Many have tried and failed to outdo Google in the web search market. With the Wolfram|Alpha "computational knowledge engine," Wolfram Research won't be going head-to-head with the search behemoth. However, it might end up supplanting Google for many uses.
Nova Spivack, CEO of Twine maker Radar Networks, had a two-hour chat with Stephen Wolfram about the upcoming service, and he has detailed his findings in a long article. In essence, Wolfram|Alpha will directly compute answers about a wealth of topics based on natural-language questions—sort of like a super-savant:
It doesn't simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn't just a giant database of knowledge, like the Wikipedia. It doesn't simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents, like Powerset, for example.
Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions -- like questions that have factual answers such as "What is the location of Timbuktu?" or "How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?," "What was the average rainfall in Boston last year?," "What is the 307th digit of Pi?," "where is the ISS?" or "When was GOOG worth more than $300?"
Think about that for a minute. It computes the answers. Wolfram Alpha doesn't simply contain huge amounts of manually entered pairs of questions and answers, nor does it search for answers in a database of facts. Instead, it understands and then computes answers to certain kinds of questions.
The service's expertise will reportedly span topics like "technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, music, and more." To make the endeavor possible, Wolfram Research has included "massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties, as well as data about the physical world."
In the rest of his article, Spivack explores the differences between Wolfram|Alpha, Google, and other online tools. He also goes into a bit of detail about the Wolfram team's work, how the service will deal with cases that lack a unanimous scientific consensus, and how it might evolve in the future. (Spivack expects Google may well attempt a buyout.)
If reading bores you and you'd rather just try the service for yourself, you'll be able to do just that when Wolfram|Alpha opens to the public in May. A teaser page is already up right now at wolframalpha.com.