Wolfram Alpha and the semantic search space

Everybody is buzzing today with the announcement of Wolfram Alpha's launch date in a couple of months so I felt I ought to throw my two pence worth. First impressions are good in as much that they've managed to generate a lot of buzz and a "rising tide floats all boats". Semantic search needs all the help it can get to find its killer app and a new player should always be welcomed.

Taking a look at some of the details, the parallels with [true knowledge] are clear - a private database in an apparently proprietary format coupled with a collection of algorithms for inferring new facts from old. The differences are also visible, Wolfram Alpha's knowledge and inference rules are all hand-crafted by employees, whereas [true knowledge] has always explicitly stated their goal of encouraging user-submitted data.

Comparing the example questions offered by both companies is interesting, even though there only a handful are available for Wolfram Alpha:

Wolfram Alpha [true knowledge]
What is the location of Timbuktu? What's the capital of Zambia?
How many protons are in a hydrogen atom? What is the height of the Eiffel Tower in yards?
What was the average rainfall in Boston last year? Are snakes carnivores?
What is the 307th digit of Pi? Who was born on the day that World War II ended?
Where is the ISS? How old was Karl Marx when he died?
When was GOOG worth more than $300? How much is Steve Ballmer worth?

I think its clear from this that although there is a lot of overlap between the two, the intended scope of the two companies contains some differences as well; Wolfram aiming at a fairly precise technical subset of knowledge whilst [true knowledge] aim for a wider target - more a "general knowledge quiz" than a thesis defence.

So where does this leave the 'big S' Semantic Web, OWL, RDF and friends? If the future of the semantic web is going to be a few big proprietary databases with natural language interfaces then perhaps RDF will (only?) be needed as a 'lingua franca' to enable entities to be mapped between these disparate systems.

obligatory disclaimer; my company does some work for [true knowledge] - opinions expressed here are mine - not theirs!