Blogger: Larry Cannell
Unless you been unplugged from the Internet for the past month you’ve likely heard about Wolfram Alpha. Early on (before it was released for public use) and based on the first impressions of many, it was claimed to be a “Google Killer.” Now, we are seeing a chorus of bloggers saying it is something different and will definitely not kill Google.
While Wolfram Alpha doesn’t appear to be a Google Killer, it does kind of look and act like a search engine. So the confusion is understandable. At the very least, Wolfram Alpha is a thought provoking experiment in information retrieval.
However, the fact that so many people first described Wolfram as a search engine (contrary to how Wolfram describes itself in it’s FAQ) is what I find most intriguing. In many ways, Wolfram is causing each of us to re-examine our own definition of search:
- If an application uses a natural language processing (NLP) interface (i.e., just type text in a box and click submit), does that make it search? Probably not. But our use of the simple Google type-and-click experience is clearly coloring our expectations of computer systems. This reminds me of a theme FAST (and now, Microsoft) pushed the last two years at the FASTforward conference: search is a “user experience,” not just information retrieval.
- Many of you may have noticed that Wolfram Alpha contains structured data but search generally deals with unstructured content. So clearly Wolfram Alpha is not search, right? The problem is this statement makes virtually no sense to the average enterprise knowledge worker (“structured data…unstructured…huh?”) who might find a system like this useful. They just want information to make a decision, structured or otherwise. Describing a solution by the type of data it uses is a slippery slope.
This isn’t the first time there’s been confusion around what is and isn’t search. Enterprise examples of this are being sold by companies like Endeca, FAST, and Attivio. These systems are blending structured data and unstructured content in new and interesting ways, with interfaces that allow broad exploration of information, regardless of its source. The blogosphere’s confusion around Wolfram Alpha will be familiar to IT strategists who’ve tried to explain these systems to their CIO.
Maybe these new systems shouldn’t be called search. But how would you describe them otherwise? Let me know by posting a comment below.