It sounded pretty good until Eric Schmidt said it: Siri, the so-called personal assistant app on Apple's iPhone 4S, is the new face of search. Siri is threatening to sideline the tried-and-true search box that Google turned into a cross between a wishing well and the most trusted way to navigate a rapidly sprawling web. Some said that Google should be concerned. Others, predictably, overreacted and labeled Siri a "Google killer."
Then last week Google's (GOOG) former CEO and current chair released his responses to Senate subcommittees looking into Google's dominance in the search industry. In the past few years, Schmidt has transitioned from a seasoned and successful CEO to something of a loose cannon who spends most of his time retracting, or explaining or laughing away his previous statements. So when Schmidt, citing some of those commentators who saw Apple's (AAPL) Siri as a Google competitor, suggested that Siri could be a force in search, he drew a skeptical response. Some said Schmidt was just downplaying Google's prominence in search. Others pointed out that Siri's own default search engine is Google.
But how can Google be a monopoly that is about to get its clock cleaned by Apple? The truth is less certain, if equally dramatic: The search industry is in the early stages of a disruptive period of change. It will look more like Siri than Google does today -- that is, it will have a more intuitive AI feel to it. Apple and Google -- and maybe even Microsoft (MSFT) -- will play a key role in shaping it. Which means it's well past time to be worrying about whether Google is a monopoly.
In fact, Google isn't a even search monopoly anymore. It controls around two thirds of the search market. That statistic was more significant several years ago, before the rise of specialized searches through sites like Yelp for restaurants, Kayak for travel and Twitter for real-time chatter. Google is also said to have 97% of mobile search. But again, that overlooks the fact that most people access the mobile web through apps, not browsers.
In a way, search has always been about connecting us with the information we need on the web. Before search, there were directories like Yahoo (YHOO) and Excite. Then AltaVista and Inktomi built search engines based on the simple search box, and Google cleaned up, first by building a better search box and then by continually improving it. Google's impact on search wasn't a sudden revolution but a gradual progression that -- only in retrospect -- seems profound.