Apple creates great products, but struggles to do the same for Internet services. One of the most important, hardest-to-build, and useful Internet services of our day is the search engine.
The top search engines are all either owned by Apple’s direct competitors, or are failing to keep up with innovations from Google and to a lesser extent, Microsoft. Apple needs a search engine that respects user privacy, is already familiar with the company’s products, and can help the company take on the likes of Google Now and Cortana.
Thankfully, a search engine that just happens to be the perfect fit for Apple already exists: DuckDuckGo.
It’s all about privacy
Apple has championed user privacy for a long time, but over the past few months it has been especially declarative about its stance. The company is increasingly positioning itself as the anti-Google and the anti-Facebook.
The timing isn’t a coincidence. Privacy concerns are at an all-time high, and Apple’s policies are not going unnoticed. Neither are DuckDuckGo’s: The search engine’s traffic has grown 600 percent over the past two years.
Apple put its money where its mouth is a long while ago, and now the mouth is doing a lot of talking. Just this month alone, Apple has gone out of its way to criticize competitors that rely on user data as well as to promote itself as the privacy-conscious tech leader.
“I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event in Washington. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”
The message was clear: Apple thinks you should be in control of your own information. This missive came up again less than a week later at WWDC.
Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, emphasized that Apple does all its data processing on-device, and whatever it gleans from that never gets uploaded. Queries made to Apple’s servers are kept anonymous, not tied to an Apple ID and not shared with third parties.
All of this jibes well with what DuckDuckGo believes and does. From the search engine’s privacy section on its about page: “What you search for is your own business and we’d like to keep it that way. That’s why we don’t collect any personal information and therefore, have none to share.”
A partnership already exists
Last year, Apple partnered with DuckDuckGo, adding the search engine as an option in Safari. While DuckDuckGo is not the default, the move made it possible for OS X and iOS users to switch their search engine to DuckDuckGo with just a few clicks.
DuckDuckGo celebrated the addition by pointing to an OS X Yosemite preview page on Apple’s website:
— DuckDuckGo (@DuckDuckGo) June 2, 2014
Just one sentence summed up the deal: “You can also now search the web using DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t track you.” That’s as great of a compliment as any company will ever get out of Apple.
“The terms are confidential,” DuckDuckGo’s CEO and founder Gabriel Weinberg told Marketing Land when asked if there was any paid component to the arrangement. “Needless to say, though, DuckDuckGo is thrilled to be included in Safari.”
That Yosemite preview page doesn’t exist anymore, but Apple does have a new privacy page. “DuckDuckGo allows you to search the web without being tracked, and Safari is the first browser to offer it as a built-in option,” it states.
Apple needs a search engine
Apple wouldn’t gain much if it suddenly started to compete directly in the search engine space. It doesn’t have to take on Google, Bing, or Yahoo on the desktop Web. It doesn’t even have to focus on the mobile Web.
Apple simply needs a backbone for the future of search: context, context, and context. People increasingly want more than just search results — they want answers to their questions.
Right now, that means digital assistants. Siri is far from perfect, and Apple is already planning to improve it with iOS 9’s proactive assistant. In Apple’s announcement earlier this month at WWDC, however, there was very little the company showed that we had never seen before. Google Now, and even in many cases Microsoft’s Cortana, can already do much of what the company showed.
Apple is playing catch up, and that’s largely due to the fact that it doesn’t have a search engine to call its own. That means a lack of conversational understanding: The more data Google and Microsoft collect about the world, and the better their search engines become at making sense of it all, the better experience those companies can offer to their users. Without collecting data, Apple will have a hard time matching these experiences.
And that better experience doesn’t just affect digital assistants. It has broad implications for all parts of the operating system, especially on mobile. Apple knows that, and that’s why it is pushing forward with its proactive assistant.
Even though DuckDuckGo respects user privacy, it still learns and improves its results based on what users search for. Apple can take that data and use it to improve more than just search results.
While an acquisition makes a lot of sense, like any deal, there would be problems. Apple would have to make difficult decisions on how much support, financial resources, and other considerations to give to DuckDuckGo.
Apple has deep enough pockets to compete directly with Google, Bing, and Yahoo. That said, it likely wouldn’t want to. There is certainly a lot of money to be made in search, even if it’s not comparable to Apple’s margins, but there’s arguably less money to be made in private search.
In addition to DuckDuckGo’s various partnerships, Apple would also have to take over the problems that come with offering and maintaining a search engine. That means a lot of regional issues, like Europe’s ongoing “right to be forgotten” brouhaha, as well as censorship and outright bans. In September, for example, DuckDuckGo was blocked in China, an increasingly critical market for Apple, out of the blue.
If Apple were to buy DuckDuckGo, it couldn’t immediately make the service the default search engine in its operating systems. After all, the company still receives a significant amount of money from its Google partnership.
But after some work to improve the service further, it could definitely do that. The search deal that makes Google the default search engine in Apple’s operating systems is worth billions, and it’s up for renewal this year.
There has been a lot of speculation around Apple ditching Google for Bing or Yahoo, but the truth is none of those options is ideal. Google is still the king of search, and while a large part of that is because of its expertise and size, a lot also has to do with brand loyalty.
DuckDuckGo is a cute name, but it’s long to type in and definitely doesn’t feel like something Apple would dream up. iSearch and iFind could have been options a few years ago, or even iGo would be quite straightforward.
Given that we are now in the era of Apple Pay, Apple Watch, and Apple Music however, it only follows that Apple Search would be the logical name. In the interest of a short name, and one that also merges the two brands, we’d love if it were called Apple Go.
VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Learn more about membership.