Google + Wolfram?

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Here’s a post from my colleague and editor Peter Elstrom, who spoke with British mathematician and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram two days ago about his new search technology effort, called WolframAlpha:

Several stories, including this one on TechCrunch, have declared it as important as Google, while others have raised the question of whether it’s a Google killer.

But in an interview for a story in this week’s magazine, Wolfram sounded much more likely to cooperate with Google than compete. “I’m a big fan [of Google],” says Wolfram. “For searching the Web, they do a good job.”

He sees WolframAlpha as a different kind of tool than traditional search, useful for queries that are data-intensive and require heavy computation. “What we’re trying to do with WolframAlpha is somewhat different,” he says. “We’re trying to compute the answers for questions that people have.”

“In a sense, we’re following a trend where technology helps make things that once were available only to experts available to everyone,” he says. “There’s a style of how people get information on the Internet. People have adapted to Googlese or Yahooese or whatever it is. What I think with WolframAlpha is that people will discover you can do all sorts of things that they never could do before. They’ll learn that if they want certain financial information, whatever it is, they learn how to compute that.”

Wolfram believes that there are at least five ways that his company can profit from this technology, including by licensing the technology to corporations and by running advertising alongside search results. But he says the task of building the revenue-generating end of the business is “slightly daunting.”

Asked about the potential for competition with Google, he gave this response: “I would hope that there would be more cooperation than competition. But who knows. The business world is unpredictable. We’re certainly open to all sorts of partnership. A more efficient approach probably for all parties is cooperation.”

So has he had talks with Google or Yahoo about getting their help in building an advertising business? “Yes we’ve had lots of discussions with folks who have ad inventories.”

Still, he pointed out that WolframAlpha plans to present advertising in a different manner than traditional display or search formats. He wants ads to pop up if a user hovers over them with a cursor, making them “a little surprise.” So he wants advertising that fits thematically with what WolframAlpha is doing. “I may be too much of a perfectionist, but if we’re going to have these ads on the site we want to make sure that it’s not something that was re-purposed from somewhere else.”

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