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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