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Science Fiction: Apple Builds A Search Engine

Science Fiction: Apple Builds A Search Engine

Jean-Louis Gassée

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Microsoft and many others have built their own search engines. Why not Apple? With privacy at the forefront, of course, such a project could yield a substantial win-win-win.

During the Spring 2021 Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple announces its new general-purpose Apple Search engine.

This is speculation, of course, but is it unrealistic? We know that Apple has considered a search engine in the past. These efforts may have been energized by the 2018 addition of AI and Machine Learning expert John Giannandrea, a Silicon Valley veteran who was CTO of Metaweb (“an open, shared database of the world’s knowledge”) when it was acquired by Google in 2010.

Thus, Apple has the penchant and the brains to create its own search engine…but why bother? Why waste billions when Emperor Google is in an unshakably dominant position?

Google Search may be dominant, but it’s hardly a monopoly. If you Google the term “search engines”, the first result, from the Search Engine Journal, lists 17 Great Search Engines You Can Use Instead of Google. (Come to think of it, the list omits at least one other engine that I know of: Qwant.)

The existence of (more than) 17 search engines tells us that you don’t need Google or Microsoft billions to create one. (Nor is money a guarantee of success: Amazon discontinued its own A9 search portal in 2008.)

What differentiates these engines? Some repackage or filter Google data for political or social purposes. For example, swisscows.com claims to “save lives” while you search:

The aforementioned Qwant advertises itself as a “European engine” with heightened consideration for your privacy:

Microsoft’s Bing, with its maps, news, and vectors to its Office Suite, takes the attitude that we assume Apple Search would adopt: Keep users inside the ecosystem. Bing even offers users rewards that can be redeemed at Microsoft and Windows stores.

According to the Search Engine Journal, Bing “handled a quarter of all search queries in the United States” as of January 2020 — that’s a sizable minority market share that Apple likes to wrap itself in. When asked about “search engines”, Bing lists only nine, and modestly ranks itself third behind Google and Duck Duck Go. Personally, I find Bing aesthetically and functionally superior to the others. This could set a bar for Apple.

What would Apple Search do for the company?

We begin with two negatives: cost and lost revenue. For perspective, in the first six months of this fiscal year, Apple has spent $10.4B in R&D. With development spread over several years, the required Apple Search budget would be well within Cupertino’s means. But there’s another big number: The $8B to $12B a year Apple gets for featuring Google as the prominent search engine in Apple products, especially the iPhone. (Testifying at the Epic trial, Tim Cook was unable to come up with an exact number.)

How would Apple pay for the development cost and the loss of Google placement billions? With ads, of course. But the good, clean, non-tracking kind. As exemplified by Qwant, many search engines claim to respect your privacy, claims the Apple creation will of course embrace.

Apple recently enhanced its Apple Search Ads to provide a better way for app developers to get their wares seen by customers.

“Apple Search Ads is an efficient and easy way to help people discover your app when they search on the App Store.”

This is buttressed by a page titled Apps Search Ads and privacy partially reproduced below:

If you read the entire page carefully, what stands out? By removing the words App Store, the policies could apply to ads that are served in a general-purpose Search.

Naturally, If Apple were to proceed, one can expect claims of hypocrisy, of “Robbing The Mob’s Bank”, of using its customers’ data, keeping that data solely to itself, of tightening the wall around its garden…

Sure, but what would customers and advertisers think?

The reaction, by early users, to the Apple Tracking Transparency settings in the latest iOS 14.5 release seems very favorable, although it may be too early to tell. We can be sure to get fresh data at next week’s WWDC.

The same users would probably react favorably to Apple Search ads provided that the company guarantee that the advertiser would not have access to their individual information, or have the ability to “resell the user” to others.

As for advertisers, they’ll consider that Apple customers spend more than the average PC, tablet, wearable, or smartphone user. One study claims that the Apple App Store generated 87.3% more revenue than Google Play Store:

“Consumer spending on the App Store reached $72.4 billion in 2020 and in the same period, it reached $38.6 billion for Google Play.”

For Apple, this dominance could translate to a premium for Apple Search ads, and thus generate enough billions to compensate for the lost Google payola.

In sum, the putative Apple Search Engine might deliver a win-win-win: Better privacy and a more attractive ecosystem for customers; sharper (albeit more expensive) ads for merchants; and a unified, more profitable business in Cupertino.

Before we go, a little more speculation using partly fictitious examples may speak more clearly to regular Apple users.

Your friend Jules is coming to town next week. After you exchange a few Apple Messages to set up a dinner for Wednesday, you find {that a} suggestion for a dinner time and length (3 hours!) has been automagically added to your Calendar. How did it know? “Something” inside your iPhone searched for previous dinners with Jules and echoed the details.

That same “something” notices an email exchange with a travel agent and adds your flight to your Calendar. On the day, Car Play suggests a route to the airport.

These on-device-only activities, which don’t violate your privacy, demonstrate the extent and penetration of Apple’s search-and-learn capabilities, and point to ways that Apple Search can differentiate itself compared to other search engines.

As always with the Monday Note, your subscription money cheerfully refunded if today’s Apple Search speculation proves unfound

Source: Science Fiction: Apple Builds A Search Engine

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