Apple may be stepping up efforts to develop its own search engine. This comes as Google is under increased scrutiny by antitrust regulators in the US, which could at some point jeopardize the agreement that Apple and Google have to keep the Google Search engine as default on the Safari browser on Apple iPhone. With its own search engine, as well as existing agreements that also see Microsoft Bing, Yahoo! and DuckDuckGo available as search engines on Safari, Apple hopes to have an alternative system in place just in case regulators decide to block this agreement. Apple already has the Applebot web crawler to index and build the database for web searches.
There has been significant movement by regulators in the US over the past few weeks in the antitrust proceedings against Google, signs which clearly worry both Google and Apple. Earlier this month, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the search giant maintained a monopoly over search. Google stands accused of cobbling together partnerships, including the Google Search on Safari deal with Apple, to maintain its overall monopoly. The Financial Times reports that after the DOJ launched this case last week, Apple’s efforts with the search engine gained urgency. “They [Apple] have a credible team that I think has the experience and the depth, if they wanted to, to build a more general search engine,” said Bill Coughran, Google’s former engineering chief and now partner at Silicon Valley investor Sequoia Capital, while speaking with FT.
It is important to note that Apple hired then Google’s head of search John Giannandrea. At the time, it was expected that he would spearhead the development of Apple’s artificial intelligence suite and improve the Siri virtual assistant as it battles Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
There are also changes introduced with Apple iOS 14 operating system for the iPhone line-up, which implement Apple’s own search results in some functionality such as when a user searches while swiping down on any of the home screens. These results now show Apple’s own search suggestions instead of Google’s search results.
In the complaint, the Department of Justice refers to how Google maintained its search and search advertising monopolies by entering into exclusivity agreements that forbid preinstallation of any competing search service, entering into tying and other arrangements that force preinstallation of its search applications in prime locations on mobile devices and make them undeletable, regardless of consumer preference, entering into long-term agreements with Apple that require Google to be the default – and de facto exclusive – general search engine on Apple’s popular Safari browser and other Apple search tools as well as generally using monopoly profits to buy preferential treatment for its search engine on devices, web browsers, and other search access points, creating a continuous and self-reinforcing cycle of monopolization.
Google has already said that the charges made by the DOJ are “deeply flawed”. Google says that for Apple devices, by default, it is not an exclusive arrangement. With screenshots of how Safari works on Apple devices including the iPhone and the Macs, the company points out that Bing and Yahoo! pay to be featured in the same way as Google is featured in the Safari browser by default. They also point out that Google search or any other Google product aren’t preloaded on Microsoft Windows 10 devices because Microsoft preloads the Edge web browser with their own Bing search engine as default. Bing is also the default search for the search bar in the Windows 10 taskbar on the desktop for all Windows 10 PCs.
It is still too early to say whether Apple will indeed scale up the search engine efforts to the extent where it can compete with Google directly in the search space. It does make sense though. It has the complete control over the hardware and software that define all Apple products. Having its own search engine makes sense too. It may simply come down to whether Apple feels it is worth making the investment now for what will be a game of patience and long-term results. Apple is one of the few tech companies that have the resources to do what no one has come close to doing before, and that includes the likes of Microsoft Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo! to name a few. But Apple will do well to remember the mess that Apple Maps turned out to be when it first rolled out in 2012, something that still rankles.
Another route for Apple would be to acquire existing search engines or search startups, which will speed up the process significantly. It is hard to see though which search engine Apple can, if at all, acquire at this time. But we may just be in for a surprise. If that happens.