On Monday, Wolfram Research launched Wolfram Alpha and almost immediately comparisons to search giant Google started to mount. Many started pitting the two against each other to see which responded more accurately to what they were looking for, always pronouncing Google the winner.
The problem is Wolfram Alpha isn't a search engine and never claimed to be. In fact, the first question on the site's FAQ list is just that, and the answer is -- no. What the company claims it to be is a "computational knowledge engine." This essentially means that the engine isn't just sorting through an indexed file of data; it is actually running computations based on what it has been programmed to think the requestor is asking.
Wolfram Alpha relies strictly on an internal database of factual knowledge. It does not have bots scouring the Internet and is therefore limited to what it already "knows." It will fail at finding and displaying opinions, but excels when asked details about known facts and quantitative knowledge. Anything that can be computed is fair game.
As an offshoot of the parent company's Mathematica software, the engine is especially good at working with anything number-related. Distances and math problems are child's play. Entering a simple query such as "New York Boston" returns information on both cities, such as population, elevation and current time, as well as distances and estimated flight times between them. Likewise, entering one or more corporations' stock symbols returns graphs and charts way beyond that which search engines do.
Typing in a date brings up interesting facts such as time differences from today, holidays and notable events, and information about the sun and moon.
It doesn't respond with random information or attempt to find the answer. It actually computes the information based on known elements and presents strictly facts. As many have already pointed out, Wolfram Alpha won't replace Google -- and nobody ever said it would.
One can only presume that as more information is collected and entered into its database, Wolfram Alpha will continue to grow more powerful. As a research and education tool, it has the potential to be very successful. And if the majority of Web users could just stop and see it for what it really is, they might actually get something useful out of it.