Earlier this year, it came out that Google paid around $1.5 billion in 2019 to be the default search engine on various devices in the UK alone, most of which naturally goes to Apple. Factor in other countries, and it's likely to be a multi-billion dollar deal between the two tech behemoths (the DoJ estimates it at around $8-12 billion). It's a convenient arrangement that goes back more than a decade. Apple gets to serve the best search results to iPhone and iPad users, who in turn get served with Google's ads — everyone wins. Except for consumers, according to US antitrust authorities, and it's this increasing scrutiny that is pushing Apple to develop a competitive search engine of its own.

A new report by the Financial Times points to a subtle change in iOS 14 that hints at Apple's future plans. Home screen searches are linking directly to websites using Apple's own results, which could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building out its own fully-fledged search capability. In recent years, the company has posted job advertisements for search engineers and even hired Google's head of search, John Giannandrea (for an AI-related role, but you can be sure his experience in search will be put to good use).

There's also evidence that Applebot, the company's web crawler, has been increasingly active in recent weeks. Put all of this together and it certainly seems like Apple is gearing up for a push into search like never before. And who can blame it? If the US authorities decide the relationship between Apple and Google is anti-competitive and harmful to consumers, it could well force Apple to open up its search needs to rival engines. Preferrable to Apple would be developing its own replacement. That's no easy task, but Apple's experience with Apple Maps will give it hope. The product was considerably inferior when it first launched in 2012 but has since matured into a viable alternative to Google Maps for iPhone users. Apple has the resources to do the same with search, especially if its hand is forced.