PopSci's Grouse recently reviewed Wolfram|Alpha. I guess that's what happens when you ignore your editors for a week: They let someone else write about your project!
PopSci readers know me as the mad scientist behind the Gray Matter column, and the book based on it, Mad Science, but I actually have what I affectionately refer to as a day job, as co-founder of Wolfram Research, Inc, the company behind Wolfram|Alpha. And the reason I was ignoring my editor asking me to write about Wolfram|Alpha is that I was recovering from the lead-up to our public launch of that very service.
(You can see me co-hosting our live launch event on justin.tv. The first 8 or 9 minutes are kind of choppy because of technical difficulties, but eventually you get to see some pretty cool stuff. So far as we know, no one has ever broadcast the process of launching a large web service for the first time, and in the course of our broadcast, we learned several reasons why.)
Wolfram|Alpha generated a huge amount of interest from news media and bloggers, from the New York Times all the way to PopSci. Initially people spent a lot of time writing about whether Wolfram|Alpha was going to be a Google-killer, until we put our PR engine into high gear trying to disabuse people of that notion. (Because the answer, of course, is "no, it's not going to kill Google." Going head-to-head against Google on their own turf is like tilting against windmills: It doesn't work, and everyone laughs at you for trying.)
As the Grouse correctly explains, Wolfram|Alpha is not a search engine. Search engines are like parents who refuse to do your homework for you, just giving you hints about where you might be able to find the answers. For example, suppose you want to find out how many calories are a in a sugar-coated buttered Milky Way bar, a recipe of your own devising that involves one ounce of butter, one cup of sugar, and one Milky Way bar.
To figure this out using Google, you have to search for some general term, maybe "nutrition information", to find a website that lists calories per gram for each of the ingredients, and for Milky Way bars specifically. Then you need to search for conversion factors to figure out how many grams of butter are in one cup (no, Google's calculator won't do even that for you). Finally, you have to multiply the Calories per gram by how many grams you have and add up the total.
Wolfram|Alpha simply gives you the answer. Enter the query "how many calories in one ounce sugar and one cup butter and one milky way bar" and Wolfram|Alpha immediately tells you the answer, 2000 Calories (coincidentally, exactly the total recommended number of calories per day for an adult).
And just in case you were interested, it also prints out a complete nutrition information label, just like you'd find on the side of a box of cereal, letting you know that along with all the calories you need for the day, the recipe also provides six times your allotment of saturated fat.
Note that this label did not exist before you asked for it. Wolfram|Alpha didn't find it somewhere on someone's web page, because it doesn't exist on anyone's web page. (That's why Google is unable to answer the question: Google can only answer questions whose answers have already been published somewhere on the web, which is of course a huge limitation.)
Instead, Wolfram|Alpha created the label out of thin air, combining its general knowledge about nutrition information with the specific numerical quantities you put into your query. It did the work for you. And while this may be bad practice if you're trying to help your kid with homework, it is a tremendous relief if you're a grownup who just wants to get the darn answer.
The Grouse's review of Wolfram|Alpha was pretty much spot-on, right down to the complaint that Wolfram|Alpha is not as much fun as Google to play around with. Well, sorry.
In fact, what we've found in focus groups and follow-ups with early beta users is that they find Wolfram|Alpha disappointing at first, when they are just playing around, but a bit later, when they have an actual problem they actually want solved, suddenly they realize just how valuable the site is. It does much better when you've got a real problem than when you're kind of stumbling around wanting to be entertained (for that I recommend YouTube or Digg).
One large class of "darn, I have a real problem" problems is homework. And basically, if you have math or physics or chemistry homework, it's done. Sorry, teachers, but get used to it. Say you've got a fairly mean math teacher and you're asked to integrate x^3 sin(4 x). Wolfram|Alpha will just do that, and show you some plots of the result for good measure.
Shouldn't the phrase "recuse yourself" play some role in this?
I really like the engine, it has been pretty useful for homework already, but it does have its problems even in areas its tries to excel. Well my only complaint really is the lack of international knowledge but hopefully that will improve. I was trying to do some homework comparing some companies, and I could find American traded corporations easily but could not find any information about companies traded in other markets. The company comparison on the site is quite useful but some of the largest companies in the world are missing.
Anyway, I didn't know about that nutrition information thing thats cool.