Opinion: Sizing up Google's new search rivals

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Opinion: Sizing up Google's new search rivals

Can computational search engine Wolfram Alpha or Microsoft's forthcoming 'Kumo' search engine compete with Google's dominance in search?

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Last week, the much-hyped Wolfram Alpha search engine went live.

Next week, Microsoft is expected to demonstrate its 'Kumo' search update.

Both products have been garnered much attention from the press, but can either really challenge the dominance of Google search?

For the overwhelming majority of web users, the Google search service has become the de facto tool for searching the web.

Former market leaders such as Yahoo have struggled mightily to stay afloat while the word 'Google' is so popular that the word has moved from a noun to a verb - a 21st century Xerox.

Now, we have two new challengers ready to enter the market, but can either Wolfram Alpha or Kumo pose any sort of threat the big rainbow-coloured giant in Mountain View?

Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha, launched last week, isn't exactly a 'Google killer,' either in format or function. The brainchild of scientist Stephen Wolfram aims to answer questions not in the normal 'keyword query' format of traditional search engines, but in natural language.

Early reactions to the service have been mixed. While Wolfram Alpha does return some interesting results, the site has not been without its early complainants.

Even when the early kinks are worked out, one has to question whether Wolfram Alpha will solve a genuine need. After all, Google is pretty popular with users and while the keyword system has its flaws, it has worked pretty well thus far.

Rather than replace or compete with Google, it appears as if Wolfram Alpha will have to settle for supplementing it instead. The new engine does do certain things better than Google, and it may be able to carve out a niche in the market. Perhaps that will be enough for Wolfram.

Microsoft Kumo

Not so much for Microsoft. There is no settling in Redmond. The company's new Kumo search update will be a shell lobbed directly at Google.

It is no secret that Microsoft has long had its eye on Google's lucrative search ad cash cow. The attempt to acquire Yahoo was based almost solely on boosting revenues for Live Search, and when that deal fell through, the company turned its attention in-house to construct a Google killer.

Now, it appears as if the company is getting ready to launch its next shot across Google's bow. The Kumo search update is said to be making its debut later this week, according to multiple reports.

When it launches, Kumo will be tasked with making people venture away from Google. Not an easy task, considering how engrained Google Search has become for most users.

To get people away from Google, Kumo will have to offer not just a better experience, but one significant enough to break the public's Google habit. That is a pretty tall order for Microsoft, which has a reputation for building strong products over time with a fair amount of trial and error.

Given the embarrassing launches and subsequent flops Microsoft has seen in recent years with the Zune and Windows Vista. The search market can be lucrative, but even Microsoft can only take so much. Will the company have the stomach to keep at it if Kumo doesn't take off right away?

That is not to say that Microsoft and others shouldn't still try. Though the hurdles for both Wolfram Alpha and Kumo are formidable, it is definitely good to see competition in the market.

In conclusion

When we published our list of most disappointing technologies earlier this month, the failure of new search engines was duly noted. Competition is very important for end-users because it keeps companies hard at work generating new features to make the product a little better than the other guy.

The best example is perhaps the web browser market. After Netscape was beaten, Microsoft let Internet Explorer get stale due to the lack of any real threat in the market. Now that Firefox has emerged, Microsoft has been forced to step up its game, and the result has been a generation of safer and more advanced browsers for everyone.

Given the dominance Google holds over the search market, the emergence of these new challengers is a good thing. Even if Wolfram Alpha and Kumo fail to pose a long-term threat to Google, they should at least make the company sit up and take notice of how it can get better.

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