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Wolfram Alpha iPhone app is cool but overpriced

If you need it, it's worth it, but that doesn't mean it's fairly priced.

The iPhone app for Wolfram Alpha (iTunes store link) got approved by Apple surprisingly quickly, I was told in a breathless e-mail from Wolfram PR on Sunday. But the real surprise was the price: The app is $49.99.

The rationale is twisted.

"It's less than half the price of a graphing calculator, but it does more," the rep told me. By the way, "price of a graphing calculator" is a calculation that Wolfram Alpha can't compute.

For much, much less than the price of a graphing calculator, or $0.00, you can point your iPhone's Safari browser at Wolframalpha.com and have full access to the service for free. Divide by that, Wolfie.

Also, the $49.99 price doesn't get you an actual standalone graphing calculator, since the app doesn't work when it doesn't have a Web connection.

The Wolfram Alpha iPhone app makes it easier to enter calculation queries. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Now, to be fair, the iPhone app is a much better way to use Wolfram than the Web site, for a few reasons.

The Wolfram Web site renders all answers, even text, as GIF graphics, which means that text doesn't automatically wrap, or even scale well, on the iPhone's small screen. The app fixes that, and results render nicely on the iPhone. Also, entering complex queries using numbers and symbols on the iPhone's standard keyboard is a real drag, but the Wolfram app has a special keyboard that gives fast access to the symbols you'll need if you're a heavy Wolfram user.

There are several other nice features. You can bookmark queries, e-mail them, and Twitter them. They really do make the Wolfram app very handy for frequent users, and it's those power Wolframers that the app is targeted at. If you need it, then the "price of 12 lattes from Starbucks," which I'm told is another way the team is thinking of the price, is as they might say in the halls of some physics departments, trivial.

But as they would tell you in the economics department, you're being taken for a ride.

Also, Wolfram Alpha doesn't know the price of 12 Starbucks lattes either, but it did tell me the stock price of SBUX and, to its credit, if you enter "12 lattes" as a query, you'll get all sorts of nutritional information, such as calorie content for the 12 lattes (1,654), carbohydrates (61 percent of daily recommended intake), and cholesterol (162 mg).

Just like the dozen lattes, this app is hard to swallow.

Previously: Wolfram Alpha opens API to developers.