The Wolfram|Alpha App, Two Weeks Later

November 2, 2009
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Schoeller Porter
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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.

38 Comments

Well, there is a huge gap between $1 and $50, isn’t it?

Posted by Hank Johnson November 2, 2009 at 4:54 pm Reply

I don’t think $50 is really affordable for most college students, but I guess Apple doesn’t really have anything in place for academic pricing on the app store.

Posted by Pete Zich November 2, 2009 at 5:29 pm Reply

    Well, $50 is probably reasonable for those college students that can afford iPhones and iPod Touches, and continued Internet service for them.

    Posted by John November 2, 2009 at 7:31 pm Reply

    I love Mathematica, and the home edition is $250. That’s fantastic!

    But, $50 for a better front-end to the alpha website is crazy in my opinion. Things have to be priced for their market. You don’t sell Mathematica to homes at $2000, right?

    Space-Time is a Mathematica-like product with built-in graphing and math…it’s a “real” app that works without an internet connection, and it sells for $25 on the iPhone. It’s not Mathematica, but given other calculators and graphing tools on the platform, the price is fair.

    The AppStore does not have many $50 apps, and $50 apps better have built-in functionality, not just a better keyboard to a free website. I want Wolfram to penetrate into this market, but I just shake my head at your Alpha app and the thinking that went into this elitist pricing. This is not a good decision to promote Wolfram or the Alpha site…

    Posted by Thomas Affinito November 3, 2009 at 3:06 am Reply

“The app is, in fact, a large collection of small changes.”
Still not worth a $50 price tag, in my opinion.

Posted by Azhar November 2, 2009 at 6:33 pm Reply

$50 isn’t so bad when compared to $150 for a graphing calculator.

It would have been nice if those “lots of little changes” had been enumerated a bit.

Posted by ES November 2, 2009 at 7:29 pm Reply

I’d seriously do something about the absurd API prices.

Posted by Mark F November 2, 2009 at 8:40 pm Reply

I have no problem admitting that I’m a cheapskate. I also like tools and toys and don’t mind paying. My problem with the WA App price is that I can’t test the value of the tool without paying a price far above the price of a typical premium app ($10-$20). If the app were self contained (acceptably impossible) the purchase would be a no brainer. WA needs to really accentuate the difference between the app and the web app, perhaps by showing two results to the same query side-by-side.

Posted by Ralph White November 2, 2009 at 10:34 pm Reply

“We’re not limiting the website’s functionality to drive app sales.”

I beg to differ, the site used to render in an iPhone-friendly format and now with the introduction of the app, you’ve disabled that functionality. I’ll stick with the free site until the price comes down out of the stratosphere.

Posted by James Britton November 3, 2009 at 3:00 am Reply

    I noticed this too. Hmm.

    Posted by Ralph White November 3, 2009 at 11:58 am Reply

Could there be student discounted versions of the app just as there are student editions/licensing and pricing at universities for mathematica? i payed $30 for mathematica at my university because of the discount . . .

Posted by Tom Scott November 3, 2009 at 12:04 pm Reply

So Wolfram|Alpha continues to justify why the app costs $50, we have an API and Cloud, WTF. How about showing how many people actually purchased it? I bet < 300 worldwide. I also bet the price of the app will drop in the next couple of months for “a limited time” to $30. Then by summer $15 and by next year $5 and finally when marketing figures it out $1 and a lite version to boot with additional features as an in app purchase upgrade.

Posted by Pizzabox November 4, 2009 at 2:32 am Reply

“The website is the free version.” I disagree, you took away the iPhone formatted website. Maybe you can get away with charging so much for the app and still make money, maybe the app us worth $50 (I’m not saying it is), but taking away the iPhone formatted webpage is dirty business and shows low integrity. That one low move is undermining all the “good press” you’re trying to push on us by hiring someone who is good with words to write your blog and try to twist our concerns into your good image. Charge what you will for your app, it is cool, just don’t play dirty. Give the iPhone friendly website back to those of us that can’t afford $50 right now.

Posted by Josh November 4, 2009 at 10:19 am Reply

    Hi Josh,

    You can access the Wolfram|Alpha mobile page from your iPhone.

    Here is the link to add the icon on your phone for quick access:
    http://www.wolframalpha.com/addtoyouriphone.html

    Thank you,

    Posted by The PR Team November 4, 2009 at 10:28 am Reply

      Hi PR Team! Thanks for the response! I did find the mobile version is still there, it just doesn’t automatically go there from the iPhone browser anymore, you have to type http://www.wolframalpha.com/iphone, then it gets you there, then I followed your instructions to put the icon on my phone’s home screen and it works great. So we’re good. Thanks guys, now I have something better to use until I can afford the whole iPhone experience (which I’m sure is better than the mobile webpage). Good work!

      Posted by Josh November 5, 2009 at 12:18 am Reply

I’m a big fan of Wolfram|Alpha, when I saw there was an app, I was going to immediately buy it.

Though, in my rush of excitement, I thought the app was $4.99, not $49.99… By the time I noticed, it was too late and it was already downloaded. (I wouldn’t have bought it if I knew it was $50!)

It is a really great app, and I’m sure that the developers worked extremely hard to make it work… but, you have to look at it this way: $50 is half the price of Matlab. Mathematica is $129. I would have rather spent $129 to buy software, than to mistakingly buy a $50 app.

The pricing is ultimately your decision, but I would choose a price that wouldn’t seem as deceiving. :) (And, TBH, I hope you refund those who bought the app for $50 if you lower the price, or give us more features)

Posted by RobotGrrl November 5, 2009 at 8:55 am Reply

I really love alpha, and would love this application. However with iPhone applications following the same path, as noted above, of decreasing in price as the months go by, I cannot justify spending the $50. I would spend $50 if I knew it was never going to come down in price, but the fear of that happening is enough for me to wait and see.

If I bought it and it came down in price a few months later, I would feel completely cheated.

Posted by Paul Bentley November 6, 2009 at 10:06 am Reply

Make the API free and let’s get some competitive WA iPhone apps out there.

Posted by matt November 6, 2009 at 9:19 pm Reply

The marginal comfort of the native app compared to the free safari link makes the 50$ price point moot. When comparing the price to the price of a calculator, you should compare apples with apples (so to speak…) : By construction, people that have this app already have either an ipod touch or an iphone, and there are some very good applications (including symbolic capabilities) for less than 5$.

This being said, I would be happy to pay 50$ for a Mathematica front-book app on Iphone, that would connect on a remote kernel executed on my computer (with SSH tunneling), and enable me to read, work on and save notebooks on the remote machine. I understand your need to charge for business, so it would be legitimate that such app could connect only to my specific license of the Kernel : I.e. there could be a link between the AppleId under which the iphone app is bought and the license number that would be kept in your servers and checked every time the iphone app starts . As such front-book application would only be used when there is an active access to the internet, such check would not be a constraint.

In the context of a possible apple tablet based on iphone OS, such FrontBook app would be a killer app for you customer base and bring MUCH MORE revenues than this alpha app. Think for instance how easy it would be to input data in the lab…You could also enable this frontbook application to connect to a mathematica kernel “on the cloud”, in the exchange of a monthly fee of course… Possibilities are endless !

Posted by charles monneron November 7, 2009 at 9:59 pm Reply

    I agree, what the iPhone needs more is a Mathematica program. Even if you just gave it limited capabilities, I would be much more willing to pay $50 for a Mathematica program that a Wolfram|Alpha program.

    Posted by Jacob November 10, 2009 at 5:33 pm Reply

Yes, definetly free API and let people start using it. All good things in life are free :)

Posted by izdelava spletnih strani November 11, 2009 at 10:09 am Reply

I’m over in the UK, where it costs £29.99. As soon as I saw there was an app available, I rushed out to the appstore to buy it, assuming it would be free, but seriously, £30??? Why is anyone going to pay that when they can access it for free?
I’m not sure I understand the rationale. People are comparing it to a calculator- it isn’t, its a glorified search engine (okay, computational knowledge engine), albeit one that offers a different set of results.
Others comparing it to a mathematical program like matlab/mathcad/mathematica. Sure, it does some of the features, but those packages are much more powerful, and hence can charge the price they do.
It requires network access- well I have to be on a WIFI network for that with my ipod touch.
The website offers all of this for free.. so why on earth would I pay for my ipod to do what it already can???

I don’t get it- if its paying £30 for convenience, Then I’m not paying. As a student, despite owning an ipod, which I didn’t pay for (I won it) I do not have £30 to spend on something as frivolous as an ipod app. Why is it not free? the website is… I’d pay 99p for the convenience and a better layout, if that. no more.
I flat out refuse to line the corporate pockets of apple with such an expensive, largely pointless app. Hell, I’d rather have a donate button on this site, coupled with a free ipod app.
Also, if this is a way to make money, bring down the price- I’d be willing to bet you’d massively increase your customer base by more than 50x if it sold for $1 rather than $50….

Posted by Stu Haynes November 13, 2009 at 8:38 am Reply

Yes, all your arguments are valid in some case, but if you’re trying to make information available to the public, then you should probably lower the cost of the app. It makes the world a happier place, and I’m sure Wolfram|Alpha can plot that out for us.

Posted by BlockJuice November 13, 2009 at 10:09 pm Reply

As a journalism student, I find the idea of using Wolfram Alpha to collect and check facts very appealing. Looking at the example queries and the corresponding answers gives the impression that an all knowing oracle is behind the service.

When I tried some of my own queries though, the results were more disappointing. My queries all elicited the “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure how to compute an answer from your input” response with links to some general information. I found myself progressively modifying my searches to try to elicit a calculated response.By the time I got something, it wasn’t what I was looking for.

Despite the poor results, the potential of WA and my experience with Mathematica (I have an Engineering background), I felt a strong impulse to buy this app. Fortunately, my iphone chose that time to suffer one of its glitches and the transaction didn’t proceed. When the problem corrected itself, my geek lust had subsided and I realised that buying the program would leave me without a connection to the Internet for a month – not very clever.

I imagine that most of the people who have bought this have acted on impulse as I did. It is very tempting to have a resource at hand that can make one look omniscient but serious users will be using the website on a computer – probably sitting at a desk.

It would be nice to have this on a mobile phone (just in case) but for something that will probably be used as a party trick more often than for serious work, $50 is just folly.

Funny how the people who brought us Mathematica have so miscalculated the use and therefore price of this app.

Posted by udi November 28, 2009 at 9:57 am Reply

    … and getting rid of the iphone formatted web page – that is just low.

    Posted by udi November 28, 2009 at 9:58 am Reply

I’d pay $10 for this app, in a heartbeat.

Heck, I’d even pay $20. Probably.

I will not pay $50. It’s just not happening, sorry; I’ve survived so far without it, and there’s nothing I need to know badly enough to pay that price instead of waiting until I get to a computer.

Posted by Baughn November 29, 2009 at 10:52 am Reply

    Yeah I dont know if I would pay the hefty 50 dollar price tag as well.. the app looks really nice though!

    Posted by Jenny Weeds July 12, 2010 at 7:13 pm Reply

50 dollars? No, i will not pay for it.

Posted by Oster May 15, 2010 at 2:02 am Reply

It would be nice to have this on a mobile phone (just in case) but for something that will probably be used as a party trick more often than for serious work, $50 is just folly.

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Posted by Quentin Itani February 17, 2011 at 4:43 am Reply

Is there a monthly fee for using the wolfram alpha application on the DROID 2 mobile phone? OR IS IT REALLY JUST A ONE TIME FEE AT $1.99 as indicated in the market app store on the android phone? I need to know the answer to this before I allow my son to purchase it. I DO NOT wnat to get charged $1.99 EVERY time he uses this application on his phone. PLEASE explain MORE clearly what the expense is with purchasing this application for the ANDROID phone. THANK YOU!

Posted by Suzanne March 9, 2011 at 9:28 pm Reply

    Hi Suzanne, You can purchase the Wolfram|Alpha App for Android for a one-time charge of $1.99 US. Wolfram|Alpha does not charge a recurring fee. Thank you.

    Posted by The Wolfram|Alpha Team March 10, 2011 at 12:45 pm Reply

      So it is only a one time fee for the Android phone; then what is the “webservice API plans all about? Is there outsourcing fees for uing the application?

      Posted by suzanne March 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm Reply

[...] As we’ve noted before, the iPhone and iPod touch are terrific platforms, but they simply aren’t powerful enough to [...]

nice

Posted by sueb October 18, 2011 at 12:19 pm Reply
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