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Is Apple Building Its Own Search Engine?

Changes to search in iOS 14 have Ars Technica and other outlets speculating that Apple could be building its own search engine as an alternative to Google. Although some searches still point to Google, others bring up direct links to Web sites.Apple search results in iOS 14

Google has just been hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the United States government, which could also hurt Apple (see “US Justice Department Files Antitrust Suit Against Google,” 20 October 2020). A detail in the government’s suit suggests that Google pays Apple $8–$12 billion every year to make Google Safari’s default search engine, boosting Apple’s Services revenue significantly.

But there’s more to the speculation than that: in 2018, Apple hired John Giannandrea, the former head of Google search. Apple has also posted several job openings for search engineers. Plus, observers have often noticed more hits from Applebot, the Web crawler that Apple announced in 2015. And, of course, Apple prefers to rely on other companies for core capabilities as little as possible, Apple Maps and the move to Apple silicon being obvious examples of that.

It’s also possible that pundits are reading too much into this.  It’s hard to see Apple enthused about having to give up $8–$12 billion in revenue and take on the significant expense of trying to build a search engine that meets users’ needs. Apple would have to either eat the loss and the costs or attempt to expand its ad business to take up the slack, neither of which seem appealing.

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Comments About Is Apple Building Its Own Search Engine?

Notable Replies

  1. If Apple wanted to build a search engine they would have done so years ago. They would have spent hundreds of millions to roll their own during the time when Google refused to build turn by turn directions into iOS Maps when they were getting ready to be released in Android. I think they put their efforts into Maps because they were very cognizant of the hundreds of millions of dollars disaster that was Yahoo’s search engine, which was much anticipated to be the Google Killer, turned out to be. Early in the '90s Yahoo had the chance to buy Google for $3 billion, but they assumed they could do better on their own. And Google thought they could expand their income without Safari.

    Even if they had wanted to build a search engine, or to buy Google for $3 billion which they didn’t have at the time, Apple had already established privacy and security as major selling points for their products. And though they did make an attempt at selling advertising, they were not good at it because tracking and sharing information is how digital ad sales works.

    It would probably cost Apple at least a many billions of to buy a search engine, and even more billions to build an engine from scratch. And any buildout of a search engine would also require a huge investment in cloud expansion. I certainly agree that it’s in Apple’s best interests to maintain the relationship with Google. But I also think it’s a smart move to hedge their bets, and I can also see why Google’s search engine talent would be spooked by the US and EU government’s actions. And the new talent could certainly help with Siri.

  2. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Apple is building a full scale search engine to replace Google.

    Applebot is used for specific tasks right now, and there may be simple reasons like Applebot provides better results in certain cases, or is easier to integrate into some Apple products than Google.

    Likewise, the job openings for search engineers could be for search on other teams, like the App Store or Apple Music.

    When I worked at Apple, I worked on a project to convert disks from one volume format to another. The project was successful and we applied for a patent. The patent became public right as the Apple press was abuzz about Apple adopting the ZFS file system. Speculation was ripe that the patent was proof Apple would adopt ZFS. But in fact our project had nothing to do with ZFS, people read into it what they wanted to see.

    It’s possible Apple has a search project on the back burner, as an insurance policy. A falling out with Google, or political pressure against large tech companies working together, would make it expedient to have search technology already under development. Apple certainly has the resources to pursue the project, even if it’s never used.

    I’m sure Apple had an ARM version of macOS running for years before Apple Silicon was announced, and I know Apple had an Intel version of Mac OS X running many years before the switch to Intel Macs was announced. It’s not usual for Apple to invest in projects on the chance that they might pan out in the future.

    Apple doesn’t like to depend on others for key technology, and web search is certainly a key technology. But we don’t have enough evidence to draw any conclusion other than Apple is keeping their options open.

  3. If it is, I hope it is better than Apple Maps was! It would also have to be better than Google and Duck Duck Go before I’d use it. Google’s search engine and mapping are the only Google applications for which I haven’t found better replacements.

  4. Apple doesn’t need Google’s money and has always claimed that the products & people were more important than the money. I sure hope they get away from Google. I do everything I can not to use Google!

  5. Apple doesn’t need ad money, either!

  6. Yahoo? I still have a bookmark for Alta Vista! Don’t forget Bing (well maybe forget it!). The list of dead ends must be quite large so I can’t see Apple going down this path (excuse the mixed mataphors). DuckDuckGo is my preferred search engine but I sometimes use Google when my DDG searches are not successful. I am actually finding that all search are less likely to narrow in on my actual requests these days. I suspect this is because AIs are trying to guess my needs and guess wrong. Maybe I will have to learn the various embedded search commands to improve the results?

  7. During the years when MS’s Bing was Safari’s default search engine it absolutely drove me nuts to have to type in “google.com” to access what was, and still is, a better and more effective search engine. It was a major time and energy waster, as well as an annoyance, that was repeated on many, many multiple occasions every single day. IMHO, and I am far from being alone in this opinion, Google is still by far the best search engine. Bing, Duck Duck Go, Yahoo aren’t even in the same ballpark.

    I’m nothing resembling a fan girl for Google or just about all of Alphabet’s other products. I’ve tried other search engines over the years and will more than gladly switch if I can find one that I think is better. But I do realize that, like Apple, Alphabet is a publicly traded company needs to make money. Like Apple, they are focused on producing the best products, an in order to do so they need to generate revenue that will keep the stockholders that own the company happy. And having the best search engine pay Apple upwards of $9 billion a year is a big contributor to product development and expansion that keeps me locked in to Apple’s hardware and software.

  8. Without getting into a discussion about the pros and cons of Google’s service, are you aware that you can (and always could) change Safari’s default search engine? In the current version, it’s on the Search tab of the application’s preferences - you can choose Google, Yahoo, Bing or DuckDuckGo.

    Although the preference has been in different locations over the years, it has always been present. No need to manually load a search engine’s home page if you want to use one of the built-in options (and Google has always been on the list of options, even when it wasn’t the factory default).

    Firefox, however, is nicer in this regard. It lets you install alternate search engines, so you can use just about anything from the normal address/search box.

    There are Safari extensions for custom searches, but they don’t seem to integrate as well as Firefox’s custom search add-ons.

  9. I was talking circa 2011 when it wasn’t so easy to switch. IIRC, and I could be wrong, the newly born Siri was Bing also.

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