Why The Wolfram Alpha App Costs $50

Wolfram Alpha is now available as an application on the iPhone. While I’d love to have this app, Wolfram priced it at $50.00, which seems a little rich for something you can just as easily access for free with mobile Safari. TechCrunch slammed Wolfram Alpha for this, saying that the incrementally better user experience the app offers over the web version is worth maybe $5.00.

I have to admit, the price actually intrigued me. While I still rely almost exclusively on Google, Wolfram Alpha is getting better at handling the more academic queries I have on a day-to-day basis, and the thought of a premium experience on the iPhone was briefly tempting. First, however, I wanted to see what the “free” experience would look like. I went to mobile Safari and accessed the Wolfram Alpha home page, and discovered that it was well-optimized for the iPhone. I then added the page to my iPhone home screen, and was rewarded with a nice spiffy icon. Looks almost like an app, doesn’t it? And it cost me nothing. Spending 50 bucks to get an app version of this sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? I guess TechCrunch is right–must be a bad move.

Except, look what it made me do–it made me visit the page, use it, and add it to my iPhone home screen–where it previously didn’t exist. Plus, we are all talking about Wolfram Alpha again. Commenters all over the blogosphere are talking about how all you have to do is visit the home page on your iPhone and tap Add to Home Screen and you, too, can “outsmart” Wolfram Alpha by getting access to their valuable service for free. Silly Wolfram!

There can be an enormous gulf between “free” and “worthless.” Wolfram just implanted a $50 value in my head for their free service, and that seems pretty smart, to me.