Is Apple building a search engine? Should they?

There are persistent rumors that Apple’s building a search engine. Apple does have many obvious motivations for wanting to have a search engine of some form. There’s the clash with Google over mobile dominance (iPhone vs Android), as well as the continuing need to make their devices (the iPad, iPhone, iPod, and Macs) continue to be “what the cool kids have”. What’s going to sell more gadgets? Content. (and apps, of course).

More broadly, Apple’s brand identity is undergoing a shift. Apple’s core audience has always been the cool, smart, hip people – the creative industry, the doers, the builders. But they are broadening their appeal to not just creators, but consumers. CV Harquail has a great take on this trend.

Are they building something? From the outside looking in, nobody knows. But if they are building something, I doubt it’s general purpose search. Building a search engine is getting easier and cheaper than it used to be, but it’s still a very significant investment of human and computing capital. If they were going that route, they’d just buy Yahoo. Or they could buy Cuil and get pure search at a much lower cost. But the reality is nobody wants another Google – a general purpose horizontal search engine – that’s why Cuil floundered – it doesn’t solve a problem people think they have. Google solves the problem it solves, well enough.

What does all that mean for what Apple should do in search? As I and others have written elsewhere, the future of search is about task and context. Search is the purest expression of consumer intent on the web – as Chris Dixon pointed out, that’s why Facebook has 1/30th the revenue of Google, with more web traffic.

Where does Apple care about consumer intent? Aside from when they are making device decisions, it’s when consumers buy media – music, movies, books, and other content. iTunes is a $2B per year business. So my guess is Apple’s new search engine might not even feel like a search engine. It will be a rich media site for searching & exploring the world of media. It will contain a lot of branded content (think New York Times, Netflix, Entertainment Tonight, Rolling Stone), and given Apple’s penchant for closed architectures, may even have a paid inclusion/pay-to-play model. Imagine a media search engine, helping you explore the world of media & entertainment, but incorporating significant amounts of social media content, centered around music, movies, art, books and other creative content. Of course with quick and easy ways to buy or stream things from iTunes 8). Something more like The Hype Machine than Google – and of course it would leverage the purchase of Lala. It will support exploration and social search as much as pure keyword search.Given Apple’s dominance in the creative world, and it’s brand power, it would have no trouble attracting advertisers to that kind of experience. iAd, anyone?

Is Apple building a search engine? Who knows.

Should they? Hell yes.

And knowing Apple’s design philosophy, it will be clean and elegant, with lots of rich media. It might feel kind of like a certain fishy search engine we know.

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