I started high school at a particularly difficult time for someone who would eventually grow up to be a gadget freak and mad scientist. By then, the slide rule had faded from the curriculum, the calculator was in its expensive infancy and the personal computer had yet to truly make the scene. Late in my senior year, my school bought a TRS-80. One of them. For the main office. To my great excitement I managed to talk someone there into letting me play with it. Alas, my privileges were abruptly curtailed after I saved a particularly frustrating BASIC program into a file with a colorful name. Who knew the guidance counsellor was was using it too? He suggested I consider creative writing classes at the local community college.
These days, my students arrive at college after a high school math and science curriculum that uses wildly powerful calculators like the TI-84. Compared to the four-function Bowmar Brains and AccuMath slide rules of old, these devices are amazing—but sometimes not terribly user friendly. Lately, some of the material has moved toward laptops—given the power and interactivity of programs like Mathematica and Maple—and even online. It seems that devices like the iPod touch and iPhone are poised to change things once again. But is it really practical to run heavy-duty scientific computation software on Apple’s handheld mobile devices?
Enter the WolframAlpha app—a program that interfaces directly to the eponymous “computational knowledge engine” engineered by Mathematica creators and offered via Wolfram Alpha LLC. Alpha was almost impossibly overhyped when Wolfram first unveiled its search engine. To some, Alpha was going to be a game-changing Google killer, to others, some sort of artificial intelligence that would reframe our conceptions of knowledge and, while it was at it, take over the world and make us its slaves. But, of course, it has never truly been poised to be such a thing. Simply stated, Alpha is a long-term project to make every bit of systematic knowledge available and, more importantly, computable. The WolframAlpha app ties the iPhone directly to the massive repository and computational power provided through the Alpha website.
Since one can easily access Alpha directly through Mobile Safari, why would you want this program? The app’s main draw is that it does a terrific job formatting the output specifically for the iPhone and iPod touch. If you’re using Mobile Safari, you’re going to have to zoom, pinch, pan, and manipulate the output, whereas the mobile app allows a more natural interaction, tailored to the iPhone’s UI. Like most applications built to run on the iPhone 3.0 OS, you can easily copy and paste results as well as copy images directly to the photo album and post queries to Twitter.
I had a few issues with the location services when using an iPod touch, something one might expect, due to that device’s lack of GPS and cell triangulation, but when I switched to an iPhone, the app was able to deliver location-specific results flawlessly. Also there seem to be a few spit-and-polish issues with WolframAlpha’s keyboard and sound feedback. They’re relatively minor, but probably shouldn’t be present in an application in this price range.
Which brings us to what will undoubtedly be a deal breaker for some—the price. WolframAlpha costs a healthy $50.
I, for one, am happy to see that there are great applications that choose to live outside the $1 “firehose” that characterizes so many App Store offerings. The $1 phenomena has led some iPhone users to consistently expect cheap stuff, regardless of quality. When struggling developers crank out their first program they have to negotiate a significantly steep investment for potentially very little return. Wolfram seems to be charging a fair price for its program. Obviously, it’s in the business of turning a profit, but the Alpha app is only one item in a vast portfolio. The whole enterprise isn’t hanging on this app’s success, and thus, Wolfram can afford to be realistic. Obviously, in the end, the market will decide if the pricing is reasonable. The Alpha APIs are available, and an enterprising soul could write their own application, providing Wolfram with a competitive motivation for further improvement.
The real question is whether this application is worth $50 to you. It’s priced at about half the cost of one of my students’ calculators. You can still get all the same information from the free Website, but you get an overall better experience on the iPhone. Furthermore, there seems to be some untapped potential in the multitouch interface. As Alpha stands today, there is a lack of interactive content, but should this change, the iPhone app would seem to be in a great position to take advantage of it.
Bottom line: WolframAlpha is pricey but well done; it has the potential to be even more as the underlying technology of Alpha improves.
[Flip Phillips is an associate professor of psychology and director of the neuroscience program at Skidmore College.]