Is the Wolfram|Alpha App Really Worth $50?

Wolfram|Alpha, the computational knowledge engine, has recently launched a mobile counterpart in the Apple store. Much to the typical iPhone/iPod touch users’ surprise, though, the app was launched at $49.99. Some have claimed that the app itself is overpriced, especially in light of the fact that the majority of iPhone apps are $3.99 and under (with most being a mere 99 cents). John Gruber of Daring Fireball, on the other hand, has made a powerful statement as to why the cost should be set high:

There’s widespread consensus that the current race-to-the-bottom in App Store pricing discourages the development of deep, significant applications. If all anyone is buying are quick-hit apps, then all anyone will make are quick-hit apps. We can’t have it both ways, folks. By pricing the app at $50, Wolfram is clearly saying, “This app is significant.”

He’s right. But is the app significant? We took it for a test drive and we’re letting you know what we’ve found.

To answer the question, I’m inclined to say yes, Wolfram|Alpha is pretty darn significant. As a computational knowledge engine, they have a pretty lofty goal in an “ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone. Enter your question or calculation and Wolfram|Alpha uses its built-in algorithms and a growing collection of data to compute the answer.” The app takes this online knowledge and presents it in a fashion that’s both fun and shareable (verbally, that is, and on Twitter). Compared to the web frontend itself (which is totally not optimized for mobile devices), the iPhone app presents data in an easy to read fashion, and you’re definitely asking for more.

Let’s take a look at a few of the queries that can be computed or discovered using Wolfram|Alpha. Can you tell which one was computed on the web interface? The app presentation is clearly much more powerful and aesthetically pleasing.

More than that, though, this app is great for knowledge discovery. I know I’m not done unleashing its potential. Thankfully, they even have a gallery to show me what I can potentially discover on the application.

So, is it worth the $50? That’s hard to say. In comparison with the pricing of the other apps in the store, it does sound like a bit much, especially since this information is mostly for knowledge enthusiasts but it’s not one of those apps or games you’d be using religiously. Truth be told, I don’t know how many people would buy it for such a high cost either. You can clearly tell that the significance of this app is there, though; there was a lot of hard work poured into the development of this application, but that’s not to say that other cheaper apps have had any lesser dedication put forth into their development. It’s a fun app to have, though, but unless you’re absolutely finding this data useful on a regular basis, it’s hard to justify the cost, at least right now in comparison to the other applications. If other app developers followed in Wolfram|Alpha LLC’s lead and raised the cost of their own applications, the cost of this app wouldn’t be so hard to swallow. Until then, though, it’s an expensive addition that might not provide more than an hour of utility — but that utility will be extremely powerful if taken advantage of.

That said, if you are a knowledge buff, BUY this app. You’ll absolutely love it. First, try out their search engine online and see what kind of potential it has (there’s a lot). Then see what you can harness in the palm of your hand. You’ll see how incredibly immersive it is to those of you knowledge aficionados. But if you’re not a knowledge buff, the web version (that is, on your computer, not your iPhone) will serve you just fine.

Tamar Weinberg is a blogger and author of The New Community Rules (July 2009), a book on social media marketing and how to leverage existing communities for awareness and profit. She is also a new mom.