Yesterday brought numerous reports (WSJ story here behind paywall, MacRumors story here) that Apple is in the process of cementing an even closer relationship with Yahoo, and that Siri is a primary component of the discussions. Of course, this story is still at the rumor stage, but there are some intriguing possibilities for the future of […]
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The enemy of my enemy is my new search engine?

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Yesterday brought numerous reports (WSJ story here behind paywall, MacRumors story here) that Apple is in the process of cementing an even closer relationship with Yahoo, and that Siri is a primary component of the discussions. Of course, this story is still at the rumor stage, but there are some intriguing possibilities for the future of iOS, and Siri especially, if it is to be believed.

Looking at the existing relationship between Apple and Yahoo, it quickly becomes very obvious what this is all about, if true. Yahoo already provides Apple with Stock Market information for its built-in iOS app, Weather forecasts for the built-in Weather app, Sports scores and statistics via Siri, and is one of the web search option in the iOS Safari web browser. So, there is already a pretty substantial relationship here. What is the next logical step? Considering the fact that the rumor specifically mentions Siri, it almost certainly has to do with voice-based web search.

 

 

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While Siri is capable of searching the web, this is still one of its most glaring weaknesses because it isn’t an automatic process. Siri only prompts to search the web if it can’t find the information you are requesting through its primary sources (Wolfram Alpha, Yahoo, Open Table, Fandango, etc). And don’t think for one minute this is an accident. Over the last two years, Apple has systematically removed almost all traces of Google as a default option in iOS. Part of that effort was fulfilling any search request from Siri that could possibly be done without using Google through its native sources, cutting off a lucrative steam of Apple customer data that Google had previously had almost sole access to. Web Search, by both voice and in Safari, is really the ONLY thing left, at this point.

Now, based on these rumors, it is possible that Apple has its eyes on adding Yahoo (which currently uses Bing for search) as its default web search engine for Siri. This would allow Siri to find answers to more complex requests faster, and without additional prompting from the user. And most importantly with Apple’s current strategy in mind, this move would hold back even more data from Google.

Does this potential move actually make sense for anyone? Well, it does considering how contentious the relationship between Apple and Google has become. Two of the features that people consistently praise Google’s Voice Search for are speed and its comprehensiveness, so it makes a lot of sense for Apple to try to address this in Siri, and as soon as possible. Yahoo/Bing is really the only other game in town when it comes to search, so that’s the only play if Apple really wants to include direct search capability in Siri, but wants to keep Google out.

However, while adding Yahoo Search to Siri could enhance its functionality, removing the option to use Google at all could produce a backlash among users. Right now, Google is the dominant search engine world wide, and for good reason. Bing has improved over the years, but it still doesn’t quite measure up, so adding it as the only option for voice web search in iOS would be a little risky. However, while most technically inclined users will either jailbreak so they can choose their own search engine, or just use Google’s Search app for iOS, many everyday users will never know the difference, as long as it works. For every one of us techie people, there are 5-10 users out there who never go beyond the default options. Still, Apple tried this with Maps last year, and as we know, it didn’t “just work,” for many people. If Apple pulls this switch, they had better make sure it is ready for prime time on day one. They can’t afford any more web service mistakes.

 

 

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From Yahoo’s perspective, this rumored agreement would be an absolute no-brainer. It gives CEO Marissa Mayer, who probably has her own ax to grind against Google, another headline to keep the buzz that she’s has since she took over at Yahoo alive. Plus, if Apple can get Siri out of beta and turn it into a service that customers trust and use more day-to-day, then the added stream of customer data could be quite lucrative for Yahoo. The fact that this data would be coming directly out of Google’s back pocket makes it that much better for them.

Apple and Microsoft (since Yahoo uses Bing for search) seem to make odd bedfellows here, considering that Microsoft is trying its best to strengthen its own brand and re-establish itself in the mobile market with Windows Phone and Windows 8. However, to take a stab a Google, I seriously doubt they will complain in the short term. But that’s just the short term. It’s the longer play that’s more intriguing to me, here. One of the rumors that has made the rounds since Mayer took over at Yahoo is that they will make a break from Microsoft and re-enter the search business using their own technology.

In the long term, I think this makes the most sense for both Yahoo and Apple, if it all works out. Having Yahoo inked as an exclusive partner could get Apple a potentially strong service partner, without all the fuss of trying to do anything with web search, themselves. We’ve seen plenty of evidence that web services aren’t exactly Apple’s strong suit. Outsourcing that to a company that isn’t also a direct competitor is a smart move, if Yahoo can prove that it can stand toe-to-toe against Google and Microsoft.

As for Yahoo, it’s been a long time since they were in the search business for themselves. However, when you consider that they hired a CEO who was intimately involved in both Google Search and Google Maps, I would be surprised if that doesn’t change in the next year or two. Mayer is already moving Yahoo away from being a content generating company, toward one that specializes in web products and services. It makes sense that search would once again be one of those. Having Apple as a strategic partner right out of the gate, could give Yahoo the boost they need to get such an effort off the ground.

I’ll be clear, and say that I know a move this big isn’t coming tomorrow. Something this complicated would have to unfold over a period of time, giving both parties some wiggle room and the ability to get out if the partnership isn’t working. It’s also risky. VERY RISKY. A move like this could really hurt Apple’s image in a way that goes beyond anything they’ve experience with Maps and Siri, to date. As for Yahoo, if they go back into search and fail, it will probably put them out of business.

Despite the risks, however, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an early version of this potential partnership announced at WWDC this year. With the circumstances of the mobile and search markets what they are right now, Apple and Yahoo have one common opponent, and aren’t direct competitors themselves. Neither one of them covers all of Google’s offerings, but together, they do match-up over a much larger percentage of them. Apple needs a way to do web search without Google, and Yahoo needs the buzz and cash resources a partnership like this could provide to get a competing search engine off the ground. Both parties have a lot of reasons to make the enemy of their enemy their new best friend.

Do you have a different take on a potential closer Apple Yahoo partnership? Feel free to let us know in the comments, or you can hit me up on Twitter @jhrogersii, or on Google+.

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