Scaling Up the Wolfram|Alpha Project
Things with Wolfram|Alpha are going well. Really well. So well that I’m now incredibly keen to scale them up dramatically.
When I started the Wolfram|Alpha project, I was not even sure anything like it would be possible. But over the last two years we’ve proved that, yes, with the tower of technology we’ve created, one can in fact take large swaths of knowledge, make them computable, and deliver them for everyone to use.
From the outside, it’s easy to see that there’s been steady growth in the domains of knowledge that Wolfram|Alpha covers. And over the next few months there’ll be some big additions, notably in everyday and consumer areas. But to me what’s most dramatic is what’s happened on the inside. Because what we’ve done is to build a giant system of technology and management processes that allows us systematically to make any area of knowledge computable.
The catch is that it always takes effort. We rely on a huge tower of automation. But in every new area we tackle there are new issues, new opportunities—and new ways that resources and human effort have to be used.
I’m very pleased with how broad and deep the coverage we have already achieved is. But we have an immense to-do list, assembled not least from all the feedback we’ve received from users of Wolfram|Alpha. And the good news is that at this point it’s a straight shot: given enough effort, we can complete the to-do list. We have all the systems we need to scale the knowledge in Wolfram|Alpha up all the way.
There’s another thing that’s happening now too: we’re steadily understanding more and more about the platform we’ve created with Wolfram|Alpha. And we’re realizing that there are an incredible number of different ways this platform can be used and deployed.
At first Wolfram|Alpha was just a website. Already it has spawned two dozen other products, and the pace of new products will accelerate dramatically this fall.
We are also just beginning to understand Wolfram|Alpha as a new computing paradigm—and that too is spawning all sorts of new directions. What if one takes input that isn’t text? What if one could deliver results preemptively? What if Wolfram|Alpha ideas are fundamentally integrated into a programming language? And so on.
These directions are more speculative—and someone less confident than I might barely consider them. But I have no doubt that all of them will bear fruit, often in much richer ways than we can yet imagine.
There is so much to do. So much further to scale up the Wolfram|Alpha project. And the exciting thing is that we now have the technology and the organizational systems necessary to do it.
And we’ve also developed a loyal following of people who use Wolfram|Alpha every day—on the web, on mobile devices, through other systems, and elsewhere. At the beginning, we had lots of tourists, bringing us web traffic—and checking out Easter eggs and the like. But over time that has given way to a consistent base of users who rely on us for all sorts of things.
Realistically, though, we haven’t been “discovered” yet in even a small fraction of the areas we cover. We don’t know the whole process by which that happens (and it would make a fascinating study), but somehow, gradually, different areas of Wolfram|Alpha functionality do seem to be “discovered”, and progressively build up larger and larger followings.
At a business level, one strategy we could follow is to wait for more areas to be discovered, build up partnerships, app sales, and so on, and use revenue from this to fund the expansion of the project. And certainly I myself have no fear of very long-term projects: in a month or so, for example, I will have worked on Mathematica for 25 years.
And indeed in my experience, there are some projects that inevitably require the passage of many years. But with Wolfram|Alpha today the story is different: we know that we can scale up, and that if we do, we can in a modest number of years cover an immense territory. There will always be more to do—more computational knowledge to add. But with what we know how to do today, we are in position quite rapidly to vastly expand what can be made computable, and, I hope, by doing so, to make some great advances in what is possible in the world.
I have been fortunate enough to run a group of companies that have been consistently profitable for the past 23 years—and indeed this is what made it possible for me to create Wolfram|Alpha in the first place. And today, with the current state of Wolfram|Alpha as a commercial entity, we can certainly continue to grow its capabilities.
But at this point I feel we almost have a responsibility to push the development of Wolfram|Alpha at the maximum possible rate, and to deliver to everyone what is technically possible absolutely as fast as it can be done.
To be able to do this, however, we need not only great technical and systems innovations, but also business innovations. We need to learn how to take Wolfram|Alpha, and not only scale up its content and capabilities, but also scale up its revenue and its business reach.
So this fall, along with all sorts of new features in Wolfram|Alpha, we will be trying out a whole range of business innovations for Wolfram|Alpha. Inevitably there are tensions and compromises to be made, and in the course of the next few months we will be working hard to navigate these. We need more revenue to scale up what we are doing—but whatever happens, we are committed to ensuring that the basic Wolfram|Alpha website remains free for anyone anywhere to use.
It is, I think, in everyone’s interest to see Wolfram|Alpha developed as quickly as it can be. And we are working hard to figure out the best possible way to do this—with the best models for how value for users can translate into commercial support for the development of the project.
I must admit that I personally have spent much more of my life working on strategy for technology than strategy for business. But there are such wonderful opportunities today for Wolfram|Alpha that I feel compelled to put whatever powers of innovation I have toward business as well as technology.
Whatever happens, there is a wonderful path ahead for Wolfram|Alpha. But I look forward to finding ways to deliver to the world a large chunk of our current to-do list not in a quarter of a century, but in a small number of years. And I look forward to working with our users and others to find the best ways to make that possible.