The suggestion was made earlier this week that Apple should buy the privacy-centered search engine Duck Duck Go. It came from Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi, who believes that the company can use such a move to keep the pressure on Google to continue to work with them in the future. They could also use the move to break away from Google and try to compete head-to-head with them. However, while Apple and Duck Duck Go have a shared interest in user privacy, I have my doubts that such a marriage is in either company’s best interest.
From the perspective of Duck Duck Go, I can see where putting Apple’s cash and clout behind their vision to provide an Internet search engine that doesn’t track users every step of the way would be appealing. I’m sure that’s a tempting offer, as the company is still quite modest in size and isn’t in any position to directly compete with Microsoft’s Bing, much less Google. If they are looking to make a move, Apple would seem to be a better fit than most to take that step with.
However, even though Apple’s commitment to user privacy seems real enough, it isn’t at the core of their business. Their services exist to create a virtuous circle. They want to bolster the ecosystem around their hardware so iPhone, iPad and Mac owners have more incentive to stay with them. Those services also exist to pull a steady stream of revenue from existing device owners as they upgrade their devices less frequently now than in the past.
User privacy is a feature that Apple loves to brag about and it’s an important differentiator for many of their products and services. However, it is not as central to their business as it is for Duck Duck Go, which is completely based on the preservation of user privacy. Unless the company is struggling and/or the owners are looking for an exit, Duck Duck Go’s mission is better served if they stay independent, rather than becoming a small piece of the Apple machine.
Along the same lines, Apple controlling its own search engine should help them improve Siri, but it isn’t absolutely necessary for them. Most Apple device owners will still use Google as their default search engine and it would take years of hard work and billions of dollars of investment and infrastructure buildout to change that. Duck Duck Go also isn’t going to become a major revenue generator for them in the short term, either.
Then there is the question of fit within Apple. Providing mapping makes sense thanks to the company’s automotive ambitions. Their music streaming service is a no-brainer, as they have been at the forefront of the digital music industry for almost 20 years. Their streaming video service is a little less obvious, but Apple tried for years to partner with others to create a TV service. Going their own way was pretty much the only option, at this point. As for iCloud, you can’t get any more essential than cloud storage and photo backup services for computers and mobile devices. However, how does Internet search fit into this portfolio?
I understand that Internet search is very important for all kinds of mobile devices, so there is a case to be made here. Apple’s data deficit in comparison with Google and Microsoft has always put them at a disadvantage when it comes to things like improving Siri’s capabilities. However, the bigger hurdle for Apple is their stance on user privacy. Even if they do purchase an already developed search engine, will that really make a difference if they restrict what they can do with all of the data they get back? This is especially true if the search engine they acquire and the people behind it are even more dedicated to privacy than Apple is.
The biggest pro for Apple is that the asking price for Duck Duck Go wouldn’t put a strain on them. This would be larger than most of their acquisitions outside of Beats, but it would still barely make a dent in their quarterly revenues. However, the more important questions are what the long term benefits are and how much investment it will take to realize them. The cost and difficulty of building Duck Duck Go into a legitimate competitor to Google is why I don’t think Apple will seriously consider going down this road. Google has no incentive to stop paying billions per year to be the default search engine on Apple devices and Apple doesn’t have a compelling reason to rock the boat from their end. At least not today.
As for Duck Duck Go, I think the world is much better with them in it, but as an independent company. They will always be at a disadvantage to Google and Microsoft, but the world needs a privacy-focused alternative for Internet search and there will always be a niche for them. Becoming just another part of Apple’s ever-growing ecosystem isn’t the best way to insure their survival or their mission going forward.
If things change and Duck Duck Go falls on hard times and needs a friend, then Apple is probably the best the best partner they will find to help them continue their mission to provide non-invasive Internet search. But until and unless that day comes, I hope Duck Duck Go will continue to slowly grow and improve on its own and Apple will keep its hands off.