Wolfram Alpha Tells of Bill Gates, Microsoft Interest

Microsoft's interest in Wolfram Alpha, the mathematically oriented search engine that provides definitive answers rather than links, extended back even before the search engine's launch in May. In an official blog post, a Wolfram Alpha team member describes how Stephen Wolfram's demonstration of the search engine's capabilities drew a perhaps-unexpected reaction from Bill Gates.

Microsoft's interest in incorporating "computational engine" Wolfram Alpha into its own Bing search began earlier in 2009, according to a member of the Wolfram Alpha team. The search engine provides a definitive answer to query rather than a page of links, and it apparently threw Bill Gates for a bit of a loop.

As described in a Nov. 11 post on the Wolfram Alpha blog, Stephen Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, demonstrated his brainchild's abilities to Gates and other Microsoft executives by typing "2^2^2^2^2" into the query field.

The result, a long stream of numbers that can be seen here, sparked an incredulous reaction from Microsoft's founder, who apparently asked, "What, is that right?"

"Amused, Stephen, Bill and the other executives dissected the calculation and determined that the result was, indeed, correct," the blog posting related. "Microsoft continues to pepper us with questions to this day, reflecting its continued enthusiasm in Wolfram Alpha."

Wolfram Alpha made its official debut in May. A few weeks later, the engine was updated with additional linguistic forms, time zones, currencies and other data-about 1.1 million data values in all.

Microsoft announced on Nov. 11 that it would begin incorporating Wolfram Alpha results into Bing search results. In an e-mail to eWEEK, a Microsoft spokesperson said that the functionality would become available to Bing's entire customer base over the next few weeks, although a post on the official Bing blog gave a more optimistic "over the next several days."

"We are excited to unveil some work we have been doing with Wolfram Alpha," Tracey Yao, Bing program manager, and Pedro Silva, Bing product manager, wrote in that blog post. "We'll be providing access to Wolfram Alpha's advanced algorithms and expertly curated data within the Bing experience."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its ultimately consumerist intent, the Bing team seems determined to position Wolfram Alpha less as a number-crunching machine for engineers and mathematicians and more as a resource for things like nutritional information. With Wolfram Alpha, entering a specific food product in the search bar will result in a display of nutritional data such as cholesterol and protein.

Although the tech world and the public at large quickly realized that Wolfram Alpha would prove more of a niche product than a "Google killer," the new search-sorry, computational-engine's interface seemed suggestive of a larger trend.

Between Google's rollout of Google Squared, a search application accessible via Google Labs that structures information in a customized table, and additions to Bing and Yahoo that provide both structured results and a more visual aspect to search, there has been an emphasis on moving away from the traditional "page of blue hyperlinks."

But aside from displaying its results in Bing, Wolfram Alpha's ultimate utility will likely be for businesses and academia.

"The power of the search technology and computation may have better application within the business environment to address specific needs for research, whether pharmaceutical or aerospace or military," Sheri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester, said in an interview with eWEEK soon after Wolfram Alpha's summer update. "It's a great opportunity for those in the realm of math and science."