For years, Google watched with increasing concern as Apple improved its search technology, not knowing whether its longtime partner and sometimes competitor would eventually build its own search engine.
Those fears ratcheted up in 2021, when Google paid Apple around $18 billion to keep Google’s search engine the default selection on iPhones, according to two people with knowledge of the partnership, who were not authorized to discuss it publicly. The same year, Apple’s iPhone search tool, Spotlight, began showing users richer web results like those they could have found on Google.
Google quietly planned to put a lid on Apple’s search ambitions. The company looked for ways to undercut Spotlight by producing its own version for iPhones and to persuade more iPhone users to use Google’s Chrome web browser instead of Apple’s Safari browser, according to internal Google documents reviewed by The New York Times. At the same time, Google studied how to pry open Apple’s control of the iPhone by leveraging a new European law intended to help small companies compete with Big Tech.
Google’s anti-Apple plan illustrated the importance that its executives placed on maintaining dominance in the search business. It also provides insight into the company’s complex relationship with Apple, a competitor in consumer gadgets and software that has been an instrumental partner in Google’s mobile ads business for more than a decade.
The relationship has come under scrutiny in the landmark antitrust suit brought against Google by the Justice Department and dozens of states. Lawyers for the government have argued that Google rigged the market in its favor with default agreements signed with companies including Apple, Samsung and Mozilla. These pacts funnel traffic to Google’s search engine when users look up information in the top bar of a browser.
Google is expected to begin a three-week presentation of its defense in the lawsuit’s monthslong trial on Thursday. So far, the company has downplayed the role that its default agreements with phone makers and browser companies has had on its success. It argues that its search engine is popular because of its quality and innovation, and that users can easily choose another default in their device settings.
But the documents viewed by The Times showed that Google understood the power of defaults in channeling users to a product as it tried to change Apple’s selection of Safari as the iPhone’s default web browser.
“Competition in the tech industry is fierce, and we compete against Apple on many fronts,” said Peter Schottenfels, a Google spokesman. “There are more ways than ever to search for information today, which is why our engineers make thousands of improvements a year to Search to ensure we deliver the most helpful results.”
While Google bids on default settings because they matter, he added, users can and do change their defaults. Apple declined to comment.
Last fall, Google executives met to discuss how to reduce the company’s reliance on Apple’s Safari browser and how best to use a new law in Europe to undermine the iPhone maker, documents showed. While Google considered several options, including how much data it should have access to on the iPhone, it is unclear what the executives decided on.
At the time, the European Union was readying the Digital Markets Act, which was designed to help smaller companies crack Big Tech’s control of the industry. Google, already one of the world’s largest internet businesses, saw an opening.
Under the act, the European Union is forcing large tech companies designated as “gatekeepers” to open their platforms to competitors by March, giving users a choice of which service to use, and to stop favoring their own services on their platforms.
The law is expected to force Apple to allow customers in the European Union to download rival app stores. Users setting up a new Apple device in Europe could also be presented with an option to select a default browser other than Safari.
Google, which the law will force to allow more competition in search, explored ways to lobby E.U. regulators to crack open Apple’s tightly controlled software ecosystem so Google could siphon users from Safari and Spotlight, the documents showed. Executives debated how aggressive the company should be in advocating for access to Apple’s operating system.
Google executives figured that if users had to make a choice, the number of European iPhone users who selected Chrome could triple, according to documents reviewed by The Times. That would mean the company could keep more search ad revenue and pay less of it to Apple.
Regulations intended to help smaller companies enter the marketplace “very frequently can also be used by incumbents to gain advantage over their rivals,” Gus Hurwitz, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School who focuses on technology and competition, said in an interview.
Google and Apple have had a search engine partnership for Safari since 2002, half a decade before the iPhone’s debut. The relationship became more complicated when Google released the Android mobile operating system in 2008, a direct competitor to the iPhone.
Google was concerned about Apple’s Spotlight from the feature’s earliest days. In 2014, an internal presentation discussed the impact that Apple’s new operating system, iOS 8, could have on Google’s revenue. The second page of the slide deck was titled “Bottom Line: It’s bad,” according to a presentation introduced as evidence in the antitrust trial.
“We expect these suggestions to siphon queries away from Google in verticals where Spotlight is triggered,” the company wrote.
Apple poached a powerful Google search executive, John Giannandrea, in 2018, and expanded its teams of search employees as it built a more capable Spotlight system. The 2021 improvements to the tool, as part of iOS 15, sparked concerns at Google over Apple’s intentions in the search market, a person with knowledge of the discussions said.
In response, Google spun up an effort to build its own version of Spotlight, which was meant to work on iPhones, documents showed. It presented users with quick facts and information from files, messages and apps on the device.
In recent years, Apple has not used Spotlight to crib so-called commercial queries — which feature ads in their results — from Google, so the tool has not hurt Google’s search business.
Still, Google executives last year contemplated ways to convince the European Union to designate Spotlight as a search engine, according to the documents. Spotlight contained at least five different search features, offering web images; answers and “rich” results that provided extra information like photos; and universal search, which could scan devices, apps and the web. The European Union has not yet decided whether to open Spotlight to greater competition under the law.
That Google is leaning on laws intended to help small companies has frustrated some legal experts.
“I prefer companies to compete on the merits for consumers to want to use their products by offering higher-quality products,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “Not by paying lawyers to go to the European Union and get rules in place in order to obtain access to their competitors’ platforms.”
Adam Satariano contributed reporting from London.