Apple’s rumored search engine just suffered a major setback as talent returns to Google

Google search
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Apple has fingers in many different pies, but one area it has virtually no foothold in is search. Yes, there’s internal search — Spotlight for Mac, the way you find tracks on Apple Music and Siri’s ability to look things up — but an actual Google rival is something that hasn’t been on the cards, as of yet.

Rumors still persist that Apple will one day create a Google search rival, though, and it’s not hard to see why. Not only are search engines potentially big money (without Google search, it’s hard to see Pixel, Chrome, Gmail or many other things existing), but Apple has the key advantage of having billions of Macs and iPhones out there that could all push users towards its own theoretical search engine.

But a new report from The Information (opens in new tab) suggests any possible moves are at least four years away, partly due to a trio of former Google search engineers abandoning Apple and returning to the world of dedicated search. As the report explains, it deals “a potential blow to the Apple team quietly developing search capabilities that might compete head-on with Google’s.”

Said engineers joined Apple in 2018, when the company acquired Laserlike (opens in new tab) — a machine learning startup that could search the web for news, sites and video catered to the user’s tastes. But according to The Information’s report, all three founders — Srinivasan Venkatachary, Steven Baker and Anand Shukla — have now returned to the Google fold. 

While it’s not stated whether Apple has a dedicated web search engine in its plans, The Information’s source believes it simply isn’t in a position to reveal one any time soon. It’s “at least four years away from launching a potential Google search replacement”, the report reads, citing a source who “has been involved with the team.” 

For now, Apple actually actively promotes Google search on its devices for an estimated $18 to $20 billion per year (opens in new tab), which isn’t exactly chicken feed even for a company with Apple’s annual income. But there are questions over how long this can last, with the Department of Justice sniffing around this and similar arrangements on antitrust grounds (opens in new tab)

If the DoJ brings an end to the lucrative agreement, then Apple wouldn’t have a reason not to enter the search game as an actual Google competitor, but it has other options in the short term. The Information suggests that Apple could strike a similar arrangement with Microsoft to make Bing the default, as its relatively small market share shouldn’t trigger the same antitrust scrutiny.  

While the idea Apple promoting Microsoft software sounds a bit fanciful, making a dedicated search engine is also far from a risk-free option, even if it could be done quickly. The Information’s report notes that any move in that direction would require a “significant increase in the team’s budget”, and it’s safe to say that results aren’t a sure thing. 

Microsoft has huge cash reserves and similar advantages to Apple with billions of Windows PCs worldwide, yet Bing remains a small player in the world of search. Whether a theoretical Apple alternative would perform any better is far from guaranteed.

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.