Apple is ‘stepping up’ efforts to create its own search engine as an alternative to Google Search, according to a report in the Financial Times citing unnamed sources in the technology industry.  

For those unaware, Google has been iPhone’s default search engine for more than a decade. For years now, Google is paying billions of dollars to Apple to remain the default search engine service on Safari for iOS, iPadOS, and macOS platforms unless changed manually in Safari’s preferences.

However, the deal between the two companies has caught the attention of the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for violating the competitive policy. 

In a report released in July, the UK regulators stated that a deal was made in 2019 between Google and Apple, in which the former roughly paid £1.2 billion ($1.5bn) to secure the default search position on numerous mobile devices and systems in the UK alone.  

The regulators said that Apple received a lion’s share of this payment, while Google secured dominant position in the search engine market, particularly on the majority of mobile devices in the UK.

All these factors have pushed Apple to develop its own search engine. In fact, the change can be seen in the recently released iPhone operating system, iOS 14 where the Cupertino giant an Apple-generated list of search suggestions rather than Google results when users search on their home screen. 

From the report:

Apple is stepping up efforts to develop its own search technology as US antitrust authorities threaten multibillion-dollar payments that Google makes to secure prime placement of its engine on the iPhone. 

In a little-noticed change to the latest version of the iPhone operating system, iOS 14, Apple has begun to show its own search results and link directly to websites when users type queries from its home screen.

That web search capability marks an important advance in Apple’s in-house development and could form the foundation of a fuller attack on Google, according to several people in the industry.

The Silicon Valley company is notoriously secretive about its internal projects, but the move adds to growing evidence that it is working to build a rival to Google’s search engine.

Similarly, the FT report also points out to the increased activity from Applebot, Apple’s own web crawler service, suggesting the company’s plan of working on a full-fledged search engine, even though Applebot mainly operates to improve Siri and Spotlight search results. 

The report also highlights Apple’s hiring of John Giannandrea, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Machine Learning and AI Strategy and Google’s former head of search, two years ago to boost its artificial intelligence capabilities and improve Siri. It also cites Apple’s “frequent” job openings for search engineer roles suggesting that this information may be true. 

After the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a case last week over payments Google makes to Apple to remain the default search engine on the iPhone, there seems to be a sense of heightened urgency surrounding developing search engine.

Suganthan Mohanadasan, Digital Market Consultant told FT that Cupertino’s web crawler — Applebot — has shown up “a ridiculous number of times on his clients’ websites. “When the crawl rate increases, that tells us they are trying to gather more information,” said Mohanadasan.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the DOJ estimated Google’s annual payments at $8 billion to $12 billion for the privilege of being the default search service on the iPhone, which makes up for 15-20% of Apple’s profits.

As of now, it’s not clear if Apple is looking to actively take on Google in the search industry. However, should it be forced to decouple from Google, Apple could look at its own search engine as an alternative.