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.
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.
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.
The Silicon Valley company is notoriously secretive about its internal projects, but the move adds to growing evidence that it is working to build a rival to Google’s search engine.
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.
The company’s growing in-house search capability gives it an alternative if regulators block its lucrative partnership with Google. When the US Department of Justice launched a case last week, over payments that Google makes to Apple to be the iPhone’s default search tool, urgency was added to the initiative.
“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 frequent job advertisements for search engineers are not short on ambition, inviting candidates to “define and implement the architecture of Apple’s groundbreaking search technology.”
Search marketing experts also point to increased activity from Applebot, the iPhone maker’s once-obscure web crawler, which is used to build the vast database of online material that forms the foundation of any search engine.