The Noisy Channel


The Wolfram Cometh

May 15th, 2009 · 6 Comments · General

If you’re curious about Wolfram Alpha but tired of reading second-hand reports and third-hand hysteria about it, then be assured that your wait for first-hand access is almost over. Their blog reports that they will launch today.

UPDATE: The Wolfram Alpha site says:

Watch a live webcast of the Wolfram|Alpha system being brought online for the first time. Friday, May 15, beginning at 7pm CST

It’s been an interesting pre-launch hype cycle, particularly since I’ve gotten to watch it from a pretty good seat–a perk of being an obsessive a prolific blogger.

The initial marketing and buzz offered a level of hyperbole comparable to the hype that surrounded the publication of Wolfram’s New Kind of Science (appreciated NKS by Wolfram and fans) seven years ago. Regulars may recall that I responded by calling it “A New Kind of Marketing (NKM)“.

Apparently sensitive to the dangers of being hyped up (and thus set up to fail) as a “Google killer”, Wolfram Alpha’s marketing team reached out to influencers (and a few little people like me), offering demos and explanations. In fact, I think they were doing an admirable job of mitigating the original damage–up until April 28th. That day, as Wolfram himself was giving a public demonstration of Wolfram Alpha at Harvard, Google releasing Google Public Data to the general public. Ouch. To add insult to injury, Google’s Matt Cutts says the timing was a coincidence–an accidental upstaging!

In any case, the release of Google Public Data amplified the pressure on Wolfram Alpha. A week later, the latter was offering preview access to reporters and bloggers, presumably knowing that the testers would compare the two offerings side by side. Meanwhile, Google has continued raising the stakes through announcements like this week’s preview of Google Squared. I doubt the two companies are as focused on one another as the blogosphere makes them out to be, but it’s certainly an entertaining David vs. Goliath story (albeit where the David has a Goliath-sized ego).

And today is public launch day for Wolfram Alpha. I wish them luck! But I’m pretty sure that many of the people who’ve been waiting for this access will be disillusioned as they struggle with theĀ  NLP interface. None of the marketing team’s attempts at expectation management can mitigate the frustration of an undocumented, brittle interface. Ah well. I did try to tell them. I hope they can make it past that initial blow and then reconsider their approach to the interface.

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Prasad Chalasani // May 15, 2009 at 10:53 am

    They should allow programmatic access to their data. For example why not allow access through an R interface.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // May 15, 2009 at 11:11 am

    I suspect they will see the light and allow programmatic access. I just hope they come to that conclusion quickly, before the public reaction to their NLP interface damns them to oblivion.

  • 3 jeremy // May 15, 2009 at 11:47 am

    I still don’t quite get what “Google Public Data” is. Besides continuing the worst sequence of brandings that I’ve seen in recent years, GPD is basically just.. an information onebox? It doesn’t actually let you draw inferences among and between data, does it? Or refactor the data in any way? It only presents graphical interfaces on top of public data sets?

    Good to have, but hardly an upstaging of WA, don’t you think?

    Or am I not getting something?

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // May 15, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I think you’re right that it’s really just an extension of the the OneBox; indeed, others have described it that way.

    The reasons it upstaged WA: it released publicly while WA was still in private beta, and it offered access to much of the same curated data as WA. It doesn’t support any computation of inferences, but most of the WA examples don’t do that either.

    I think WA could do a lot more–but only if they can get past the interface issues. NLP is not the right interface for a computational engine!

  • 5 Adam // May 15, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Could they be leaving the NLP interface open until they get users?

    I’m sure they could spend a lot of time designing a precise interface that it turns out nobody likes or feels is intuitive. I am personally a proponent of the “blank text box” type systems, as seen in Google, Ubiquity, Spotlight, etc. The problem WA has is that they have no idea how people will use it, because 1) they have little to no data, and 2) a “computational engine” is a new paradigm.

    Of course, this brings the question of whether the users should conform to the query language (power users, high learning curve) or the query language should conform to the user (casual users, low learning curve), which is ultimately driven by their monetization strategy–and who knows what that will be!

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // May 15, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    A blank text box works for a search engine because there’s no attempt to interpret the query as a structured request. But WA is aspiring to be a computation engine, not a search engine. Imagine having an NLP interface for a calculator. Sure, it can be done, but it’s inefficient, and frustrating when it doesn’t work.

    I don’t even mind the blank text box as a starting point–but they should be teaching users how to make structured queries so that their frustration from misinterpreted NLP queries goes down as they use the system.

    In any case, I don’t think that casual users need a computational engine.

    In fact, judging by the examples in their gallery, I’m not even sure Wolfram Alpha is aiming at casual users. Here’s what the preview site shows as “a few things to try”:

    * enter any date (e.g. a birth date)
    june 23, 1988
    * enter any town (e.g. a home town)
    new york
    * enter any two stocks
    IBM Apple
    * enter any calculation
    $250 + 15%
    * enter any math formula
    x^2 sin(x)

    That doesn’t strike me as resonating with casual users.

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