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Wolfram Alpha Finds iPad Niche

The Elements app suggests a future direction for the “knowledge engine”–e-book interactivity.

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.

E-book Element: The Elements, a periodic table iPad app, includes interactive data and graphical features from the Wolfram Alpha search engine.

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.”

Clearly, the concept will make sense for some kinds of books more than others, says Jared Spool, CEO of User Interface Engineering, a North Andover, MA-based consulting firm. “It makes a lot of sense for a lot of college textbooks to go in this direction, but I’m not sure that a detective novel has a lot to offer there,” he says. Delivering such interactivity is a likely new direction for Wikipedia and search engines and many other sources beyond Wolfram Alpha, he points out.

Many online publications are moving in this direction, and “the Wolfram example is a good one” of how to embed interactive graphics and updated information into e-books, says Walter Bender, president of the nonprofit educational software maker Sugar Labs and former president of One Laptop per Child–the philanthropic organization that pioneered the netbook format by inventing the so-called $100 Laptop for children in the developing world.

Bender adds that the trend will ultimately break down journalistic walls by, for example, making it harder to justify not providing source material beyond a few hyperlinks. “A long-standing pet peeve of mine is that most of the material gathered by a journalist during an interview never makes it into the story. It is trivial to include the entirety of an interview in a link. This does not deter the journalist from cherry-picking sound bites, but provides the reader opportunity to dig deeper into the context in which the quote was extracted,” Bender wrote in a recent paper.

The Wolfram Alpha engine taps databases that are maintained by Wolfram Research, or licensed from other sources. It deploys an enormous collection formulas and algorithms–already embodied in Wolfram’s Mathematica software–to compute answers for searchers. The iPad has been out for almost two months, and launched internationally on Friday.

Spool says that for all the benefits of an expected new tide of e-book interactivity, “the biggest prediction out of developments like The Elements is that nobody is ever going to be productive again,” he says. “You are going to start clicking and pointing and rotating and being distracted by 100 cool things.”

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