Last May, the talk of the search world was Wolfram Alpha, the online engine that provides graphically presented answers to computationally oriented questions tapping myriad math, science, and other data sets. But by April 2010, Wolfram Alpha’s traffic hovered below the numbers achieved in the launch month of May 2009. Though this does not capture use by third-party applications–including Microsoft’s Bing search engine–Wolfram Alpha hasn’t emerged as a notable search destination.
But the emergence of e-books provides Alpha with a new outlet–as a ready-made supplier of interactive graphics, plots, charts, and real-time data. These features can be incorporated within publications developed for Apple’s iPad and other devices. “Deeper information becomes available by way of tapping,” says Theodore Gray, cofounder of Wolfram Research.
The first example is now out: a Wolfram/Alpha app for The Elements, a book Gray wrote on the periodic table. The paper version of the book is dominated by glossy photos of elements and products made from them (Pepto-Bismol, for example, uses bismuth). The version developed for the iPad, however, is chock-full of on-screen buttons that lead to Wolfram’s online computational engine and data sets.
Users can pull up photos–such as ones of shimmering raw bismuth crystals–and rotate them with a sweep of a finger across the screen; drill down for data such as melting and boiling points; explore chemical compounds based on the elements; and geek out on the endless computations and molecular diagrams that are Alpha’s hallmark. “This showcases something you can do that is an interesting and useful expansion on something that is otherwise a coffee table photo book,” Gray says. Many existing e-books only offer such added functionality as adjustable font sizes or the ability to search for particular words. “We would like to encourage creating e-books that are more than just static recreations of paper books,” he adds.
Gray says more such initiatives are expected, but would not disclose them. “If you think about what sorts of books–anything about quantitative factual information is a potential candidate,” he says. “This is way for publishers to access more detailed information, without having to implement a complicated infrastructure.” Gray predicts Wolfram Alpha holds appeal as a source for schools because its content is safely “locked down.”