Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Regarding That FT Report About Apple’s Search Engine Ambitions

Yesterday, Tim Bradshaw and Patrick McGee of the Financial Times reported that Apple is ostensibly building a rival to Google’s search engine. You can find a syndicated copy of the article at Ars Technica. It left me scratching my head because it undermines its premise on two fronts: it seems to claim that Apple is surely building a true rival to Google’s search engine, and that Apple does not already have a search engine. The first claim does not seem to be substantiated, and the second seems to be contradicted by the article’s own reporting.

Let’s start with the headline:

Apple Develops Alternative to Google Search

“Develops” is a curious and ambiguous choice of word. It leaves the impression that Apple is either currently working on a true Google Search competitor, or that it has already built one. I am not sure which is the case; let’s find out. Here’s the lede:

Apple is stepping up efforts to develop its own search technology as US antitrust authorities threaten multibillion-dollar payments that Google makes to secure prime placement of its engine on the iPhone.

That indicates, to me, that this search engine is something new or more directly opposing Google’s efforts. But it is followed by this paragraph:

In a little-noticed change to the latest version of the iPhone operating system, iOS 14, Apple has begun to show its own search results and link directly to websites when users type queries from its home screen.

This seems to refer to Siri web suggestions that used to only display within the Safari address bar but are now in Spotlight. As far as I can tell, these are exactly the same suggestions but surfaced in a different place.

There are also keyword search suggestions in Spotlight. But tapping on any of those will boot you into the search engine of your choice — whichever you set in Safari preferences.

Both certainly point to Apple shipping a search engine today. It may not be a website with a list of links based on a query, but Google’s search engine is increasingly unlike that, too. So I am left with the impression that this is a service that currently exists, but then the article posits that it is merely a warm-up act:

That web search capability marks an important advance in Apple’s in-house development and could form the foundation of a fuller attack on Google, according to several people in the industry.

Here is where things become more speculative. Bradshaw and McGee make no reference to having any sources at Apple, only quotes from a handful of people in adjacent businesses. Maybe they have background information from people who are familiar with Apple’s efforts, but nothing is cited in this article. The claim that Apple is, perhaps, working on a direct competitor to Google’s web search engine appears to be nothing more than speculation about what Apple could do from people who believe that it is something Apple is doing. That position seems to be predicated on regulatory pressures and recent hires:

Two and a half years ago, Apple poached Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea. The hire was ostensibly to boost its artificial intelligence capabilities and its Siri virtual assistant, but also brought eight years of experience running the world’s most popular search engine.

[…]

“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, who is now a partner at Silicon Valley investor Sequoia Capital.

Apple’s interest in a search engine seems to be a regular rumour, but now that its contract with Google is attracting attention in the United States and United Kingdom, perhaps there is more substance this time around than in previous years. That raises more questions for me from an antitrust perspective: for example, would regulators who questioned the prominence of Siri on Apple’s devices find it equally dubious for the company to have its own search engine presumably set as the default?

Whatever the case, I am not sure this Financial Times piece sheds light on Apple’s path forward. The only substantive fact in this article is that Apple has expanded Safari’s Siri suggestions to Spotlight. Everything else appears to be speculative.