram Alpha, I am confident in my choice to stay with Google. When I need a calculator, I just have to use a calculator. And I guess I'll just have to calculate my BMI on my own without help from my search engine.


RE: End of Days?
By bhieb on 11/12/2009 11:05:50 AM , Rating: 2
or ... *gasp*... bookmark both :)


RE: End of Days?
By AnnihilatorX on 11/12/2009 12:01:39 PM , Rating: 3
I use wolfam alpha to do calculations not possible with normal calculators but graphical calculators, e.g. integration and differentiation.

Yes you can use paper, brain and normal calculator, but it saves so much time sometimes. Graphical calculators aren't cheap and my last one died on me.


RE: End of Days?
By PrinceGaz on 11/13/2009 7:55:36 PM , Rating: 2
Online graphical calculators using the likes of java are very cheap, as in free. I'd rather use one of those I've used in the past and therefore trust, than rely on a search-engine to correctly interpret what I am asking and spit out the right answer(s).


RE: End of Days?
By MindParadox on 11/12/2009 11:11:58 AM , Rating: 4
actually, it would be easy for someone to write a better search engine than google. you take the search engine google STARTED out being, put that up on the web, and then you innovate by not letting advertisers jack all the searches :P


What the hell?
By Gnarr on 11/12/09, Rating: 0
RE: What the hell?
By rvd2008 on 11/12/2009 1:47:12 PM , Rating: 2
you better leave the math work to Wolfram. Bill did it, and that makes him smart :-)


RE: What the hell?
By boeush on 11/12/2009 3:31:22 PM , Rating: 3
Unless the calculation goes as 2^(2^(2^(2^2)))

In which case we're talking about 2^65536, which is a rather mind-boggling number, approximately equal to 2E19728


RE: What the hell?
By Donovan on 11/12/2009 3:45:38 PM , Rating: 5
You're solving (((2^2)^2)^2)^2 which is easy. The correct order of operations is 2^(2^(2^(2^2))) which is equal to approximately 2x10^19728:

http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=2%5E2%5E2%5E2...


Wolfram Alpha has yet to impress
By epobirs on 11/12/2009 11:55:12 AM , Rating: 5
Thus far, I am unimpressed by Wolfram Alpha. It just seems like the second coming of Ask Jeeves. In both cases the site was supposed to deliver marvelous results from natural language queries but after an hour of trying neither produced a single useful result that wasn't as readily produced by the 'unnatural' incumbents.




By amanojaku on 11/12/2009 2:35:30 PM , Rating: 2
This isn't exactly a search engine. Search engines typically return links, along with other bits of data. It's a summary of Wikipedia, without the articles...


Awesome.
By Smilin on 11/12/2009 11:53:44 AM , Rating: 2
For the very specific purposes for which it was designed Wolfram Alpha is absolutely amazing. I'm glad to see MS appreciates this and the fact that Google doesn't is more indication that they've been complacent.

Want to see an interesting one? Go do weather forecast searches on Wolfram alpha.




So they ARE going to make some money
By nafhan on 11/12/2009 12:43:29 PM , Rating: 2
Huh, and I was thinking there was no way Wolfram was going to make money off of Alpha. Good for them.




Would be great
By ksenter on 11/12/2009 12:56:02 PM , Rating: 2
I think this would be great... if it worked. Math seems to work, but their other suggestions like nutrition information don't. They work fine on the wolfram alpha website, but not on bing as of just now. I tried some nutrition questions and some distance questions, etc. Maybe I don't know the exact syntax bing requires to send the question to wolfram aplha...




W|A
By eddieroolz on 11/12/2009 2:00:12 PM , Rating: 2
Wolfram Alpha is great. It helped me so much on integration questions on my calculus assignments.




Editor needed.....
By bissimo on 11/12/2009 3:32:44 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
We've been following Wolfram Alpha for since its introduction

Really?




Bing fails at exponents
By AWeav09 on 11/12/2009 4:39:29 PM , Rating: 2
Inputting "2^2^2^2^2" into Wolfram Alpha returns 2*10^19728. Inputting the exact same string into Bing returns 65,536. It seems they aren't using the same API yet since they handle order of operations differently.




Once again...
By aebiv on 11/13/2009 1:04:37 AM , Rating: 2
Jason forgets Windows Mobile, and instead only mentions Android, RIM and the iPhone.

The WinMo market is far bigger than the Android market Jason.




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