The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

« Previous Post | Technology Home | Next Post »

Wolfram Alpha recalculates its business [Updated]

April 1, 2010 |  6:17 pm

Wolfram Alpha, the statistical search engine that launched to curiosity and eventual bafflement in May, now thinks everyone should use it. Google's not a competitor, a spokesman said, but you should still use Wolfram's search instead. Sometimes.

Wolfram Research, the Champaign, Ill., company that makes the search engine, appears to still be struggling to overcome an identity crisis that has plagued it for nearly a year. For the company, the question is whether Wolfram Alpha should be positioned as a premium product. Meanwhile, consumers wonder why they should use this instead of Google.

The latter question was answered in August when Wolfram Research partnered with Microsoft. For those willing to switch from the almighty Google, Microsoft's Bing displays Wolfram's fact-based, data-rich results in some search results alongside traditional pages culled from the Web.

That agreement (and a check from Microsoft) facilitated in a way Wolfram Alpha's move to "ubiquity," as the developer refers to changes it announced Wednesday. The mobile website for Wolfram Alpha has been put back online after it was removed months ago to avoid competing with the $49.99 iPhone application. And that pricey app has dropped to $1.99.

People who purchased the app at $49.99 will receive a refund for the difference. Those customers amount to a significant chunk of change. The number of apps sold is "in the neighborhood of 10,000," said Schoeller Porter, Wolfram Alpha architect of developer relations.

Wolfram-ipad "It was selling reasonably well," Porter said by phone Thursday. "We were actually very happy with the sales."

Wolfram may intimidate the average Web surfer, but it holds a special place in the hearts of many engineers and mathematicians looking for an advanced fact finder or a superpowered calculator. So why ditch the premium model and give back close to half a million dollars?

"It's not about abandoning the revenue stream," Porter said. "We really are at a point where we can start to open the gates more."

Porter echoed the same sentiments in a message on the company blog. Wolfram's No. 1 priority is to get everyone using it, he wrote. The company plans to continue to add more sources and enable the system to answer more questions -- pushing new site updates every week, sometimes more often, Porter said.

"The price change doesn't reflect a change in philosophy about the app itself," Porter said. "We will continue to improve the app."

You'll also find Wolfram Alpha's data showing up on various websites and mobile apps, as Porter hints at in his blog post. For example, an e-book app for Apple's iPad called "The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe" will feature pop-ups containing data from Wolfram, as the blog Boing Boing notes in its review. Wolfram itself will be released as a standalone iPad app. (Wolfram plans to make announcements Saturday.)

But that still doesn't answer the Google question.

"The things that Google is good at, we're not very good at," Porter said. And vice versa. Now, the task for Wolfram Research is to educate everyone on what exactly it's good at.

[Updated, April 2, 10:51 a.m. Added an image of and info about Wolfram Alpha's iPad app. Also corrected the name of the e-book.]

-- Mark Milian

Photo, top: Stephen Wolfram and his team sit in their multi-screened, NASA-like control room during the May 15, 2009, "soft launch" of Wolfram Alpha. Credit: Megan Bearder. Bottom: Wolfram Alpha iPad app. Credit: Wolfram Alpha