A View from David Talbot
Wolfram Alpha's iPhone Egonomics
At $50, the new iPhone app is a specialist’s tool only.
The word “egonomics” was a typographical error in an email. The Wolfram Alpha people meant to say “ergonomics” in describing the new iPhone app for the Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine, the search-like tool that can run nearly any calculation and cough up interesting graphics on a growing, but still limited, range of subjects.
But at $50 for the app, it seems like an appropriate slip indeed.
Already you can use Wolfram Alpha for free online. (Read my feature on it here.) And you can even use a version optimized for the iPhone interface. Despite this, usage of the site has not taken hold in the popular imagination, with only about 200,000 to 300,000 users daily.
The app gives you a calculator-like interface with various function keys, to help you fill out equations in the search field, and some other improvements. But who would pay $50 for this? The answer: scientists and engineers and other specialists. Indeed, Wolfram Alpha says, in justifying the price: “It’s less than half the cost of a less fully-featured graphing calculator. That’s how we got to the price.”
But the guiding goal of the engine’s brainchild, the physicist Stephen Wolfram, was to “make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.” The fact that the company’s first iPhone app is a pricey online calculator for geeks represents more of a retrenching back to the original product produced by Wolfram Research—the wonderful specialty science and engineering software package, Mathematica. The task of engaging a broader audience may have to fall to third-party developers.