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Will Apple’s rumoured search engine be able to supplant Google?

For most of the world, think of a search engine and you think of one website: Google. The search engine has become the default for hundreds of millions of users, and quickly eclipsed its competitors within years of its launch in August 1996. The proprietary technology behind the system, which gave it more trustworthy and useful results than its competitors, has propelled it to the top of the search charts.

Today, Google holds a 92% market share in search, according to StatCounter, which tracks the use of search engines worldwide. That high proportion of the market has been the case for years – and shows little sign of changing. Or does it?

New patent applications surfaced over the Christmas period indicate that Apple could well be trying to make a move into the world of search. Apple has seen an application to get a system that ranks the usefulness of search results on a web page approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office. For all intents and purposes, it looks like they could be developing a search engine of their own.

Taking on Google at its own game

The reasons Apple may be keen to move into search are multifarious. For one thing, recent months and the crackdown on big tech by politicians worldwide has threatened a major source of income for it. Google pays Apple large amounts of money – millions of dollars – in order to have a prime position as the search engine for Apple devices, including the iPhone and iPad. But politicians’ attempts to launch antitrust investigations puts limits on that.

Politicians believe that Google shouldn’t be able to pay its way to shutting competition out of the search space.

And so those payments may be dramatically curtailed or stopped altogether if elected officials have their way.

At the same time, Apple and Google have been involved in spats with each other, and recognise the market power they have in being one of the major hardware brands worldwide. 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,” Bill Coughran, a partner at Sequoia Capital, who was formerly head of Google’s engineering arm, told reporters. 

Shifting from Google to Apple’s own engine

Apple’s share of the smartphone market isn’t enormous – around one in 10 smartphones worldwide are iPhones, according to Counterpoint data – but those users are committed, and spend significantly, making the investment in a search engine team that Coughran talks about worthwhile. 

Yet search isn’t an easy world to enter and get right – not least when you’re competing against a nearly-25 year old incumbent that has a 92% market share. Whether Apple would be able to succeed in supplanting Google is another question entirely, given the litany of competitors – DuckDuckGo, Qwant and others – that have tried but have not managed to get beyond a small, but dedicated, share of the pie.

For precedent, it’s worth looking at another area that Apple has previously tried to take on Google: Maps technology.

In 2012, Apple launched Apple Maps, replacing Google as the default mapping technology on devices made by the Cupertino company. Initially it was buggy and glitchy, sending people in the wrong direction and misplacing or misspelling towns and cities such as Kyiv (called Kylv) and Stratford-upon-Avon, which didn’t even exist in early versions of the software. Yet it has got better, and is now more popular – and most importantly, more reliable. 

Apple’s search engine, if it comes to fruition, isn’t going to leapfrog Google immediately. It might never do so. But it could become another bow in the arrow of Apple, and another tool we initially discount but end up begrudgingly using every day.

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