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05.08.09 5:44 AM ET

The Google Killer

Is "Googling" passé? A new search engine—developed in secret by a British mathematician—could radically change the way you surf the Web. Nicholas Ciarelli test drives it.

Is "Googling" passé? A new search engine launching this month—developed in secret by a British mathematician—could radically change the way you surf the Web. The Daily Beast's Nicholas Ciarelli test drives it.

Step away from your Google search for a moment and consider the following scenario: What if a search engine, instead of giving you a long list of Web pages, simply computed the answer to whatever question you threw at it?

What was the average temperature in Chicago last year? What is the life expectancy of a male, age 40, in New Zealand? If you flip a coin 10 times, what is the probability that four of the flips will come up heads?

Wolfram Alpha easily computed a variety of facts: What nutrients are in two Snickers bars? How many people are alive today with the name "Nicholas"? How do oil exports in Iraq compare to those of Kuwait?

This scenario will become reality later this month with the highly anticipated launch of Wolfram Alpha, a free Web site that is the result of years of secret work by a British mathematician—Stephen Wolfram—and his team of 250 colleagues. The project set the tech world on fire last week after a sneak preview at Harvard Law School, and may present the most powerful challenge yet to the Google behemoth.

"The feeling that I had was that feeling from back in 1996, when the world was using AltaVista and this new thing out of Stanford came out called Google, and everyone said, 'you've got to check it out,'" says Matthew Prince, a business-school student who saw the demo. "I could immediately see ways in my daily life where I would potentially use this."

In essence, Wolfram Alpha is a frighteningly powerful calculator that is chock full of facts about the world. Type in a question in plain English: "What was the weather in Rancho Mirage when Gerald Ford died?" Wolfram Alpha instantly spits back the temperature, weather conditions, relative humidity, and wind speed, followed by a set of neatly formatted tables and charts.

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In testing by The Daily Beast, Wolfram Alpha easily computed a variety of facts: Which European country has the most Internet users? How many people are alive today with the name "Nicholas"? What is the height of the Empire State Building divided by the length of the Triborough Bridge? How do oil exports in Iraq compare to those of Kuwait? What are the monthly payments on a 20-year, 5% fixed-rate mortgage with a loan of $200,000? What is the body mass index of a person who is six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds? What nutrients are in two Snickers bars?

Many of these questions can be answered using Google, but only by visiting several different Web sites, assessing the validity of sources, and making your own calculations. Wolfram Alpha simply gives you the answer.

"Why should you, the human being, have to do the mathematical drudgework of doing this kind of computation?" says Doug Lenat, chief executive of Cycorp and a noted computer scientist.

It’s not the first time Google’s top brass have encountered Wolfram, 49, who was a physics Ph.D. at Caltech by age 20 and went on to create Mathematica, a wildly popularly software package that is de rigueur in college mathematics departments. Google co-founder Sergey Brin interned for Wolfram Research in the early 1990s.

The business plan for Wolfram Alpha is apparently still being written. The free site will display advertisements from corporate sponsors, while professionals will be able to pay for a heavy-duty version of the site. Beyond that, the details of how Wolfram Alpha will make money have yet to be determined.

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"Nobody, including Wolfram, knows if it's going to work," says Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of the industry news site Search Engine Land. "It's not uncommon to have a search service come out with a business model that changes six months or a year down the road."

Business prospects aside, Wolfram Alpha has a shot at stealing a share of the nearly 300 million searches that are performed on Google each day.

"I think Google might try to kill Alpha, but I don't think Alpha's trying to kill Google," says Nova Spivack, the chief executive of Radar Networks, who received an early peek at the site back in March. "The question will be, how does Google respond to this?"

Wolfram Alpha still has some kinks to work out. The site is a little picky about how it understands questions, and extra words can lead it astray. (A spokesman says the version tested by The Daily Beast was a couple of weeks behind the latest version, which will feature an improved ability to make suggestions when a question doesn't compute.) And much work remains in expanding Wolfram Alpha's data sources, which span the sciences but include only the most perfunctory details of popular culture. If you try to calculate something that isn't in the site's database, you're out of luck.

Google has already begun to mimic some of Wolfram Alpha's functionality, albeit in much more limited ways. Last week the company launched Google Public Data, a tool enabling users to visualize government figures on population and unemployment.

"They must be planning to either embrace it or compete with it," Lenat says. "I can't believe that they would simply ignore it."

Wolfram Alpha offers a different kind of service than existing search sites. "Wikipedia could tell you all about cars and energy efficiency, but if you had a specific question about whether it would be better to drive or fly to a particular location—which would use more carbon—then that's something that you need sort of a fancy calculator for," Spivack says. "In many ways, Alpha is that kind of calculator."

Of course, no calculator can tell you the best restaurant in Montreal, or which politician deserves your vote. Wolfram Alpha can only compute facts—and many of those computations deal with science and advanced math. The site will need to branch out into other areas if it hopes to attract more mainstream users.

In tests, the site revealed that topics as diverse as automobiles and musical performers are under investigation. And the number of people named Nicholas in the U.S.? 775,933.

Nicholas Ciarelli is an assistant product manager at The Daily Beast.