Faced with the prospect of losing billions of dollars in payments from Google to be the default search tool on its iPhones, Apple is reportedly stepping up efforts to develop its own search technology.

The US Department of Justice has made Google’s estimated $8 billion to $12 billion yearly payments to Apple a core part of its antitrust case against the search giant, meaning that an end could be in sight to the agreement between the two companies, reports the Financial Times.

And it points out that on its latest iPhone, Apple shows its own search results and links directly to sites when queries are typed from the phone’s home screen.

Apple has also been amassing built up search expertise, including recruiting Google’s head of search two years ago. While that hire was billed as a boost for Apple’s AI capabilities, it also provided years of valuable search engine knowledge.

The FT also notes that Apple’s frequent job ads for search specialists point to the level of the Cupertino-giant’s ambitions, as they talk of recruits helping to “define and implement the architecture of Apple’s groundbreaking search technology”.

Search-marketing experts report increased activities from Applebot, Apple’s web crawler, which is used to build the huge database that forms the core of any search engine.

“Apple’s position is very unique because it has the iPhone and iOS. It controls the default browser,” Sridhar Ramaswamy, co-founder of Silicon Valley start-up, Neeva and Google’s former head of advertising, told the FT. He added that moving into search “feels natural” for Apple, as it has the ability to gather data and learn from user behaviour at large scale. 

Even so, developing a search engine is notoriously difficult and requires deep pockets. Apple certainly has the latter – its profits this year are expected to be over $55 billion and it has $81 billion in net cash reserves, the FT points out.

Some believe, however, that building a genuine rival to Google could prove a challenge too far, even for a titan like Apple. 

Dan Wang, associate professor of business at Columbia Business School, told the FT it would be “extremely difficult” for Apple ever to catch up with Google’s capabilities. “Google’s advantage comes from scale,” he said. Continuous user feedback allows search results to be finely tuned and areas of improvement to be identified. “Google gets hundreds of millions of queries every minute from users all over the world — that’s an enormous advantage when it comes to data,” Wang added.

Sourced from the Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff