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Monday, May 18, 2009

WolframAlpha is NOT Another Cuil


When WolframAlpha was first announced, there were serious concern that it would be another Cuil ( you do remember Cuil, don't you?)-- another purported Google Killer that turned up to be a spectacular failure. For those of you who were born after Cuil came to earth, Cuil was setup by ex-Googlers and it boasts over the biggest index of webs in the world, beating even that of Google. But the first day launch was a disaster; the Cuil servers couldn't handle all the loads, the results returned were less than irrelevant, the pictures and the contents didn't match, and so on and so on.

WolframAlpha launched a few days ago , and Internet went abuzz over it. The news aggregator sites, such as reddit and hacker news , as usual, were skeptical. Users derided it because it couldn't do the things Google could do; and some who are more vociferous took this opportunities to complain about Stephen Wolfram 's characters. I spent a few hours playing with it and found that while it returned good results for certain queries, it couldn't do that for all queries and there were a few instances when WolframAlpha crashed my browser.

But despite the all shortcomings in WolframAlpha, despite whatever you want to say about Stephen Wolfram's characters, one thing is certain: WolframAlpha is not Cuil.

Far from it.

First of all, WolframAlpha is not a search engine, it's a computational engine, it's a giant calculator, it's an AI machine that can specifically ( or is supposed to be able to) understand human query and answer it, not returning a list of links. By contrast, Cuil operates pretty much in the same way as Google, that is to return the most relevant links based on the keywords. I come to Google ( or Cuil) to go to the sites I want to, but I come to WolframAlpha to have my computational needs answered. That's a very big difference.

Cuil competes directly with Google. And here the problem lies; the moment you compare yourself to the giant, and purport that you can beat the giant at its own game, people expectation is that your performance has to exceed or at least be on par with the giant.Cuil got crushed by this kind of expectation. Even if it could recover from the crash it would still have to face Google as its main competitor, which was unpleasant to say the least.

WolframAlpha, on the other hand, does not compete directly with Google. Rather it compliments Google and fill a niche where Google is absent. Want to get quick answer to your calculus problem? Check WolframAlpha. Want to know foreign exchange rate? Consult WolframAlpha.What about genome sequence lookup? WolframAlpha could handle that too. WolframAlpha is like an expert system where you can get direct answers from.

Second, Cuil is funded by angel investors, so the founders don't have 100% control over it. The investors are always impatient; the well being of the business they fund is the least of their concern, what they really care is how can they maximize their returns in the shortest time. So in addition to the competition with Google, Cuil is competing against time as well. If Cuil can't deliver in a few years time, the investors could have lost patient and could call the whole thing off.

WolframAlpha is backed by the funds of an immensely popular symbolic software call Mathematica. So Stephen Wolfram and his team of scientists could have full control over it because they don't need to seek outside investment and answer to external shareholders whose interest may not be aligned with the company's long term interest. WolframAlpha could stay as long as Wolfram likes. I believe that Wolfram would stay true to the course of WolframAlpha because it's something that he personally holds dear to- to understand the universe through computation.

Third, Cuil doesn't have a viable business model other than advertising programs. Unfortunately internet advertisement is such a Winner-Take-All game that only a handful can make money out of it. If Cuil couldn't end up to be the top few dogs, it would have to find an exit strategy or go burst. The revenue stream of Cuil is extremely limited, and company with limited income channels is likely to get burst in hard times.

On the other hand, the monetization of WolframAlpha needs not be to restricted to advertising programs. WolframAlpha could, for example, sell its service to banks, hedge funds, universities, government sectors, intelligence agencies for a hefty price. WolframAlpha could adopt a part-advertising-part-subscription model that so many successful ventures have adopted. In hard times, when advertising budget shrinks, you will find that those who have a steady subscription base can survive and thrive.

WolframAlpha is not another Cuil, and it's not a Google Killer. It needs not to be, because it's not playing the game Google is playing.

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