Apple's slippery slope toward search

(analysis) Yahoo may yearn to win the prize that is the mobile Safari's search box, but Apple could decide to develop its own for the sake of keeping search in the family.

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As Bing has done for Microsoft, an Apple search offering could unify Siri and Safari results. "The Arsenio Hall Show"/YouTube screenshot by CNET

Recent reports indicate that Yahoo may be gearing up to become the default search provider on iOS.

Today, the iPhone's default browser -- Safari -- has search powered by Google. When the iPhone launched and the mobile Internet was a backwoods road compared with today's 4G freeway, Google and Apple were on great terms. Google powered not only the iPhone's search capability, but its maps as well.

Eventually, as Android gained momentum in the marketplace, Apple went through the pain of building its own maps capability. And when Apple added search to Siri, its virtual assistant, it chose Bing from its old rival Microsoft, to power search. Siri itself was, among many things, a way to circumvent the search franchise essentially owned by Google.

The selection of Bing essentially represented choosing the lesser of two evils. Apple can get away embedding the underdog search engine because search is a secondary feature in Siri. But it's key to a browser. The appeal of Yahoo, of course, is that the company doesn't compete with Apple in hardware. But questions have been raised regarding Yahoo's ability to go head-to-head against Google or even against Bing, which has improved significantly after many years in the search game.

Bing's recent history, in fact, provides a clear narrative of why Apple might want to jump into the search game. Rumored to be a target for a sell-off, new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has held on to the asset for now. Bing has been cited as a strategic component of Windows Phone features such as local search and its recently announced natural language voice assistant Cortana. But Cortana's Siri-like functionality cannot be endearing to Apple. Building its own Web search would allow Apple to standardize an engine it owns across the Web and Siri.

As with maps, Apple would need to build up its search muscles. The company has been active in search since at least the launch of Sherlock, the Mac OS-level Spotlight precedent that debuted in the ancient times of System 8.5. However, while iOS now has Spotlight, it is relatively limited, failing to find the names of folders or apps in the app store.

With the data centers that Apple has built in the past few years, it likely has the infrastructure to take on Web search, but it might have to balance incentive versus income. The hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad users seeking Web-based information and content is a prize for which Apple has been able to extract a huge bounty. In contrast, Bing has been an investment-heavy offering for Microsoft that has made little search share progress versus Google. Apple has not shied away from forgoing revenue in such unglamorous initiatives as office productivity suites for the benefit of shoring up its ecosystem and bolstering its cloud offerings.

The question may come down to how much Apple's work on maps serves as a complement versus a competing priority for Web search. Clearly, developing maps for a global mobile platform is a daunting information retrieval challenge. When Apple can compete as a company with a world-class offering for navigating the physical world, it may be ready to take on the digital one.

 

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