Will Apple Enter Google’s Turf With Search or Driverless Cars?

Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch

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Thanks mostly to Google’s decision to follow Apple into the smartphone market, the two companies have built a bitter rivalry over the smartphone wars. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously said that he wanted to destroy Android and was willing to go “thermonuclear war” on Google. More recently, Apple has been stripping Google’s services from its products, in an attempt to marginalize the search giant’s hold over iOS users. But several recent rumors indicate that the tables may be turning, and Apple may be following Google into new markets of its own.

A recently-spotted job posting hints that Apple may be developing a search engine of its own, while vehicles seen in the Bay Area and in Brooklyn point to the possibility that Apple is developing a self-driving car of its own. Both search engines and self-driving cars are areas inescapably associated with Google.

Cult of Mac’s Luke Dormehl reports that Apple may be about to take on Google with a search engine of its own. Dormehl cites a job listing for an engineering project manager to work on a product called Apple Search. The position would be based in San Francisco, and would require the manager to oversee backend operations for what Apple describes as a “search platform supporting hundreds of millions of users.” The job description also says that the successful candidate will “Play a part in revolutionizing how people use their computers and mobile devices.” While Engadget notes that the word “revolutionize” appears in no less than 43 of Apple’s current job postings — and no one knows exactly what Apple Search really is — a search engine could be the perfect way for Apple to claim some territory in an area that’s traditionally been Google’s.

Dormehl notes that Apple would be a very late arrival to the search scene, trailing even Microsoft by five years. But there’s some evidence that the company has been considering its own search engine for quite some time, and not just because Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster has claimed since 2010 that there’s a 70% chance Apple would enter the mobile search engine space. In late 2012, Apple hired William Stasior, a “search guru” and Amazon and AltaVista veteran, to run its Siri unit.  And last year, developer Jan Moesen discovered a web-crawling bot that originated from Apple’s servers, and seemed to crawl only the HTML pages from a site, and none of the accompanying CSS, JavaScript, or image files.

While Apple’s Siri uses a type of search technology, it’s internally referred to as a “do engine” rather than as a “search engine,” thanks to its ability to implement search results instead of just listing them. Apple has also worked to enhanced its Spotlight Search feature in OS X Yosemite, and while the new position could be intended to help augment one of these technologies instead of help Apple build a new one, it is at the very least a coincidence that Apple’s search agreement with Google for its Safari browser is believed to be up for renewal this year.

As Conor Dougherty reports for The New York Times, Apple has spent the past few years stripping Google’s services like Maps and YouTube out of its products, and it’s a natural question whether Apple intends to replace Google as the default search engine in Safari. According to analysts, the impact on Google’s bottom line would be minimal, and it could even come out ahead. Google reportedly pays Apple 35 to 80% of the revenue made from searches that go through the Google search bar. Additionally, loyal Google users could switch their own default search engine back to Google, or even go to Google’s home page to search.

While The Information’s Amir Efrati reported in November that both Yahoo and Microsoft have approached Apple about providing the default search engine for Safari, Apple might consider a search engine of its own the necessary next step in keeping all of the integral parts of the user experience with an iPhone or a MacBook “in the family.” An Apple search engine would likely be included not only in Safari, but in Siri and Spotlight search.

Cult of Mac’s Buster Hein spotted reports from the Bay Area that multiple black vans owned by Apple — and equipped with “a fancy camera array on top” — were spotted driving around San Francisco. Rumor has it that the vans indicate Apple’s intention to build its own self-driving car. Similar vehicles were also spotted in Brooklyn.

While the vans could indicate that Apple is instead working on a competitor to Google Street View, Hein says that some experts point out that the camera array is too different from those on Google’s Street View cars. They’re instead convinced that these black vans are the prototype for a self-driving car. Tech analyst Rob Enderle told a CBS affiliated in San Francisco that the array featured “too many cameras,” and included cameras “that are angled down at all four corners of the vehicle.”

Writing for The Verge, Tom Warren notes that the vehicles spotted in San Francisco and Brooklyn appear to be equipped with the same LIDAR camera system, a technology that has been used extensively by Google, Nokia, and others to map imagery for Street View services. The technology is also used in some adaptive cruise control systems to monitor distances between vehicles and automatically apply the brakes. Apple’s car reportedly includes the same wheel sensor that Navteq used on its Bing cars to create street imagery for Microsoft’s mapping service. Google also uses LIDAR cameras to help power its self-driving cars. Its system is mounted to the top of the vehicle, where a camera spins continually to monitor the car’s surroundings. A similar spinning camera is visible in one of the videos of a van registered to Apple.

Though it’s harder to believe that Apple would build a self-driving car than to believe that it would develop a search engine, Apple does hold numerous patents related to car hardware and software. Hein points out that beyond the camera, sensors, and the basic robotics used to steer and accelerate, most of the “magic” of a self-driving car lies in its software, an area where Apple could excel thanks to its focus on simplicity. The array on top of the vehicles could function as a self-driving solution that would be retrofitted to existing vehicles.

The vans spotted in San Francisco and New York aren’t marked with Apple logos, but records from the Department of Motor Vehicles show that the vehicles are registered to Apple. Though Apple isn’t one of the six American companies with a permit to test self-driving cars, it could be working in partnership with a company that does have a permit. Enderle pointed out that Apple has existing partnerships with several carmakers who are working on self-driving cars.

In the case of both a possible search engine and a potential self-driving car, Apple’s intentions will remain a mystery until the company itself has an announcement to make.

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