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Wolfram Alpha Nips at Google's Heels

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Search behemoth faces newest upstart.

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Word around Silicon Valley is that physicist and mathematician Stephen Wolfram is planning to unveil a revolutionary search engine that he thinks will become as important and relevant as Google (GOOG).

The only problem: That particular claim has been made many times before with nary an iota of truth; if search engine upstart Cuil taught us anything last year, it's that living up to one's hype as a Google-killer is much harder than generating it.

But there are some -- like Nova Spivack at Twine.com -- who believe this time will be different.

In May, Wolfram will debut Wolfram Alpha - a search engine he describes as a "computational knowledge engine." To put it simply, the program filters massive amounts of unstructured data through a complex algorithm and produces highly defined query-related data. Even more simply put: You ask it a question and it gives you a specific answer - just 1 answer, just 1 result.

For example: While Googling "When was the third to last appearance of Halley's Comet?" might yield several thousand hits to sift through, Wolfram Alpha would simply spit back "November 16, 1835."

Even Jeeves couldn't do that properly.

Spivack was shown a demo of the online service 2 months before its launch and gave it an ecstatic vote of confidence. He concurs that if it works, it would be a giant leap forward in semantic searching.

But its success has a fairly significant obstacle: It's going to take a monster of a program to process all that data against a set of linguistic variables or -- as Wolfram puts it -- a "huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms."

Only time will tell if Wolfram's creation will be up to snuff, but here's a question to pose before it launches: Could there ever truly be a Google killer?

Cuil famously tried and failed. Yahoo (YHOO) brings in millions of visitors per day, but still struggles to find a niche - not to mention a strategy. Lycos, Excite and AltaVista? Many are surprised to see they still exist.

But for years, Google has maintained absolute dominance of the search field - its name is synonymous with "search." And as the company wraps its many tendrils around email, online word processing, maps, book searches, mobile phone platforms and dozens of other online applications, it only grows stronger. Essentially, almost every facet of the Internet falls, or soon will fall, under Google's purview.

Forget "too big to fail." Google's too big to sneeze.

In order to be a "Google killer," you'd need to not only construct a gigantic computational sniper rifle, but optimize one faster than a company armed with countless industry leaders and a virtually limitless budget.

Then there comes the headache of promotion and mass integration - there's no sense having a revolutionary online tool if only a few people use it, let alone have heard about it.

Is it user friendly? Does it extend past its novelty value? Can it handle the traffic or work well with other sites? All important questions.

Except for maybe Google (if it's even heard of him), everyone would love to see Wolfram's site clear a path toward true semantic search - to flourish in an arena that Google has supposedly mastered.

And that, of course, leaves just one final question: How soon will Google crush Wolfram Alpha?
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