I've been thinking about Apple lately. OK, it's my job, but I've been thinking about a particular aspect of Apple, its future. Let me narrow that down further: when the company launched Apple Maps with the release of iOS 6 in September of 2012, it dawned on me that Apple needs to go into search, and in a big way.
I'm not talking about a "ZOMG APPLE HAS TO COPY TEH GOOGLEZ" kind of thing. Companies like Microsoft look around at what the competition is doing and then freak out because they're not doing it. Apple isn't Microsoft, and I'm not suggesting it should try and be Microsoft.
Pardon me a moment. I just vomited on my desk and need to clean it up...
OK, so where was I? Google, Copy, Microsoft, check. Right.
No, it's not that Apple needs to keep up with the Jones's, it's that Apple is entering markets that would be enhanced by having its own search data. I think that Apple should embrace this reality and make a big splash with a major Apple search engine.
Apple had to go into Maps. The company might have dropped the ball on the rollout—launching Apple Maps as a beta while continuing to offer the old Google Maps-powered service should have been a no-brainer—but relying on a fierce competitor to supply what might be the single most important service on smartphones today was untenable.
Feel free to disagree, but do so knowing you are mistaken.
For Google, Maps was another way to learn more about us so that the company could then use that information to sell us to the highest bidder. The thing is that Maps and search go together like bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, or cinnamon and green beans (try it—you'll be stunned at how tasty it is).
Search is one of those things where the more you know about the more you know, the more you know. It's using search results and the way people use those search results to refine how you get those results in a glorious virtuous circle.
For Google, this has the added benefit of getting more information to sell to advertisers, as noted above. That's how Google makes its money, and it's why Google wanted its Maps service on the iPhone to begin with.
For Apple, it's a different type of equation. Maps are a key feature on smartphones. For Apple to be competitive in that market, it must have a world class Maps app or it will eventually lose customers to platforms that do.
Had Google not gone into smartphones, Apple and Google would have remained very happy partners. Google did enter the smartphone market, and with the stated goal of preventing Apple from owning mobile, but that's another story.
The end result was that control over user data, who gets what services, and how and when new features could be added were suddenly bargaining chips in their competition. As I said, that's simply not tenable for Apple.
But, Apple doesn't make its money from selling ads (to wit: iAd), it makes money on hardware sales. While the company doesn't need search data or maps data to sell to advertisers, it does need a great maps experience.
So Apple has to approach this from almost a diametrically opposed view point. It has to make Apple Maps the best it can be to keep people buying hardware.
The kicker is that the same symbiosis between maps and search still applies, even if the underlying business models are diametrically opposed. For Apple to make Maps the best it can be, it needs search data to improve search on Maps.
I'll let you in on a secret: Siri is much more than a cute trick or even a handy tool—Siri is Apple's long play on leapfrogging current computing paradigms, including search and even the graphical user interface.
Siri is taking us down a path towards full voice interaction with computers—or more specifically, a future in the cloud. It's starting with simple controls and local search, but it will eventually be much more.
It's going to take years and enormous amounts of user voice data to get to that point, but Siri will eventually be a very disruptive technology.
In the short and medium term, the local search aspect of Siri is important, and that has its own user data needs. Apple has already identified local search—restaurants, coffee shops, shopping—as its target of opportunity, but what Apple didn't say is that it can make local search better by having a better understanding of search as a whole.
It can only gain that understanding by getting into the search business. Just as with Maps, Apple needs to be in the broader search business—and by that I mean a search engine open to the world through a browser—in order to make Siri's local search service the best that it can be.
Apple currently pulls data from a variety of sources, including WolframAlpha and Yelp, to power Siri. WolframAlpha is awesome and dumping us off to Google for searches Siri can't handle is fine, but a world class search business would allow Apple to make Siri into something much bigger and better far faster than it could otherwise do so.
Steve Jobs & Reality
At a January 2010 Apple Town Hall meeting, the late Steve Jobs famously said that Google's mantra of "Don't Be Evil" was "a load of crap."He also said, "We did not enter the search business. They entered the phone business."
What Mr. Jobs meant was that Apple had made a conscious decision not to enter search, and what that means is that Apple considered it. To that end, you can be sure that Apple has a working search engine somewhere in its black labs.
Heck, Apple would be crazy not to have a few people draped in black cloth tinkering away on a search engine. You know, "just in case."
To me, the company should stop pretending that iOS is entirely its own thing. Services like Maps should go to the Web (more on that in another column), iBooks should be on my Mac and Windows, Siri should come to the Mac, and Apple should get serious about search all around the globe.
To be honest, I expect all of those things to happen at some point, but I am hoping it will be sooner, rather than later.
The funny thing is that Apple will be Googling Google if it does go into search. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Apple will be Microsofting the search giant.
Google gives Android away because all it cares about is getting user data that it can slice, dice, julienne, and sell. By giving Android away for free, Google completely undercut Microsoft's business model of open licensing (for a fee).
OEMs were able to adopt an OS without paying a fee for each unit sold, which was why so many Android devices were released even in the early days when it was a half-baked OS with extremely limited functionality.
That took a lot of potential share away from Microsoft, and Google's decision to dump Android hurt Microsoft just like Microsoft laid the hammer down on Netscape by giving away Internet Explorer.
If Apple got into search, the company would take share away from Google, and with that share precious user data that might slightly decrease Google's ability to know what we are thinking. More importantly, Apple could give away this service for free in order to sell more hardware, the polar opposite of Google's reason for giving away Android.
That's kind of funny, isn't it?
The question, of course, is whether or not Apple would get more aggressive about advertising, too. iAd revenue would barely be a line item on Google's balance sheet, but Apple would have the option of using all that new search data to add high-margin ad revenue to its own income stream.
Wall Street would probably be pretty hot for Apple to do just that. Doing so, however, could turn Apple into something closer to Google, and I hope doesn't happen.
I don't want my technology paid for with ads, and I don't want Apple slicing and dicing every little thing I do on my Apple devices in order to sell me to the corporate powers of the world. I am OK with Apple doing these things to make better services and products for me to buy, but I am not keen on being sold to the rest of the corporate globe.
Instead, we can hope that Apple would treat search as a loss leader used to make its ecosystem more powerful and more attractive.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Can Apple make a search engine that people will use? Of course. Google disrupted search because its results were better and because its interface was clean. I don't know that Apple can out-algorithm Google, nor am I suggesting that search is somehow easy (though even Microsoft has done some things right with Bing, so...)
I do know that Apple can make a search engine with an interface that will blow Google and Microsoft away. If Apple can launch a search engine that works, it will gain traction. Again, even Microsoft has been able to take share in that market.
Just Do It
As stated above, I believe Apple has the makings of a search engine at some stage of development. I'm surprised it hasn't already been unleashed, but Apple will probably do so at some point. Surely all those data centers the company is building are going to be used for something, right?
The company needs search data to make both maps and local search on Siri better, and it has the added benefit of depriving that information from its fierce rival Google. When you put all that together, it's something Apple simply has to do.
Image made with help from Shutterstock.