Wolfram Alpha Wants to Be a Google Maps for Data

Wolfram Alpha may not call itself a search engine — rather, a “knowledge engine” to process questions that can be answered with objective data and computation — but it faces a similar challenge to wannabe-Googles that want searchers to come to their destinations. Simply put, Wolfram Alpha needs users. And so the wonky company, under the leadership of new managing director Barak Berkowitz, is now moving from polishing its product to getting people to actually use it by changing up its distribution strategy.

The first step on that road map is to redesign the Wolfram Alpha mobile site and reduce the price of its famously expensive iPhone  (s AAPL) app. (After all, when else do you need quick and definitive answers but while on the go?) Launching Thursday, m.wolframalpha.com has been rebuilt to strip out the CSS and JavaScript that was making it inaccessible on some phones. And further, the Wolfram Alpha iPhone app — which had previously cost $50 and then $20 — will now go for the much more unremarkable price of $1.99 (the nearly 10,000 people who paid one of the higher prices can request a refund, Berkowitz said).

Anyone who buys the iPhone app will be entitled to a Wolfram Alpha iPad app, too — and that’s where things really get exciting. Berkowitz said his company has a goal of offering a value-added service to publishers and authors of e-books so that they can plug in web references to help readers dive in more deeply. Such a plan would also mean an alternate business model — charging a small amount for every e-book bought that’s Wolfram Alpha-fied.

Berkowitz drew a parallel with how mentions of places and public companies can be automatically and dynamically connected to maps and stock quotes, respectively. Just about any site you go to online, he pointed out, has an embedded Google Map (s GOOG).

Wolfram Alpha wants to do the same thing for data, turning it into a widget that can be plugged into e-books, blogs and web applications. “What we don’t have right now is the ability to get any factual data you need, and that’s huge,” Berkowitz said. “That’s a big part of the information mankind has built over time. Our hope is [that publishers and users will say], ‘If I need some data, I go to Wolfram Alpha.'”

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Photo courtesy of Joi Ito via Flickr.