Apple accelerates efforts to develop its own search technology after US antitrust authorities threaten the billions of dollars that Google is making to secure its search service a privileged position on the iPhone.
In a change that didn’t get much attention in the latest version of the iPhone operating system, iOS 14, Apple began offering its own search results and direct links to websites when users type search queries on the smartphone’s home screen.
This ability to search the web is a major advancement in Apple’s internal search development and could serve as the basis for a broader attack on Google, according to several industry representatives.
The Silicon Valley company is known for keeping its projects confidential. However, the change adds to the growing evidence that it is developing a rival for the Google search service.
Two and a half years ago, Apple hired John Giannandrea, Google’s vice president of research. The hiring was reportedly to strengthen his artificial intelligence and Siri virtual assistant skills, but it also earned the company the eight years of experience he had for the world’s most popular search engine.
Apple’s growing search function is an alternative if regulators block their lucrative partnership with Google. When the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit last week over payments Google is making to Apple as the default search engine for its smartphones, the initiative became urgent.
“She [a Apple] They have a reputable team that I believe have the experience and depth to build a more general search service if they so choose, ”said Bill Coughran, former vice president of engineering at Google and now a partner at Sequoia Capital. a Corporation for Silicon Valley Ventures.
Apple’s frequent search engineer job postings show no lack of ambition and invite candidates interested in “defining and implementing the architecture of Apple’s innovative search technology.”
Search engine marketing experts point to the expanded activity of Applebot, the previously unknown iPhone web crawler that gathers the vast database of online material that underpins every search service.
Suganthan Mohanadasan, a digital marketing consultant, said Applebot had “ridiculously” appeared on its customers’ websites in the past few weeks. “As the crawler accelerates, we are told that it is trying to gather more information.”
Most importantly, iOS 14 excluded Google from certain search functions. Searches performed in the search window when the user swipes right the screen on the iPhone home page – what Apple defines as “Today’s View” – displays an Apple-generated list of search suggestions instead of search results. Google. The results include suggestions triggered by entering the search term generated by Apple, showing that the company is learning from the search terms that are used most frequently by its billions of users.
Apple declined to comment.
Building a real rival for Google search service can take years. With earnings expected to be more than $ 55 billion this year and a cash reserve of $ 81 billion in its most recent valuation, Apple can afford long-term investments.
Throughout history, the company has always tried to control the most important components of its products, from the special chips that trigger all sorts of things, from the iPhone to AirPods and Watch accessories, to the tight integration between software and hardware.
However, Apple insisted on Google as the default iPhone search service for more than a decade.
However, now Apple has a growing incentive to change that as regulators force the company to choose between defending its relationship with Google or rejecting its long-term search partner.
The US Department of Justice has paid between $ 8 billion and $ 12 billion annually from Google to make its search service the standard iPhone feature at the center of its antitrust lawsuit against the internet group.
Sharis Pozen, an antitrust director at Clifford Chance international law firm and a former assistant to the US Department of Justice, said the case “opened a new front for Apple” in addition to her litigation with Epic Games and other companies over their role as guardians of user access via the App Store. “Apple will be central to this case,” she said, adding that the company “needs to walk the tightrope” to explain why it received billions of dollars from Google.
The Justice Department could call for an end to the exclusivity agreement so that other companies have equal access to the iPhone’s standard search service position.
Apple has stumbled in the past trying to create alternatives to Google. When she launched Apple Maps in 2012, the service was so buggy that Scott Forstall, a top advisor to Steve Jobs, the company’s founder, had to step down.
However, Apple is one of the few companies that has the resources to index the web from scratch. Most of Google’s smaller competitors license their indexes through Microsoft’s Bing search engine, including DuckDuckGo, a search company that prefers privacy and that Apple is already offering as an alternative to Google in its browser Safari and Neeva, a Silicon Valley startup , which was founded by two former Google executives.
“Apple’s position is very unique as it has the iPhone and iOS. It controls the standard browser, ”said Sridhar Ramaswamy, one of the founders of Neeva and former vice president of advertising at Google. The search engine extension “seems natural to Apple,” he said, because it has the ability to gather data and learn from user behavior on a large scale.
More than 20 years after Google was founded, creating a search engine remains “technically very difficult, but not as difficult as it has been in the past,” said Coughran, one of the investors who invested $ 35 million on Neeva. This is partly because cloud computing infrastructure has gotten cheaper and open source tools are available to both Apple and startups like Neeva.
However, the scale of the problem is immense. “Any sane search engine must have 20 to 50 billion pages in its active index,” said Ramaswamy. When a user types in a search, the ranking system has to sift through immense amounts of data and rank returns in milliseconds.
Some watchers continue to oppose the idea that Apple will create a complete rival for Google Search.
Dan Wang, associate professor of economics at Columbia University School of Business, said it was “extremely difficult” for Apple to catch up.
“The advantage of Google is in scaling,” he said, as continuous user feedback helps optimize ROI and identify areas that need improvement. “Google receives hundreds of millions of searches per minute from users around the world. This is a huge benefit when it comes to data. “
Translation by Paulo Migliacci