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Checklist 206: Apple’s Search for a Google Alternative with Nick Leon

November 5, 2020

This week on the Checklist, we’ll look at why some analysts think Apple could be gearing up to challenge Google’s search supremacy. We’ll discuss: Why people think Apple is getting into search, and What an Apple search engine could mean for privacy.

Checklist 206: Apple’s Search for a Google Alternative with Nick Leon

This week on the Checklist, we’ll look at why some analysts think Apple could be gearing up to challenge Google’s search supremacy. We’ll discuss: 

Searching for an explanation

Toward the end of October, the Financial Times published a report that said there were strong indications Apple might be building a search engine of its own — which (if true) could mean a potential rival for Google down the line.

Observers note that there has been a marked surge in Applebot activity lately: Applebot being Apple’s web crawler, the sort of bot that goes around the web indexing and ranking web pages in order to improve search results. In addition, hidden among the many big changes in iOS 14 was a new feature that didn’t attract a lot of attention, at least initially, but that might be a pretty significant indicator that Apple is getting into the search game: users performing searches from the Home Screen now get Apple’s own search results and direct links in addition to the standard, Google-generated search results.

The FT report bolsters their case that Apple is developing a search tool by pointing out that the company has recently made some interesting high-level staffing moves as well: perhaps most tellingly, they hired John Giannandrea, Google’s former head of search, and put him in the role of Senior VP of Machine Learning and AI Strategy.

In addition to all of this, there’s also the fact that Google was recently served with an antitrust lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging illegal anticompetitive behavior and calling the search giant a monopoly. At the moment, Google is the default search engine on iOS (and it’s rumored that they pay Apple in the multiple billions of dollars per year to retain this top spot), but if the DOJ lawsuit moves forward, that arrangement may one day come to an end — or we may even see Google broken up by government regulators. Google has faced criticism for years over the ways that it protects its market dominance, so this lawsuit was far from unexpected. And while it’s too soon to say what will come of it in the long run, Apple may have seen the writing on the wall, so to speak, and decided that it would be prudent to start developing a search tool of its own.

Of course, not everyone is convinced: Skeptics argue that the changes to iOS, the increased Applebot activity, and the hiring of search experts like Giannandrea could also be interpreted as signs that Apple is simply trying to improve Siri. Nevertheless, the aforementioned legal and political factors make it harder to dismiss the idea that Apple really may be developing a search tool on its own. 

Google without the privacy worries?

So what would an Apple search engine mean for the average user?

To be frank, it would probably be a good thing in terms of privacy, considering the many Google user privacy issues we’ve seen over the years. While Apple is certainly not a perfect company (even on privacy, as last year’s Siri grading scandal showed), their core business just doesn’t revolve around selling ads or monetizing user data like Google’s does. Perhaps for this reason, they generally tend to be much better when it comes to protecting user privacy, even when their decisions anger online advertisers and big tech companies. 

To offer a couple of examples of this, consider the ruckus Apple caused when they introduced the iOS 13 feature that alerts users whenever an app is requesting location data in the background (which resulted in Facebook issuing a strongly worded public statement defending the way the Facebook app collects location data). An even more recent example is the controversy caused by the new iOS 14 feature that will allow users to disable all app tracking globally on their devices — which provoked an outcry from digital marketers and companies like Facebook when it was announced. 

In addition, the company has shown its willingness to defend user privacy even when it means confronting the federal government, as we’ve seen with the court clashes between Apple and the FBI. This is relevant in any discussion about the difference between Apple and Google in terms of user privacy. Google already receives more than its share of geofence warrants from law enforcement, likely due to the large amount of mobile user data that it collects as part of its business model. While this isn’t to say that Google is doing anything wrong — after all, they’re just complying with the law here — it does underscore the point that if your company is collecting all sorts of data from your users, then that data can be accessed by others, whether this happens through data breaches, sales to third parties, or even court orders.

If Apple were to get into the search business, we can only assume that it would not be collecting and storing user search data in the same way that Google does, given their longstanding commitment to privacy. Since search is such a large part of our online lives, and of our digital privacy, users concerned about civil rights and citizen privacy issues might well prefer to see Apple handling their search data rather than Google.

For the moment, the prospect of an Apple search engine is just an intriguing possibility, as is always the case with rumors of new Apple tech. But given the possible upside for user privacy, the story is definitely one to watch.
That brings us to the end of this week’s Checklist, but we’ll return soon with another episode. Until then, check out our show archives if you’d like to keep learning about digital security and privacy all week long, and be sure to write to us if you have an idea for a future show or a question that we can answer on the podcast.

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