Look, if Microsoft's own CEO knows it and Apple confirms it by collecting billions each year, it's time to stop fighting and accept that Google won the search engine battle and that nothing, not even AI, will unseat it in our lifetime.
That reality is cause for concern among those who believe in competition, like the US Department of Justice and US District Judge Amit Mehta, who worries that Google is unfairly boxing out competitors like Microsoft and potential new entrants like Apple, which may or may not be building its own search engine.
The harsh reality was admitted by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, though, when he took the stand during the DOJ's ongoing Google antitrust trial to complain that Google has an unfair advantage, mostly leveraged by its long-standing, multi-billion dollar partnership with Apple. For a hefty fee, Apple uses Google as the default search engine on nearly 1.5 billion iPhones.
Despite people's long-standing concerns about Google and privacy, Apple has held steadfastly onto this lucrative search relationship.
It's not that Apple goes gently into the good search fight. Going back at least as far as 2020, there've been reports that Apple was building its own search engine. The latest news is so far from surprising; it's exhausting.
The change is not coming
Of course, Apple is working on smarter, probably AI-based ways to search both on devices and through external sources. Most new reports point out how Apple's Spotlight is essentially the fruits of that effort. While it gets incrementally smarter with every new macOS, iOS, and iPadOS iteration, Spotlight is in no way a Google competitor.
I think everyone knows by now that, perhaps because of the billions Apple makes off Google every year, it shows little interest in actually competing with Google – at least on the search front.
Google's primary search competitor remains Microsoft Bing, in that it's backed by a company that is also spending billions to develop it and maybe carve away at Google's monolithic hold on our search psyche.
Bing's chief innovation is the use of AI (powered by ChatGPT-4) in search results or as part of an integrated chatbot. When Microsoft launched AI-powered Bing Search in February 2023, Nadella was bullish on the transformative nature of AI, especially as it related to search.
“AI will fundamentally change every software category, starting with the largest category of all – search,” Nadella said in a blog post on the release.
A chatbot that can guess the correct next word in a conversation is not much use without an ocean of indexed data behind it. That remains the secret sauce of AI-powered Bing Search: it's AI smart and search engine knowledgeable.
Nadella's excitement, however, may have been a little bit of bluster, too.
The quiet part out loud
In the DOJ antitrust trial, Nadella admitted the difficulty of competing with Google when the latter is plugged into the massive Apple iPhone distribution system. According to the Wall Street Journal, Nadella later added that his initial excitement about ChatGPT's potential to help AI unseat Google was an overstatement.
"...That's called exuberance of someone who has like 3% share, that maybe I'll have 3.5% share," said Nadella.
Now let's digest that for a moment. The CEO of a company that's made what I am assuming is a multi-billion dollar and multi-year bet on AI and search already knows that it's a lost cause. I don't disagree that Microsoft is unlikely to break through 5% of the search market any time soon, but I do wonder if AI could be a different kind of accelerant. As it is, many assume Google is worried about ChatGPT and how it might impact its search fortunes, which is why it rushed out and then fixed Bard, its own chatbot.
Nadella was also playing to the audience, really an audience of one: the judge who with a stroke of his pen could force Google to fundamentally change its search business or even break up the parent company Alphabet. Still, I'm not sure what the DOJ can do about Google and Apple's deep partnership. That change would really only come from Apple, if it were to build its own search engine.
What Apple may do
Apple is not doing that. I mean. It is, but not as a standalone product or Google-beater. As I see it, Apple continues to work on search because it benefits your best iPhone, your best Mac, Apple TV, and other produc1ts. Powerful on-board, AI-enhanced search improves how all these products work and their ability to give you the right feature and the right interaction at the right time.
Perhaps someday Apple will feel so confident in its own search that it will be ready to walk away from Google (and give up a few billion each year). But I doubt it's in any rush. The last time Apple rushed to compete head-on with Google, it was Apple Maps, and we know how that turned out. It took years for Apple to turn it into what I consider one of the best mobile wayfinding experiences.
Apple won't make that mistake again and, while we wait, Google search will win...unless the DOJ does something about it.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.