The release this week of the Wolfram|Alpha computational knowledge engine has gotten a lot of attention from the media and Web pundits, and, strangely, lots of these people have gotten Wolfram|Alpha completely wrong.
The most common thing that people say about Wolfram|Alpha is that it is a potential competitor to Google. But Wolfram|Alpha is no more of a competitor to Google than their core Mathematica application is (or for that matter than your corporate sales database is).
First off, Wolfram|Alpha doesn't search the Web. It searches a controlled knowledge database that Wolfram maintains and is constantly updating. And most of the ways that people would use Wolfram|Alpha are different from how one would use a search engine like Google. But I guess because Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search site, some people just can't get over that.
So how does Wolfram|Alpha work and what is it good for? Think of it more as a business intelligence platform than a search engine and you are probably on the right track.
Wolfram|Alpha essentially answers questions and provides pertinent data and statistics. Put in company names and you get stock and business information. Enter a city and you get lots of demographic information.
Not surprisingly, where Wolfram|Alpha really shines is in mathematical and scientific equations and computations. Enter an equation and Wolfram|Alpha provides answers and details on the equation entered.
Of course, enter "Britney Spears" and it doesn't know much beyond her date and place of birth. But that's not what Wolfram|Alpha is for.
Like Wikipedia, Wolfram|Alpha is complementary to standard search engines like Google. In fact, mashing the two together would probably make a nice application.
And with Wolfram continually updating the data behind the service, it should get better at answering detailed questions and queries about areas outside of math and science. And while Wolfram|Alpha doesn't search the web, it does have many of the aspects of what one would look for in a semantic web application.
To try out the Wolfram|Alpha, go to www.wolframalpha.com.