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Apple should buy DuckDuckGo to limit reliance on Google, analyst says

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Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi in a note to investors this week investigated a theoretical Apple acquisition of search engine DuckDuckGo, saying the tech giant could stand to benefit from major platform gains with minimal impact to its bottom line.

Relayed by Barron's, Sacconaghi in the investor note argues that, while Google is the world's dominant web search engine player, Apple is in a relatively strong position to apply pressure to the Alphabet company.

Currently, Google pays between $7 billion and $8 billion a year to be the default search engine for iOS and Siri, the analyst estimates. That figure equates to approximately 30% of an estimated $25 billion in ad revenue Google generates from Apple devices.

Alphabet is willing to pay the hefty sum in part to fend off attempts by Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo to replace Google as Apple's default search engine. Google also has the option to pull out of the deal if it can capture 70% of its current iOS search revenue by pushing users to, Sacconaghi says.

Google's position, however, might be less advantageous than it appears.

"However, we suspect the company's fear of rocking the boat' — which could compromise $15 billion in profits it captures today from iOS — may ultimately limit its freedom of action with Apple," Sacconaghi writes. "Conversely, Apple may be in a stronger position than at first glance, given it controls the keys to the kingdom on who can monetize iOS search. However, it remains uncomfortably dependent on Bing to act as a counterweight to Google — hence our suggestion that Apple acquire its own search engine."

To that end, Sacconaghi floats the idea of a DuckDuckGo acquisition for under $1 billion. Along with a fairly small workforce of less than 100 employees, DuckDuckGo would be a good fit considering the firm shares Apple's views on user privacy and advertising strategies.

"To be certain, we doubt an Apple-owned DuckDuckGo could ever generate profits sufficient to make back the $7 billion to $8 billion a year currently paid by Google," Sacconaghi writes. "Nevertheless, Apple would still likely be better off than a worst-case scenario where it had no backup, and Google or Microsoft (one or the other) withdrew from the bidding process altogether."

The analyst notes such an acquisition could invite scrutiny from government antitrust agencies, and would still leave Apple somewhat reliant on Bing (DuckDuckGo uses Microsoft's web crawler). Overall, however, an Apple-controlled DuckDuckGo would provide the iPhone maker a prime opportunity to further detach itself from Google, a long and drawn-out process years in the making.

Apple first built DuckDuckGo integration into mobile Safari in iOS 8, allowing users to select the search engine, as well as alternatives Yahoo and Bing, in the Settings app. Bing was the default search engine for Siri until 2017, when Apple transitioned to Google for a more "consistent web search experience."