Mathematica Home Edition

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Unusually, this is not a review of a product (for that, see Mathematica 7, in January) but of a marketing model and its implications.

For some time, now, computer algebra products have been pushing outward from their core hinterlands, seeking to extend user bases beyond the obvious areas that sustained their initial development. Attention to the friendliness of the user interface is one way of approaching this; tailoring of the product for appeal to particular new markets is another, as is extension of capability into new areas. Wolfram is well established in exploration of all three. And then there is differential licensing.

Wolfram has several different licensing models (known as 'editions') for Mathematica; if you are a student, for example, you currently have three ways to use the core product without buying a full professional licence. Academic and corporate customers, of course, have access to multiple licence options even if they don't go for the web or grid variants. So far, so similar to other products in the same genre. But what about recreational mathematicians and others who would like to privately play with the sort of power which Mathematica offers, but can't justify the cost involved?

I have from time to time argued in Scientific Computing World that 'mathematical literacy' and intellectual productivity could (and should) be radically altered by wide social access to good, easy to use, computer algebra power tools. Quite apart from anything else, science needs a next generation which is familiar with computerised mathematics. Wolfram, to its credit, has made several explorations in this direction – notably Mathematical Explorer, which presented big ideas from the history of mathematics through an exploratory interface and A New Kind of Science Explorer, which invites users to play with the ideas put forward in Stephen Wolfram's book. There was also Calculation Center, which offered a 'lite' version of Mathematica itself.

With release of the Home Edition, Wolfram goes further and places the entire full Mathematica product in the hands of private individual users at an affordable price. It is only available by download; it has a superficially rebranded front end; the licence forbids its use for any but private purposes; it runs only in 32-bit mode; but beyond that, Home and Professional editions are identical. I spent a long time, when I downloaded the review copy, looking for hidden differences, but beyond those mentioned there are none.

It would be naïve, of course, to think that Wolfram has nothing but the greater social good at heart, here. This is a way to expand both current market and future penetration share, but that's only to be expected and doesn't diminish the social effect. I wish the experiment well, and encourage everyone with a budding scientist in the house (or an acquaintance with a lively mind, but no mathematics software, for that matter) to buy them a Home Edition license.