With Spotlight, Apple aims to push Google toward the shadows

Apple has been on a mission to make its users less dependent on Google's services. New search features in OS X Yosemite are no exception.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Craig Federighi, Apple's SVP of software engineering, introduces the latest Mac OS, Yosemite Tim Stevens/CNET

Apple's rift with Google grew a little larger Monday.

The iPhone maker has not been shy about trying to free itself from partnerships with Google, and at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced that it is taking on Google on at its own game: search.

At WWDC, Apple introduced new capabilities for the Spotlight feature in the operating system that runs on Macs. Currently, the feature is used primarily to search a user's hard drive for photos, documents and other files. Spotlight can also trigger Web searches, but those are done through a user's default browser.

With the newly unveiled Mac OS X Yosemite, which will reach the public this fall, Spotlight will also be able to surface things like movie showtimes, Wikipedia articles, and local listings through Yelp -- expanding it from more than an internal shortcut to a broader search tool.

The feature can only do a pittance compared to what Google or any other search engine can do. And Apple knows it can't fully leave Google behind -- Google searches are still prominently integrated into the company's new iOS 8 update , likely because of a pre-existing deal between the two companies. But the idea is not to replace Google on the Mac. Instead, it's to catch a user off-guard before he or she even opens up Google in a browser, said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research.

"It's about pre-empting those Google searches," he said.

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The move is only the latest example of Apple's desire to buck Google from its devices. The two tech giants are already archrivals in smartphone and tablet software, as most users flock to either Apple's iOS or Google's Android mobile operating systems. Steve Jobs, Apple's late co-founder, famously said he would wage a "holy war" against Google over Android's offerings. And Google played a major role in a recent blockbuster patent case between Apple and the Korean handset maker Samsung, with several Google engineers taking the stand to argue in favor of Android.

The jostling has seen Apple going to great lengths to try to do away with its dependence on Google's services. In 2012, Apple banished Google's YouTube app from iOS home screens. Even more extreme, Apple set out to replace Google Maps on its devices with its own home-grown product, only to hear users howl when the app was released with major flaws.

Monday's search announcements, though more subtle -- and focusing more on desktop than mobile -- follow the same line of thinking. "They [Apple] see Google as their biggest strategic competitor, and they are trying to extract them as much as possible," Dawson said.

Making it even more of a line in the sand, the Mac's Spotlight features integration with Microsoft's Bing search engine, which is already the Web crawler behind Apple's virtual assistant app, Siri.

The software's expanded search capabilities come as several big tech companies -- including Google itself -- invest in methods of search that go beyond simply typing words into a Web browser. Google has Google Now, an artificial intelligence service that brings up information on a smartphone without a user even having to enter a query. The app considers contextual cues like physical location or the time of day to pull up relevant content like maps or restaurant listings.

In January, Yahoo acquired Aviate, a service similar to Google Now that rearranges the content on an Android phone's home screen. Following suit, Twitter in April bought Cover, yet another similar app that does the same kind of thing to an Android phone's lock screen.

Apple, of course, has Siri, and continues to bolster its search capabilities. On Monday, the company announced a handful of new features, including the ability to recognize songs playing in the area via integration with the music indexing company Shazam. Users also can activate the app by saying, "Hey Siri," similar to the "OK Glass" command that triggers the Google Glass augmented reality headset.

Those products are certainly more next-gen than Spotlight, but they all walk the line that search is more than something you can only do in a browser.

"Apple is trying to get users while they may not even realize they are searching," Dawson said.