The Beeb and Alpha

April 30, 2009

I am delighted that the BBC, the once non commercial entity, has a new horse to ride. I must admit that when I think of the UK and horse to ride, my mind echoes with the sound of Ms. Sperling saying, “Into the valley of death rode the 600”. The story (article) here carries a title worthy of the Google-phobic Guardian newspaper: “Web Tool As Important as Google.” The subject is the Wolfram Alpha information system which is “the brainchild of British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram”.

Wolfram Alpha is a new content processing and information system that uses a “computational knowledge engine”. There are quite a few new search and information processing systems. In fact, I mentioned two of these in recent Web log posts: NetBase here and Veratect here.


Can Wolfram Alpha or another search start up Taser the Google? Image source:

In my reading of the BBC story includes a hint that Wolfram Alpha may have a bit of “fluff” sticking to its ones and zeros. Nevertheless, I sensed a bit of glee that Google is likely to face a challenge from a math-centric system.

Now let’s step back:

First, I have no doubt that the Wolfram Alpha system will deliver useful results. Not only does Dr. Wolfram have impeccable credentials, he is letting math do the heavy lifting. The problem with most NLP and semantic systems is that humans are usually needed to figure out certain things regarding “meaning” of and in information. Like Google, Dr. Wolfram lets the software machines grind away.

Second, in order to pull of an upset of Google, Wolfram Alpha will need some ramp up momentum. Think of the search system as a big airplane. The commercial version of the big airplane has to be built, made reliable, and then supported. Once that’s done, the beast has to taxi down a big runway, build up speed, and then get aloft. Once aloft, the airplane must operate and then get back to ground for fuel, upgrades, etc. The Wolfram Alpha system is in it early stages.

Third, Google poses a practical problem to Wolfram Alpha and to Microsoft, Yahoo, and the others in the public search space. Google keeps doing new things. In fact, Google doesn’t have to do big things. Incremental changes are fine. Cumulatively these increase Google’s lead or its “magnetism”, if you will. So competitors are going to have to find a way to leapfrog Google. I don’t think any of the present systems have the legs for this jump, including Wolfram Alpha because it is not yet a commercial grade offering. When it is, I will reassess my present view. What competitors are doing is repositioning themselves away from Google. Instead of getting sand kicked in one face on the beach, the competitors are swimming in the pool at the country club. Specialization makes it easier to avoid Googzilla’s hot breath.

To wrap up, I hope Wolfram Alpha goes commercial quickly. I want to have access to its functions and features. Before that happens, I think that the Beeb and other publishing outfits will be rooting for the next big thing in the hopes that once of these wizards can Taser the Google. For now, the Tasers are running on a partial charge. The GOOG does not feel them.

Stephen Arnold, May 1, 2009


One Response to “The Beeb and Alpha”

  1. Martin Griffies on May 4th, 2009 12:27 pm
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