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Why is Wolfram Language free to use, but Mathematica is not?

Posted 2 months ago
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The differences of Mathematica and Wolfram Engine/Wolfram Language are discussed at other places. Like:

Even though I still can't grasp concretely what the differences are.
My Question here is why there are different payment models for Mathematica, WolframCloud and WolframEngine?
It seems like you gain practically very little by paying for Mathematica. (Mostly interface-wise)
I would think of Mathematica to be kind of like an IDE.
But nobody would pay hundreds of dollars just for an IDE.
So what am I missing about Mathematica that makes it reasonable to pay for it?
Why didn't the new business model for distributing Wolfram Language change the business model of Mathematica?
And why isn't Mathematica free to use?

My Background:

I heard of Mathematica ever since I started studying physics 2 years ago and I was always kind of sad that it is so expensive.
I used WolframAlpha for many calculations while studying, but I always found it quite rigid.
Often it just wasn't enough to solve a problem I had.

So I searched for alternatives and since I love Python I started to learn more about SageMath.
But quickly I figured it just isn't as well designed as I'd like it to be.

So I searched for alternatives again and stumbled upon WolframCloud and Wolfram Engine.
I've been using it for a few days now and it's just what I imagined Mathematica to be. (and more)
And I feel like I won't ever have to pay for Mathematica, because I could just use Wolfram Language for free.

Posted 2 months ago


WARNING: Below is my opinion based on my personal experiences. I know that we are all different. In can only speak for myself.

These types of discussions help me to put things into perspective as I put proposals together for how to spend our limited resources. I hope others (including Wolfram) will share their experiences and thoughts as well.

Thanks for the great question Nico.

This is a great question and one I have struggled with with many vendors.

For me, it keeps coming back to the following question:

Does this vendor's business model work for me?

I have to say that I have passed on many great products because the vendor's business model would cost much more than the value I realize given my current use cases. And to be honest, for many years, there were no budgets for tools, so I was often stuck with what we had and what we could get for free. I do not mean to bash any particular vendor, so I'm not going to name specific products or their makers.

While I would love for all of the tools that Wolfram makes were less expensive, I want Wolfram to do more than just succeed. I want them to thrive, to innovate, to continue making my life easier and more productive (if a bit frustrating at times).

I think it is great that the Wolfram Engine is now free. This is a big deal for my use cases. A free engine will allow me to deploy Wolfram-based workflows as easily, and at the same cost, that I can deploy workflows with PowerShell, R, and other tools.

I don't mind paying (though I'd rather pay less) for Mathematica because Mathematica allows me to do much more than just design standard workflows. With Mathematica, I can:

  • Do exploratory analytics in almost real-time with my business partners. For most questions, I no longer have to tell them that I'll have to get back to them later that day or week.
  • Work transparently with business partners without that having to hand them 10 pages of SQL and an Excel workbook full of formulas that even if they could read, the don't have the time to do so.
  • Build simple to complex cross-platform desktop, web and mobile apps that will delight users in hours, not days or weeks or months.

For most of my use cases, putting my data in the cloud is not an option. But I can imagine that for many use cases that would be a great lower-cost alternative. But, of course, you are then reliant on having internet connectivity, which is something that is not always true.

Unfortunately, we are not always able to afford a product just because the benefits will more than cover the costs. We have to be able to afford the product to begin with and we have to sell the product to the decision makers.

For my current challenges, I think Wolfram has struck a good balance:

  • Power Users and Developers need Mathematica (and we only have a few of those)
  • We can deploy/publish solutions via email, PDF, Excel, Wolfram Player, Wolfram Cloud (when allowed)
  • We can automate the publishing results to other tools such as Power BI, Tableau, Google Sheets, Office, etc.
  • A mostly consistent and evolving environment that doesn't require me to learn and keep up with a dozen or more opinionated packages that are all changing (and breaking things) on their own schedules.

I'm looking forward to reading how others feel on this topic.

Stay safe.


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