Wolfram sees mobile apps driving programming changes

With mobile computing on the rise, a rethinking of applications is in order. Mathematica pioneer Stephen Wolfram sees more use of 'questioning' software in the offing.

ANALYSIS - It is still too early to gauge the ultimate effects mobile device development will have on overall development practices. But a big rethinking of applications is going on in terms of input and location capabilities, with other changes likely to follow. One of those changes may be a lessening of the pervasive influence of search technology, and an increase in 'question answering' technology, according to mathematical software pioneer Stephen Wolfram.

Due to cell phones' limited size, input is a stubborn problem. User interface designers do what they can, but the issue remains pronounced, and is not one that developers can ignore. Some pundits suggest new voice recognition input may be the answer for small type pads, but this solution has been proposed before with disappointing results.

Wireless- and Web-based services remain the lifeblood of small devices, but development changes lurk there too. The memory, bandwidth and connectivity capabilities of new devices require services developers to carefully size and time their messaging strategies. Further indications of areas of change were evidenced recently while attending Xconomy Forum's Mobile Madness 2011 conference in Cambridge, MA.

There, keynoter Stephen Wolfram suggested search technology may have less sway on the ''wireless Web.'' Instead, Wolfram sees mobile development as a hotbed for "question answering" technology he favors. This technology bears fair resemblance to the software at the heart of IBM's Watson system, a recent winner on the Jeopardy TV quiz show.

"Mobile is a medium where you have to cut to the chase as quickly as possible," said Wolfram. 

"You should not have to scroll around and click on [multiple] links." He thus echoes others who see lessening of use of search technology as new phones find more users.

Wolfram Research Founder and CEO Stephen Wolfram is creator of the influential Mathematica computational software platform. His writings on the philosophy of science have marked him as a profound - and controversial - futurist.

He and his firm have worked in recent years to create Wolfram|Alpha, a Web site with a search-like interface that answers questions by accessing a specialized computational knowledge engine. 

This software engine combines a large, regularly updated 10-trillion-piece-plus database, linguistic analysis and dynamic algorithms and equations. Wolfram|Alpha apps have been made available for iPad, iPhone, Android and other devices.

"For many years our business had been a desktop business. Then a server business. Then a cloud [computing] business. Then Wolfram|Alpha. Then mobile apps," said Wolfram.

An immediate goal for Wolfram|Alpha mobile apps is to tailor packages for the major courses students take in schools, said Wolfram. The company offers, for example, course assistants for algebra, calculus and music theory students that tap into the company's knowledge engine.

"The strategy in the app world is to have different apps for different jobs," said Wolfram, who sees future apps for doctors, systems administrators, and many other types of job holders.

Here again arises a subtle difference between mobile computing and traditional platforms. In traditional development you have to specify the functions ahead of time, said Wolfram.

"Now you get the knowledge of the world [onto a search engine or database], and you build the software for the type of functionality you deal with," he said.

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