Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Apple developing search technology?

Tim Bradshaw and Patrick McGee, writing at the Financial Times (syndicated at Ars Technica):

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.

Sometimes you don’t see what’s right in front of your face. There are two important things to remember here.

First, Apple’s long-running philosophy, which has only intensified in recent years: bring critical technology infrastructure under its own roof. We’ve seen this with hardware especially (processors, graphics chips, and cellular technology, just to name a few), but also with software (apps like mail and browsing, and also services like mapping). Search is absolutely a critical technology to the average user, so of course Apple would be looking at building its own solution. It would be antithetical of the company not to; but it’s equally something that can’t be deployed until either a) it’s better than Google or b) Google is no longer an option for financial, business, or legal reasons.

Second, I believe that thinking of this as a web search is fundamentally incorrect for a few reasons. For one, Apple has never been a web-focused company—with few exceptions, it has always pushed the native-app approach.1 Even Apple Maps doesn’t really have a web interface, (though there is an API for one, I believe); Apple Music has only gotten one in recent years. So expect this to be something that’s interacted with only via Apple’s own operating system and software—to wit, that search box that pops up on the home screen, or the address bar in Safari. One of Apple’s principles is transparency—it doesn’t want you to have to think about what you’re using to get the result, just that you get the right result.

In some ways, it’s probably better to think of this as an extension of the Spotlight search technology that Apple’s been building out for the last fifteen years. It just happens to include search results for the web alongside results from your own data.

Now, setting all of this aside, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Apple’s search would be any good. The FT article points out that the company poached Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea, who now heads up machine learning efforts. That could certainly have an impact, but I imagine that there’s so much machine learning-related technology on his plate that he might not have much time for search.

I pretty quickly turned off some of iOS 14’s new search features, because I found it annoying to have web search results pop up when I really just wanted to search for something on my iPad. These are the kinds of things that Apple’s going to have to think about if it’s really trying to figure out how to integrate search, and that may be a challenge for a company that doesn’t have a historically deep bench in the web. But if Google really is going to come under fire from the government, it’s a challenge worth accepting.

  1. Part of what made the “sweet solution” incident so galling. 
—Linked by Dan Moren

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