A new player hit the search engine market this weekend -- Wolfram Alpha. Written by Steven Wolfram, math wonder and author of the Mathematica software, the site claims to be the internet's first "computational knowledge engine". The engine is truly different from other engines as it tries to provide direct answers to math and science problems.
If you're confused at what this means, you're not alone -- Wolfram Alpha represents a totally different experience from the standard search engine. Typing "(sinx^2)+1" will bring up a page of equations, mathematical identities, graphs, and more. Or typing "testosterone" brings up chemical formulas and information, naming information, and multiple images of the molecule, including 3D renderings.
In short, whether your question is science, math, language, or history related, Wolfram likely has an answer for you. However, the key thing holding Wolfram Alpha back from being a Google-killer is its lack of support for more traditional searches such as pop culture references. If a Beatles fan types in "She loves me, yeah yeah yeah," Wolfram will not find any results. Another reference -- "We all live in a yellow submarine" -- did return a link to the Yellow Submarine movie as a suggestion, but again, no direct knowledge that could have been inserted here, such as lyrics or band pictures.
Wolfram Alpha, however, compares very favorably to Wikipedia in many respects. While it has fewer articles on its site, it provides more pertinent information on many topics, and also has fewer questions of accuracy.
Another thing to like about Wolfram Alpha is that its developers, including Mr. Wolfram himself, had a keen sense of humor. Typing "why did the chicken cross the road?" yields the answer "to get to the other side". Typing “88 mph” yields under the "speed comparisons" subcategory "= speed at which Marty McFly needed to drive the Delorean DMC-12 in order to time travel."
A final caution is to avoid judging Wolfram Alpha too early when it comes to comparisons with Wikipedia and Google. The site offers user submitted content, to be reviewed by editors, so in time its pop culture knowledge base should grow. Key questions remain -- will this growth make the site as utilitarian for all searches as Google? Will its editors be careful enough to beat the accuracy of user-edited Wikipedia? And perhaps most importantly, will Wolfram Alpha be able to effectively use advertising to power its future growth?
The answers to all these questions remain to be seen. However, for now Wolfram Alpha is an intriguing prospect that will complement our traditional searches, if perhaps not replacing them.