Apple Won’t Buy DuckDuckGo If Google Keeps Paying
Big tech has long known that antitrust action is on the way, so why fight the system while it’s benefitting you financially not to compete?
When you set up a new Windows 10 device, you’re probably going to want to change the default search engine on the Edge browser. When I was last trying to change my search engine, Microsoft Edge made it extraordinarily complex to achieve. Instead of offering a list of possible search engines, Edge had the ability to ‘detect’ that the current page was a search engine, and would subsequently offer it as an option. I always needed to navigate to the DuckDuckGo website, add the current page to the list of search engines, and then set it as my default.
I see that Edge now makes this easier, but my experience shows how desperate Microsoft was to prevent other search engines from being added in the beginning. Their hope was presumably that people would start using Bing, realize all major search engines are basically as good as each other these days, and not bother to set Google on it. Now you can choose your search engine from a dropdown menu of the few search engine options available to us. But the fact remains that the operating system will set Bing as the default, and you will need to manually go to the settings to change it. I remember when Apple added DuckDuckGo as a search engine in 2014. This definitely made sense for privacy, which has become Apple’s central marketing priority in recent years. Although iPhones are still tracked by app developers, the company does go further than Google does in terms of anonymous data.
As an Apple fan who uses an iPad, iPhone and MacBook Pro, I’ve certainly noticed the search engine situation on these platforms. I’ve been choosing DuckDuckGo ever since it was added as an option in 2014. But the default on iOS was not Bing, as it was on Windows. The more Apple has marketed themselves as the leaders on privacy in the ensuing years, the more it has perplexed me that their default search engine is Google. Why wasn’t it the search engine that valued privacy?
I figured that Apple wanted to choose the default that most people expect. Most people I know use Android devices, and everyone would say “Google it” to mean search online. Sometimes I catch myself saying the same, even though I use DuckDuckGo. I’ve tried several options to describe what I do: “search it”, “search for it”, or “do a search”. I know it sounds odd to people, as Google’s brand is so ingrained in us all, but I had to try for the sake of accuracy.
If you’re wondering, the answer is no.
I never tried to make “DuckDuckGo it” a thing.
There have been many stories with headlines like Should Apple ditch Google and buy the DuckDuckGo search engine? over the years. “Apple could likely get the №4 search engine in the U.S. for less than $ 1 billion,” the article predicts. “As [Bernstein analyst Toni] Sacconaghi notes, this amounts to “less than a week’s worth of cash flow.” But this particular story was from June 2020, meaning that the economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic has been taken into account. “I can’t imagine anyone inside Apple feels now would be a great time to begin another battle against Google,” the writer of the article says, “especially with the world in a recession.”
Back in June, it was a perfectly valid explanation that Apple would hold back because of the current economic climate, but they’ve had plenty of years to make a move on this. VentureBeat was proclaiming that Apple should just buy DuckDuckGo as far back as 2015. But let’s remember that iPhone sales didn’t peak until 2018, at which point Apple became heavily invested in moving towards services as a more important indicator of growth. The most obvious benefit to Apple, as many of these articles have noted, is to make Siri better.
Control the search engine, and you can drive innovation in both the service and client, on both the hardware and software sides.
Google is clearly already doing these optimisations with its smart speaker efforts, although it should be noted that Amazon dominates the smart speaker sector with no search engine of its own.
Now we know that Apple wants to prioritise services now that device sales are down. Apple has just launched the HomePod Mini, which for $99 makes Siri and Apple’s device ecosystem in general more accessible than ever. But we also know that Apple learns from the failure of other companies. Perhaps that’s why they haven’t rushed to release a folding phone. Apple is wary of Microsoft’s failure to compete with Google in search engines because of the cautionary tale of Microsoft Bing.
After over 10 years of existence, and an obvious torrent of investment, Bing had achieved 2.44% market share by 2019.
The 91.54% lion’s share goes to Google.
The competition in the search engine sector, or the lack thereof, is obvious. DuckDuckGo commands a share just 0.45%, so it seems like the antitrust action is justified. Elizabeth Warren points out that the lawsuit doesn’t go far enough, considering the number of sectors that Google alone dominates. Big tech has carved up the software and online landscape, with Facebook and Amazon presenting serious concerns as well, so Google isn’t alone. Google dominates the online email, documents, file storage, and calendar industries, and that’s just their Google Workspace product (formerly known as G Suite).
When I use DuckDuckGo every day, and I observe that everyone else I know uses Google, it’s easy to see that almost no one cares about the lack of competition in the search engine industry. Most people “Google it”, they get the answer they were looking for in an instant, and they never have a desire or need to use an alternative search engine. So this is going to be a case in which the requirement of antitrust law to show consumer harm, in order for the competition to be considered unfair, will be very difficult. Consumers have a choice of search engines, as I do when I fight against the defaults every time I set up a new computer.
But the fact that Google paid Apple up to $12 billion for a search engine deal that disadvantaged competitors does explain why I change my search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo on MacOS.
It explains why Apple doesn’t buy DuckDuckGo, because they profit so much more from doing nothing. This practice from Google is killing the potential innovation in search engines, even from the huge companies like Microsoft that can clearly afford to compete no matter how hard it gets. It’s also true that smaller startups have no chance of competing, as DuckDuckGo’s 0.45% market share shows.
Let’s assume that consumer harm can be shown, perhaps by somehow showing that people like me (who value privacy over convenience) are not outliers, it’s certainly possible that successfully regulating the search engine industry could lead to a more diversified market.
It’s certainly possible that successfully levelling the playing field here could lead DuckDuckGo to a more favourable competitive position.
This is obviously something I’d love, but I’d especially love to be asked what my preferred search engine is when I install Windows or macOS.
News outlets are already making the comparison between this antitrust case and the one against Microsoft in the 1990s. The result was that Microsoft needed to give us a choice of browser when we installed Windows. You might notice that Windows 10 has brought us right back to those days, with Microsoft Edge as the default instead. The fact that Microsoft has gone back to its old ways is a testament to the lack of antitrust action that has been taken in the 21st century. Not only has progress not been made in increasing competition, but previously reprimanded market leaders have gone back to their old ways.
You might say that Google’s dominance has allowed Microsoft to quietly set the default browser, as the Edge browser still trails Google’s Chrome in browser share.
Maybe Google should be offering Microsoft more money to change those defaults.
But as Microsoft and Apple are both learning together, sometimes it’s more lucrative to own both the client and the service.
Apple will likely wait for the dust to settle on anything that happens to their precious $12 billion from Google.
As long as it keeps coming, I doubt they’ll purchase DuckDuckGo.
If DuckDuckGo is allowed to compete and begins gaining market share that rivals Bing, Apple may choose that moment to buy their way into the industry.
By then DuckDuckGo would have taken the risks and done the hard work of proving they can be a competitive player on a level playing field.
And Apple won’t give Google preferential treatment for free.