wolframalpha

A few years ago, a good friend gave me a nice little present: 5 kilos of dead tree in the form of Stephen Wolfram’s “A new kind of science”. I never read it cover to cover and merely scanned a few pages with lots of pretty pictures before deciding that this wasn’t really my cup of tea. I also read a bit some of the criticism on this book from the scientific community. I’m way out of my league there so, no comments from be except a few observations:

  • Presentation of the book is rather pompous and arrogant. The author tries to convince the readers that they the most important piece of science ever produced in their hands.
  • This is what set of most of the criticism. Apparently, the author fails to both credit related work as well as properly back up some of his crucial claims with proper evidence.
  • Apparently there are quite a few insufficiently substantiated claims which affects credibility of the overall book and claims of the author
  • The approach of the author to write the book has been the ivory tower approach where he quite literally dedicated a decade+ of his life to writing it during which he did not seek out much criticism from his peers.
  • So, the book is controversial and may either turn out to be the new relativity theory (relatively speaking) or a genuine dud. I’m out of my league deciding either way

Anyway, the same Stephen Wolfram has for years been providing the #1 mathematical software IDE: Mathematica, which is one of the most popular software tools for anyone involved with mathematics. I’m not a mathematician and haven’t touched such tools in over 10 years now (dabbled a bit with linear algebra in college) but as far as I know, his company and product have a pretty solid reputation.

Now the same person has brought the approach he applied to his book and his solid reputation as a owner of Mathematica to the wonderful world of Web 2.0. Now that is something I know a thing or two about. Given the above I was initially quite sceptic when the first, pretty wild, rumors around wolframalpha started circulating. However, some hands on experience has just changed my mind. So here’s my verdict:

This stuff is great & revolutionary!

No it’s not Google. It’s not Wikipedia either. It’s not Semantic web either. Instead it’s a knowledge reasoning engine hooked up to some authoritative data sets. So, it’s not crawling the web. It’s not user editable and it is not relying on traditional Semantic web standards from e.g. W3C (though very likely it must be using similar technology).

This is the breakthrough that was needed. The semantic web community seems to be stuck in an endless loop pondering pointless standards, query formats, graph representations and generally rehashing computer science topics that have been studied for 40 years now without producing much viable business models or products. Wikipedia is nice but very chaotic and unstructured as well. The marriage of semantic web and wikipedia is obvious has been tried countless times and has so far not produced interesting results. Google is very good at searching through the chaos that is the current web but can be absolutely unhelpful with simple, fact based questions. Most fact based questions in Google return a wikipedia article as one of the links. Useful, but it doesn’t directly answer the question.

This is exactly the gap that wolframalpha fills. There’s many scientists and startups with the same ambition but Wolframalpha.com got to market first with a usable product that can answer a broad range of factual questions with knowledge imported into its system from trustworthy sources. It works beautifully for facts and knowledge it has and allows users to do two things:

  • Find answers to pretty detailed queries from trustworthy sources. Neither Wikipedia nor Google can do this, at best they can point you at a source that has the answer and leave it up to you to judge the trustworthyness of the source.
  • Fact surfing! Just like surfing from one topic to the next on Wikipedia is a fun activity, I predict that drilling down facts on wolframalpha is a equally fun and useful.

So what’s next? Obviously, wolframalpha.com will have competition. However, their core asset seems to be their reasoning engine combined with the quite huge fact database which is to date unrivaled. Improvements in both areas will solidify their position as market leader. I predict that several owners of large bodies of authoritative information will be itching to be a part of this and partnership deals will be announced. Wolframalpha could easily evolve into a crucial tool for knowledge workers. So crucial even that they might want to pay for access to certain information.

Some more predictions:

  • Several other startups will start competing soon with competing products. There should be dozens of companies working on similar or related products. Maybe all they needed was a somebody taking a first step.
  • Google likely has people working on such technologies they will either launch or buy products in this space in the next two years
  • Main competitors of Google are Yahoo and MS who have both been investing heavily in search technology and experience. They too will want a piece of this market
  • With so much money floating around in this market, wolframalpha and similar companies should have no shortage of venture capital, despite the current crisis. Also, wolframalpha might end up being bought up by Google or MS.
  • If not bought up or outcompeted (both of which I consider to be likely), wolframalpha will be the next Google

Modular windows

There is a nice article on Ars discussing Microsoft’s business practices regarding windows and how they appear to be not quite working lately. It used to be that your PC came with windows whereas nowadays you have to select from a around five different versions and Microsoft is rumored to go to an even more modular and subscription based model. The general idea is to be able to squeeze out as much revenue out of the market as possible. On paper it sounds good (for MS that is).

Rather than buying an overpriced OS with everything and the kitchen sink you buy what you need. There’s a huge differences between what businesses and some individuals are willing to spend and the typical home user that just wants a browser + skype + the sims. Typically the latter group ends up buying the cheapo version and the former group ends up buying the everything and the kitchen sink version. The problem is that there is unmonetized value in the latter in the sense that some owners of the  cheapo versions might be interested in getting access to some of those features in the expensive version but not in all of them.

Now to the obvious problem with the discussed solution. By selling cheapo versions with most of the value removed and factored out into separate chunks you have to pay for, you dilute the overall value of the OS. So instead of buying an OS that can do X, Y, and Z out of the box you are buying an OS that can’t do X, Y, and Z out of the box. Marketing an OS that can’t do stuff is a lot harder than trying to sell stuff that can do things.  Worse they are opening the market to third parties that might do something similar to X, Y, and Z for a better price, or in some cases for free (beer & speech). Or even worse to companies selling an alternative OS with X, Y, and Z.

That in a nutshell is what is discussed in the Ars article and why Apple Mac OS X marketshare is approaching double digit percentages. I’ve been giving it some serious thought lately and I’m also noticing the spike in Safari users in my web site statistics.

Anyway, the reason for this write up is that the article overlooks an important argument here that I believe is relevant for more markets than just operating systems. In general, the tie between OS and features such as photo galleries, online backups, or TV UIs is artificial. Microsoft only adds features like this to make the overall OS more valuable. That is, they are looking to improve the value of the OS, not the photo gallery. However, ongoing and inevitable commoditization of software actually shifts value to new features. Especially when bundled with online subscriptions, things like online photo galleries can be quite good business. For example, Flickr has many paying subscribers.

Naturally MS is interested in markets like this (which is why they are interested in Yahoo). However, the tie-in to the OS constrains the market. Why would you not want to sell these services to Apple users? Why would you not want to sell this service to Sony Playstation owners? Why would you want to want to artificially limit who can access your service just to boost sales of your OS? As long as you were trying to artificially (and apparently for MS illegally) boost value of your core OS, bundling was a valid strategy. However, as soon as your value shifts, that becomes a brake on market growth. The OS market has commoditized to the point where you can get things like Ubuntu for free, which for the low end market is about as good as what you get with the cheapo version of Vista (see my various reviews of Ubuntu for why I’m not ready to claim better yet).

So the difference between MS and Google who is eating their lunch in the services arena is that the latter is not handicapped by 20 years of Windows legacy and can freely innovate and grow marketshare without having to worry about maintaining a revenue stream from legacy software. Google doesn’t have to sell OS licenses and so they give away software on all platforms to draw more users to their services which is where they make their money.

Naturally, Google has a lot of software engineers that are working round the clock to create more value for them. Where possible Google actively collaborates with the open source community because they know that while they won’t make any money from commodities like browsers, file systems and other important software components, they do depend on those things working as good as possible and keep evolving in the right direction. Few people appreciate this but this and not ads is why Google sponsors Firefox. It’s a brilliant strategy and it is forcing their main competitor to keep investing in internet explorer rather than being able to shift resources to directly competing with Google. 50 million $ is pocket money if it is making your main competitor crap their pants and waste resources on keeping up with you in a market where you are not even trying to make money.

You might have noticed that I have carefully avoided discussing Google and Microsoft’s mobile service strategies and also noticed that yours truly is working for Nokia. Well, my readers ought to be smart enough to figure out what I’m trying to say here aren’t you :-)?

More on MS

It’s now a few days after my previous post on the vista delay. The rumour machine on the Vista delays is now rolling. A few days ago this wild claim about 60% of vista being in need of a rewrite started circulating. Inacurate of course but it woke up some people. Now this blogpost on a blog about Microsoft (fequented by many of their employees) made it to slashdot. Regardless of the accuracy of any statements in that post, this is a PR disaster. Lots of people (the entire IT industry, stockholders) read slashdot.

There’s lots of interesting details in the comments on that post that suggest that MS has at least these problems:

  • Management is clueless and generally out of touch with development progress. Claims on release dates are totally disconnected from software development planning. Release dates announced in press releases are wishful thinking at best. This is one of the reasons the date slips so often.
  • Middle management is worse. Either they have failed to communicate down when to release or up when their people tell them release is actually impossible. Either way, they have failed doing what middle management is supposed to do: implement corporate strategy and communicate up when that strategy is not working as expected.
  • Software engineers within MS are extremely frustrated with this. Enough to voice their opinions on a public blog. A lot needs to happen before I start criticizing my employer in public. I know where the money comes from. Really, I’d probably leave long before it would get to this point. So, I interpret this as MS having a few extremely frustrated employees that might very well represent a large silently disgruntled majority. Steve Ballmer seems to be rather impopular in his own company right now (never mind his external image).
  • The best MS software engineers are leaving MS and are replaced with being people of lesser quality because MS now has to compete in the job market. I remember a few years ago that MS could cherry pick from the job market. Now the cherries are leaving. Really, if your best people are leaving and you have billions in cash to fix whatever problem is causing them to leave, you are doing something wrong (like not fixing the problem).
  • Microsoft employees are spilling stock influencing information on public blogs. Opennes is one thing but this is an out of control situation. Regardless of whether they are right, these people are doing a lot of damage.

It’s probably not as bad as the comments suggest but bad enough for MS, if only for all the negative PR. Anyway, I might be revisiting the predictions I made in my previous post. I have a feeling some of them might prove to be correct in a few months already. Very amusing 🙂