Written by Nick Heer.

Apple Could Maybe, Possibly Be Distancing Its Products From Google, but It Is Difficult to Tell Right Now

Patrick McGee, Financial Times:

Apple is taking steps to separate its mobile operating system from features offered by Google parent Alphabet, making advances around maps, search and advertising that has created a collision course between the Big Tech companies.

[…]

One of these people said Apple is still engaged in a “silent war” against its arch-rival. It is doing so by developing features that could allow the iPhone-maker to further separate its products from services offered by Google. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

This is a strange article. The thesis, above, is that Apple is trying to reduce its dependence on Google’s services. But McGee cannot seem to decide whether Apple’s past, present, or future changes are directly relevant, so he kind of posits that they all are. Here, look:

The first front of this battle is mapping, which started in 2012 when Apple released Maps, displacing its Google rival as a pre-downloaded app.

The move was supposed to be a shining moment for Apple’s software prowess but the launch was so buggy — some bridges, for example, appeared deformed and sank into oceans — that chief executive Tim Cook said he was “extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers”.

Apple Maps turns eleven years old in 2023, so it is safe to say that Apple adequately distanced itself from its reliance upon Google for maps, oh, about eleven years ago. Whether users have is another question entirely. The 3D rendering problems may have been the most memorable glitches, but the biggest day-to-day problems for users were issues with bad data.

So what is new?

Apple’s Maps has improved considerably in the past decade, however. Earlier this month it announced Business Connect, a feature that lets companies claim their digital location so they can interact with users, display photos and offer promotions.

While businesses have been able to claim their listing and manage its details for years, the recently launched Business Connect is a more comprehensive tool. That has advantages for businesses and users alike, as there may be better point-of-interest data, though it is another thing businesses need to pay attention to. But as far as ways for Apple to distance itself from Google, I am not sure I see the connection.

McGee:

The second front in the battle is search. While Apple rarely discusses products while in development, the company has long worked on a feature known internally as “Apple Search”, a tool that facilitates “billions of searches” per day, according to employees on the project.

Now I am confused: is this a service which is in development, or is it available to users? To fit his thesis, McGee appears to want it both ways:

Apple’s search team dates back to at least 2013, when it acquired Topsy Labs, a start-up that had indexed Twitter to enable searches and analytics. The technology is used every time an iPhone user asks Apple’s voice assistant Siri for information, types queries from the home screen, or uses the Mac’s “Spotlight” search feature.

Once again, I have to ask how a feature eight years old means Apple is only now in the process of disentangling itself from Google. Apparently, it is because of speculation in the paragraphs which follow the one above:

Apple’s search offering was augmented with the 2019 purchase of Laserlike, an artificial intelligence start-up founded by former Google engineers that had described its mission as delivering “high quality information and diverse perspectives on any topic from the entire web”.

Josh Koenig, chief strategy officer at Pantheon, a website operations platform, said Apple could quickly take a bite out of Google’s 92 per cent share of the search market by not making Google the default setting for 1.2bn iPhone users.

There is no segue here, and no indication that Apple is actually working to make such a change. Koenig insinuates it could be beneficial to users, but McGee acknowledges it “would be expensive” because Apple would lose its effort-free multibillion-dollar annual payout from Google.

As an aside: an Apple search engine to rival Google’s has long been rumoured. If it is a web search engine, I have long thought Apple could use the siri.com domain it already owns. But it may not have to be web-based — it is plausible that searching the web would display results like a webpage in Safari, but it would only be accessible from within that browser, kind of like the existing Siri Suggestions feature. An idle thought as I write this but, as I said, the article provides no indication that Apple is pursuing this.

McGee:

The third front in Apple’s battle could prove the most devastating: its ambitions in online advertising, where Alphabet makes more than 80 per cent of its revenues.

This is the “future” part of the thesis. Based on job ads, it appears Apple is working on its own advertising system, as first reported by Shoshana Wodinsky at Marketwatch in August. As I wrote then, it looks bad that Apple is doing this in the wake of App Tracking Transparency, and I question the likely trajectory of this. But this is, again, not something which Apple is doing to distance its platform from Google’s products and services, unless you seriously believe Apple will prohibit Google’s ads on its platforms. So long as Google is what it is to internet ads — by the way, stay tuned on that front — Apple may only hope to be a little thorn in Google’s side.

These three examples appear to fit into categories which seem similar but are very different. Business Connect for Apple Maps is not a competitor to Google Business Profile; any business is going to have to maintain both. There are no concrete details provided about Apple’s search ambitions, but it is the only thing here which would reduce Apple’s dependence on Google. Another advertising platform would give Google some competition and put more money in Apple’s pocket, but it may only slightly reduce how much advertisers rely on Google. It seems to me there are pro-competition examples here and there are anti-anti-competition arguments: the U.S. Department of Justice sued Google in September over its exclusivity agreements.

Anyway, speaking of Apple’s contracts with Google, whatever happened to Project McQueen?