I ain’t drinking the Kool Aid

I don’t want to sound like a hater. I think Wolfram Alpha is a beautiful execution of a unique approach to search, and I’m glad the Mathematica folks have been able to bring it to life. Unfortunately, it is subject to two critical flaws:

  1. It isn’t what people think it is; and
  2. What it is really isn’t that flash

Let’s start out with the obvious. Wolfram Alpha isn’t a Google killer. It doesn’t even come close. Actually, it really doesn’t have much to do with anything Google does. Putting aside a whole lot of peripheral activities, Google is a search engine, an advertising network, and a bank. It helps people to find authoritative websites on topics they are interested in; It provides advertisers with a cost-effective means of reaching prospective customers; and It facilitates transactions between advertisers and publishers, and is effectively the Reserve Bank of the Internet. Wolfram Alpha does none of these things – it doesn’t lead you to authoritative sources of information, it assumes that role itself; It doesn’t help advertisers reach new audiences; and It sure as hell doesn’t help to monetise other properties.

The latter two alone would seemingly be enough to ensure Google’s continued dominance over newcomers, but even if that wasn’t the case – even if all Google was was a search engine – Google would win hands down. Why? Because this *smarts*, this unique approach that sets Wolfram Alpha apart from its predecessors and competitors is the answer to a question nobody asked. It is different more for the sake of being different than as a response to a real need, and it smacks of the ‘build it and they will come’ mindset that has lead to some of the Internet age’s greatest failures. Louis Border’s ‘Webvan‘ immediately springs to mind. Assuming people wanted to buy their groceries online, and assuming that a completely automated online-only supermarket was the best way to satisfy that need, Webvan was the best possible response to that opportunity. Problem was, both of those assumptions were tragically flawed and billions of investor dollars were lost. In the same way, Wolfram is assuming that all people want is a direct, concise response to a direct, concise question. Problem is, people don’t ask those kinds of questions or accept those kinds of answers.

Wolfram seems to misunderstand how and why people really use search. Sure, we search for information, but we do so in order to be able to do something with it. We search for hotels so we can find somewhere to stay, not to find out what a hotel is. And when we do want to find out what something is, context and referenced, authoritative sources are essential for validating what we are being told and furthering our understanding. The ‘source information’ link accompanying Wolfram results provides a list of sites used, but with no indication of which *facts* came from which sources. Even Wikipedia – whipping boy of research purists the world over – has higher standards of transparency, which is kind of ironic when you consider that Wolfram Alpha was designed by a respected scientist.

Wolfram’s reference material is also alarmingly Americentric. For example, no New Zealand websites are referenced in response to queries about ‘New Zealand‘. I agree that there are always three sides to every story, but I’d back our own over the Library of Congress, any day.

The contextual deficiency of Wolfram results reminds me of John Steinbeck’s meditation on the problems of measuring a fish:

The Mexican sierra has 17 plus 15 plus 9 spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being – an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from the formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth. . . . There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed – probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.

– Steinbeck, John. 1941. The Log from the Sea of Cortez

So Wolfram Alpha isn’t what people think it is. It isn’t a Google killer. It isn’t a better search engine than Google, Yahoo, MSN or even Wikipedia. It isn’t really a search engine at all.

It is also pretty uninspiring. A lot of attention has been directed towards how *different* it is, and much has been made of the various witty responses returned by some search phrases. Sure it’s different, and its novelty value is enough to ensure we’ll all check it out at least once. But is different better? Is different enough to change our habits? Is different enough to make us persevere with a lesser solution that offers to human understanding what KFC offers to human nutrition?

It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. And it won’t be. Expectations are too high and substance is too low. Wolfram Alpha will never make it as an alternative or successor to traditional search. At best, it will become a new feature or algorithmic enhancement to Yahoo, Google or Microsoft.

But maybe that was the plan all along.


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