Google and Apple’s Stalemate

Some fascinating news broke yesterday that Apple is returning to Google for certain aspects of search within iOS and other core software. Apple is returning to having Google as the default search within iOS and macOS as well as for web-based search within Siri. When the iPhone first launched, Google was an essential partner for Apple as the Google search and Google Maps were core features touted as capabilities of the original iPhone.

Most of us remember how the story goes as Apple and Google started to part ways thanks to Google’s move to compete more directly with Apple, and Apple’s concern over consumer privacy and Google’s overall stance not being in sync with Apple’s. Apple removed Google as the default search engine for iOS in exchange for Microsoft Bing and Bing also powered Siri from the start.

While over time Apple Maps proved to be a competent alternative to Google Maps, search is really where Bing’s integration with Siri particularly let Apple down. Consumers could still choose Google Search as their default engine in things like Safari, but by having it as the default for search from iOS 11 and macOS will add another level of consistency. As the statement from Apple points out:

“Switching to Google as the web search provider for Siri, Search within iOS and Spotlight on Mac will allow these services to have a consistent web search experience with the default in Safari,” reads an Apple statement sent this morning. “We have strong relationships with Google and Microsoft and remain committed to delivering the best user experience possible.”

But Siri is the real winner in this move.

Siri Get’s Smarter
It has long been a concern of mine that Siri’s lack of quality in general web searches was hurting Apple’s broader ambitions with the voice UI. While I remain adamant that search alone does not make a great AI/assistant experience, you can not debate the reality that general knowledge search inquiries are a major part of our engagement with voice assistants.

Charting some data from our latest Voice 2.0 Survey we see the most common tasks consumers use Siri for.

This chart emphasizes my point that what defines a smart digital assistant is not how well it searches the web. It must do the assistant tasks just as well, but I’d argue that having inferior search has a broad impact on the overall product’s experience. I’d go so far as saying Siri could set alarms, get directions, play music, etc., all fabulously well but if it is bad at general search consumers won’t trust it as much.

In a number of interviews we conducted prior to our study, we heard consumers say things like “Siri doesn’t always answer my question,” or “Siri is not reliable (referring to a search query),” and often times we heard “Siri is dumb.” The last one “Siri is dumb” had nothing to do with the consumer thinking the product is dumb just that they didn’t feel she knew anything useful and further digging showed this was specific to searching the Internet with a question or general search query. It was these kind of comments that concern me because they are the kinds of things that start to erode trust in consumers. I also recognize how important search is to the overall assistant experience and Apple was not in a position to drastically improve their search by themselves. This is why this move to give Siri the power to get information from Google so important. Siri is going to dramatically improve in a critical use case and overall will provide a much better experience overall for Apple customers.

What about Privacy?
I say all of this while still being sensitive that many consumers are highly privacy conscious and intentionally avoid using Google products because of this. What has always intrigued me about Apple’s approach and in this case using Siri as an interface to Google, is what our agent can do to shield us from exposing certain things we don’t want to be shared but still get us the information we need. For example, if Siri is our interface to Google, it does not need to reveal to Google our location, anything about us specifically, or any number of things Google doesn’t actually need to provide us the relevant information we are looking for. So what if, in all of this, Apple can provide us a safe way to use Google services and still get benefits of the vast data they have access to in general information all while securing our privacy? While I can’t confirm yet if this is exactly what is happening, I have a hunch something along these lines is going on behind the scenes.

Apple does not seem to be backtracking on their stance on privacy and if anything they are doubling down. So I don’t believe they are all of a sudden backing off this element just to add Google search back to their software. However, I do believe they are intentionally creating the necessary software integrations to make sure the information that does invade our privacy does not go back to Google when we use iOS, macOS, or Siri as the interface to Google search.

Google, under Sundar Pichai, seems to be going back to the Google of old that understood it needed reach for its products. And if that reach is ever cutoff, as it was with Apple customers largely, then it hurts Google’s business and mission of organizing the world’s data into one place. There are many parallels to Google and Microsoft as they embrace their horizontal nature and get back to being better partners than competitors with the companies they depend on if they want to have a future.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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