Despite selling fewer handsets than Android, Apple's profits make it the undisputed king of the mobile phone market. Now, Apple could be set to attack Google's main source of profit as the company confirms the existence of web crawlers which could be used to build a search engine.
Google and other search engines work by sending out millions of web crawler bots to find which create an index of all the new and changed pages on the World Wide Web. It's this index that allows Google to immediately point users toward the pages they're looking for. After months of rumors, on Wednesday, May 6, Apple confirmed the existence of its own web crawler bots, which would suggest the company is building a search engine.
Details of the "Applebot" were quietly released on an Apple support page. Rumors about the Applebot first emerged in the fall of 2014 when people started noticing web crawler visits from IP addresses starting with 17 - the IP address block owned entirely by Apple. The short official post confirms that the Applebot originates from the 18.104.22.168 block of company IP addresses and says that "it respects customary robots.txt rules and robots meta tags,"
So, does this mean Apple is starting a search engine?
Well, maybe, but Apple certainly isn't ready to confirm anything. The language of the post is very matter of fact, suggesting that the crawlers are just tools for existing apps, but it is open to interpretation. Apple says that the web crawler is used by products "including Siri and Spotlight Suggestions." The use of the word including would suggest that bots are also used for other unnamed products, which may or may not be a search engine. Siri mostly uses Bing and Wolfram Alpha for its search, so it's strange that Apple would need its own indexing. Apple's deal to use Google as the default search is reportedly due to expire soon, so it is plausible that Apple search could be in the pipeline.
However, it would be a strange move for Apple. The iPhone 6 has produced record sales that make Apple the most profitable company on the planet. At its heart Apple is a hardware designer so it wouldn't necessarily make sense to pour a load of resources into a search engine that wouldn't produce the same return on investment, even if it managed to take a significant market share away from Google.
Also, Apple has never been interested in advertising, which is how search engines make money. In an open letter published last year, Tim Cook criticized software that stored information and sold it to advertisers, saying it was making the user the product and was an invasion of privacy. "We sell great products. We don't build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers," he wrote. "Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple."
Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, there's a good chance that the Applebot is as the support post says, just a tool to help improve results from other search engines. Apple does say that the Applebot will follow Googlebot instructions, so it could work alongside Google web crawlers.
Having said that, Apple is probably as well placed as any company to compete with Google in search. The company has an almost bottomless pile of cash and could immediately take a significant market share by making Apple search the default engine on iOS devices and Safari. But still chances are that if the search deal is due to expire soon, Google's competition probably is going to be from Bing or Yahoo rather than an internally built Apple search engine.