Google tapped into an existing set of mental relationships to make their model work. Think of Andy Warhol; Andy worked with Campbell Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe. Google did similar work with page links. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is comparable to Avon Products – Avon, which just reported that they have 5.8 million representatives across the globe, has thrived for the past 123 years because it has a well-designed architecture of participation, as Tim O'Reilly so brilliantly termed it. Wikipedia took off because their method to harness user contribution was also facile and effective.
So where does Wolfram Alpha, the new knowledge search engine which is scheduled to launch this month, fit in? It was created by the genius Stephen Wolfram, creator of Mathematica – a spectacular tool to work with, visualize, and even embed complex mathematical functions and scientific data. Some have said his new project may rival Google because it goes well beyond simple searching of information to computation of useful knowledge. For example, if you ask it "What is the GDP of France divided by it population?" it will not only get the results, but you can look at the details underneath. (Try that on Google!) I also think it competes Wikipedia because it is a useful reference resource.
I do think that this tool is a great advance, and I can't wait to use it. Furthermore, I think it heralds a wave of new specialty knowledge tools. Think of Google as the Sears Roebuck of search – there are many "specialty" stores yet to be launched to meet different tastes and needs. But I don't think that Wolfram Alpha will be as widely used as Google is because it does not tap into a well-distributed, universal meme or structure as Google did; nor has the brilliant scientist figured out the architecture of participation – an easy to understand method for anyone with the desire and skill to help make Wolfram Alpha a better tool and knowledge base. If I want to help build Wolfram Alpha, I don't know how to begin; I do with Wikipedia. I am optimistic that if Wolfram can think of a clever way to have his audience help him map more and more of the world of knowledge into the syntax and semantics that his tool uses – if he can figure out the Wolfram-pedia – then his approach will be a hit.
There is a wonderful tension between the universality of use and the usefulness of a tool. Contrary to popular belief, the most powerful tools we create as humans take effort to learn to. Mathematics, language, biology, all take years to become fluent in. Put another way, any literate person can use Google in their own language – it takes seconds to learn. But the process of becoming literate takes years to master. Google "rides on top of" our ability to read and write.
One of the great tragedies of the current computer revolution is the widespread expectation that every piece of software should be easy to use. Well, easy-to-use tools such as Google are useful to everyone, but because Google assumes that people will not make the effort to learn anything, they have to provide simple – even simplistic – interfaces. If the mass public expected that they might have to do a little learning and work, Google, Microsoft, and others could provide even more powerful tools for helping knowledge workers – but our education system and culture expect nothing of us as users. It is unfortunate.
Wolfram's tool, due to its deep logic and structure, will make demands on users – and in order to use it well, people will need to learn some new concepts and a query language. This means it will not have the widespread adoption of a Google-like tool. Still, I am optimistic. We all need search tools, and we should have other, more sophisticated tools that can help us participate in the creation of new knowledge, and new ways of looking at information. Attention is a vital measure, but not the only one that counts.
One way Wolfram might enhance our learning about his tool would be to mash up Wolfram Alpha with Twitter (which is Warhol/Avon-like), because one of the great challenges of using Wolfram Alpha is to format the right question to solicit an interesting answer. Twitter would be a great way to share and publish queries that had cool answers. Again, I think if he can tap into the Warhol/Avon effect, he'll have faster adoption, and we'll all learn more along the way.
This is also posted at Harvard Business School.