Wolfram Research, Mathematica enter new software era

Wolfram Research, Mathematica enter new software era

Theodore Gray's office was uncluttered and organized, so something big must be up at Wolfram Research this week.

Gray always said he would tidy his office when Mathematica 6, the newest version of the Champaign-based company's internationally known software for scientific and technical computing, was done.

He and other Wolfram technologists have been working on the release off and on for a decade, which means its completion – it became available Tuesday – would seem to merit something special to mark the occasion. The first version of Mathematica came out in 1988.

The company, which employs about 300 people and has offices in Europe and Japan, is planning a party, Gray said. But the pristine state of its co-founder's legendarily cluttered workspace may say even more about what Mathematica 6 means.

"There's more new stuff in version six than there was in version one," said Gray, who also heads Mathematica's user interface group.

"Virtually every part of the system has been touched," said Roger Germundsson, Wolfram's director of research and development.

The jump from Version 5, which came out four years ago almost to the month, and Version 6 may be logical, Gray said. But he said the company could have justified calling the new package version "10 or something," given the leap forward it represents.

"In compatibility terms, Mathematica 6 is an upgrade," Wolfram's founder and Chief Executive Officer Stephen Wolfram said in a press release. "In capability terms, this is a major new product. Mathematica's been reinvented."

He said the company thought about renaming the program altogether.

Gray likes to call Mathematica "the Swiss Army Knife of technical software." Essentially, it is a program for applying all sorts of mathematical operations to all sorts of data. It's loaded with built-in tools to make doing that easier, which can be combined to do extremely complex calculations and turned into programs in their own right to automate things. The ability to output results in polished graphics and reports, even to the Web, is all part of the package.

The software, with a couple million users, can be found in academic and government labs worldwide and in just about any major company with a research-and-development arm. It's powerful enough that scientists, economists, engineers, and the like love it. It's simple enough for smart high school kids.

Mathematica 6 pushes all that to new levels and more, to hear Gray, Germundsson, and Tom Wickham-Jones, who's in charge of the programming on which Mathematica is built, tell it.

For one thing, it allows users to easily "create their own dynamically active applications" complete with common software interface elements like buttons, tabs, check boxes and slider bars.

Wolfram's Web site now includes more than a thousand of the hand-rolled programs, created for fun by people at the company and by an army of enthu-siastic software testers, including a high school math class.

The company has created a free player program, something like Adobe Reader, that allows the programs to be used even without Mathematica, which costs nearly $2,500.

Wolfram officials see the Web site, also free, becoming a virtual gathering place for people's creations, kind of like YouTube is for videos.

Gray, Germundsson and Wickham-Jones also highlighted new data integration features and graphics and visualization capabilities in Mathematica 6. Germundsson said the program can now import and export hundreds of different file formats, from geographic descriptions to multimedia files, as well as a battery of scientific and technical data types.

Wolfram also has created and linked the program to a huge library of data on the Web, allowing users to grab and manipulate, say, historical figures for the gross domestic products of the U.S. and other major economic powers, or 3-D renderings of the molecular structure of various chemicals, without having to go looking, or to leave Mathematica.

The new version also makes it easier to output results in visual, even 3-D, form, a popular way of looking at data now that ample computing power readily allows it.

"You can make graphics that hopefully are insightful," Germundsson said.

He likened Mathematica's integrated tool set to the concept of "mashups," tools that let people easily combine digital materials, for example Google Maps, a restaurant review site and an electronic phone book to create a visual directory of eateries.

"Mathematica is the ultimate mashup environment," he said.

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