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Wolfram|Alpha has arrived. Now what's it good for?

Stephen Wolfram,search, Google, The Wolfram|Alpha Web site went live today, accompanied by a lot of noise and mixed reviews.

Most of the hoopla came from people wondering whether the new site, launched by former particle physicist Stephen Wolfram and his eponymous company, will give Google a run for its money.

Only time will tell. But Wolfram|Alpha and Google aim to do such different things that the services may ultimately prove to be complementary. Everybody knows Google, but once it was just the little search engine that could. Enter Wolfram|Alpha, touted as a "computational knowledge engine" that searches its own extensive database in an attempt to answer a user's question. Think of it as Ask Jeeves with PhD.

Some reviews hailed Wolfram|Alpha as a breakthrough for the semantic Web because the site responds to queries written in sentences rather than keywords. "It's going to be a challenger in important places where Google is presently blind," The Guardian's Charles Arthur wrote today on the site's technology blog. More succinctly, Wolfram|Alpha's goal aims to give people direct answers to queries rather than send them to other sites where they may find what they are seeking, the BBC reported today on its Web site.

But the new site's use of semantic queries can draw blanks, if the system can't understand what's being asked. We tried the query, "Is Wolfram|Alpha any good?" The answer: "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input," its standard response when stumped. Google, on the other hand, sent us to an intriguing item on Twine: "Wolfram|Alpha is Coming—and It Could be as Important as Google (But It's Completely Different)"

InformationWeek magazine's Michael Hickins noted in a blog post yesterday that the new site is more comfortable answering questions about the International Space Station than obscure baseball trivia. Associated Press reporter Brian Bergstein called Wolfram|Alpha a niche Web site for scientists and technologists, saying "there aren't many ways everyday Web users would benefit from using it over other resources."

Wolfram, the man, urged patience with his newest creation. "What we are being able to release to the world now is something that is clearly only the beginning of a long process of kind of encoding the world's knowledge in computable form," he said in a video interview on the BBC Web site.

Image of Stephen Wolfram © Megan Bearder / Wolfram|Alpha LLC

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