wolfram alpha
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Feature by Alex Cole.
Published 24 June 2009

Call them Davids against Goliath, call them underdogs, but don’t call them short on ambition. Two new search engines hit the tubes this month, looking to take on Google’s search engine dominance with grassroots support and bloggers’ enthusiasm for all things new. First up is a traditional-style offering from a traditional brand: Microsoft Bing (http://bing.com). The successor of Microsoft’s ill-received MSN Search and still in beta, this newcommer sports a clean, ad-free front page, real-time search suggestions, and a large offering of related searches served up on the results page. Specialized searches like maps, translation, images, travel, videos and even a celeb-ranking system let you customize your search and get tailored results, all of which benefit from years of watching Google test the water and improving on what works. The image search, for example, has a dedicated search for desktop wallpapers, but one-ups the search by tailoring the results to your screen size and currently-running resolution. It’s also very adept at skimming contact info and phone numbers from corporate websites without ever having to visit the page and hunt it down.

Bing is definitely more of an evolutionary step rather than a search revolution, but it’s hard to not admire Microsoft’s low-key, “let us know how you get on with it” approach, contrasted with the inflated expectations of the Windows Which Must Not Be Named. In the revolutionary corner, however, comes Wolfram|Alpha (http://wolframalpha.com). The brainchild of techno-guru Stephen Wolfram, this search oddball bills itself as a "computational answer engine.” Able to run with raw data or full questions (be sure to ask it “Are you Skynet?”), Wolfram|Alpha grabs whatever calculable, quantifiable data it can from your search and throws up an impressive array of facts, figures, charts and graphs about your search. That goes for dates, stock comparisons, weather, historical facts, algebra, finance, and the occasional philosophical quandary. It is exceptionally good at guessing and has plenty of power under the hood, directly answering questions where Google can only delegate to other sites. The impressive coding behind this unassuming site makes it far more than a decider-of-wagers. The results come so fast and furious there’s almost no reason to slog through Wikipedia if all your want are the bottom-line facts. Or the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.