It’s been little over two weeks since the Wolfram|Alpha App for the iPhone and iPod touch was released to the world on the App Store. During that time, the app has gained a substantial following, was listed as “What’s Hot” on the App Store, has ignited a passionate discussion over pricing and the viability of ambitious apps on the App Store, and has even had an unexpected bug fixed. It has been an exciting couple of weeks.
As noted in a couple of the App Store reviews, the initial release of the app wasn’t perfect. We’ve been developing commercial software for over 20 years, but despite this, it seems no matter how much effort one puts into testing, you’ll always find issues in the wild. Thanks in large part to immediate feedback through Twitter, this blog, and other blog posts about the Wolfram|Alpha App, we were able to narrow the issue down to an obscure bug in the auto-update mechanism for the in-app examples and immediately issue a fix by updating the way the Wolfram|Alpha API responds to the problematic queries. We agree with you: a $50 app should not crash.
The discussion on pricing has certainly been lively. I’d like to take a moment to respond to a number of questions that have popped up in the discussion.
Why not offer a free version of the app?
The Wolfram|Alpha website is the free version. You can access the website through Safari on the iPhone at no cost. You can even put a link to the Wolfram|Alpha web page on your home screen if you want.
If the website is free, why pay $50 for the app?
The website and the app offer different experiences in using Wolfram|Alpha. We’ve spent a great deal of time tuning the Wolfram|Alpha App for the specific needs of iPhone users. As has been observed by many, the changes aren’t dramatic. You get the exact same results from the website as you do from the app, and you have the same level and breadth of capability. We’re not limiting the website’s functionality to drive app sales.
The app is, in fact, a large collection of small changes. These changes add up to a unique and natural experience for using Wolfram|Alpha on the iPhone and iPod touch. We believe this experience is valuable, and those who have purchased the app have overwhelmingly told us that they agree. Unlike most of the $1 apps, which tend to only be used for a few days before they’re forgotten, we believe that the Wolfram|Alpha App’s value to users will continue to grow with time.
Why does the app require an internet connection?
By leveraging our supercomputer cloud through the Wolfram|Alpha API, the Wolfram|Alpha App is able to do a number of things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. The iPhone and iPod touch are a great mobile computing platform, but there are severe memory and CPU horsepower constraints that dramatically limit the scope of queries that could be solved natively within a reasonable amount of time.
Accessing Wolfram|Alpha over the internet allows you to solve complex integrals and differential equations, to forecast tidal conditions in Hawaii during surfing competitions, to calculate the positions of the stars over Timbuktu next week or last century, and to do a host of other complex and meaningful computations. Using the API over the internet provides other advantages, as well. You immediately get access to all new data and computations as they are added, and as the recent crashing issue shows, you also get immediate fixes to issues when they occur.
Is the app really better than a handheld calculator?
My bet is that most high school and college students will find the Wolfram|Alpha App most useful for helping understand homework assignments. In addition to enabling more complex computations, the supercomputer cloud also allows the app to provide more than just the answer—such as various plots of the result, additional or alternative forms of the solution, the steps needed to solve the problem, and much more. As shown at Homework Day, this additional information that “surrounds” the answer can be incredibly helpful in better understanding the problem and the solution.
The discussion about the Wolfram|Alpha App has been tremendously interesting so far, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about what you think.