A David has just arisen to take on the Goliath that is Google: Wolfram|Alpha, a search engine which serves up formatted answers to questions rather than providing a list of links. As of this writing, it was scheduled to go live this Monday.
What is it? This "computational knowledge engine" (as it calls itself) is the brainchild of Stephen Wolfram, the founder of Wolfram Research, whose most well-known product to date is Mathematica, a computational application that is used by mathematicians, scientists and other technicians.
Wolfram|Alpha's mission is to go beyond simply finding and listing links to websites, and instead to pull the needed data from those sites and provide users with the answers to their questions. In other words, it will travel through websites so you don't have to.
What does it do? Wolfram|Alpha gathers data based on your search terms and presents you with the answers in a well-formatted structure, using charts, graphs and other visual aids. For example, if you want to compare statistics about several different cities, you type in their names and find out that, say, Tokyo has several thousand more people than New York.
I live in Brooklyn, New York and so I typed "Brooklyn" into the search engine. The best guess that Wolfram|Alpha came up with was Brooklyn, Connecticut. It also suggested Brooklyn, Ohio.
What's cool about it? If you're of a scientific bent, this could be a great resource, once Wolfram Research beefs up its informational sources. It lays out the data in easy-to-read, well-formatted pages that include a variety of charts and graphs.
For example, when I typed in "Hubble," it came up with some interesting facts about the Hubble Space Telescope, including its current position and original launch date. Typing in "ISDN" brought up various comparative speeds and the time needed to transfer 100 kilobytes of data. And typing in "Cheerios" got me more information than I needed to know about the cereal's nutritional components.
What needs to be fixed? A lot.
While it is fun to play with Wolfram|Alpha, unless you're a mathematician or a scientist you're not going to get a great deal out of it in its current iteration. Because much of the information that appears in its pages is apparently derived from "Wolfram|Alpha curated data," there is a lot - a whole lot - it can't find or understand.