A US federal agency ruled on Monday that a set of important features commonly found in smartphones are protected by an Apple patent, a decision that could force changes in how Google’s Android phones function.
The ruling, by the United States International Trade Commission, is one of the most significant so far in a growing array of closely watched patent battles being waged by nearly all of the major players in the mobile industry. These fights reflect the heated competition, especially as Android phones gain market share.
At the heart of the disputes are the kind of small but convenient features that would cause many people to complain if they were not in their smartphones. For example, the case decided on Monday involves the technology that lets you tap your finger once on the touch screen to call a phone number that is written inside an e-mail or text message.
HTC, the defendant in the case and a Taiwan-based mobile phone maker using the Android system, said in a statement after the ruling that it would adapt its features to comply with the court’s decision. The company called them “small” parts of the user’s experience.
The ruling was only a partial victory for Apple because the commission overruled an earlier decision in Apple’s favour in the case, involving a different, more technical patent related to how software is organised internally on mobile devices. It would have been hard for HTC to adapt its devices to avoid infringing that patent, experts said.
The decision could potentially affect far more phones than those made by HTC because the underlying target of the suit is Google, creator of the Android system that now powers more than half of all smartphones sold worldwide. Apple is suing several other makers of Android devices, as is Microsoft, and companies that make Android products are returning the favour in most instances through countersuits.
“It's an important victory for Apple, but it's just one of many battles,” said Alexander Poltorak, chief executive of the General Patent Corporation, an intellectual property strategy firm, adding that the ruling will pressure other Android phone makers to license the technology from Apple or make changes to avoid patent infringement issues.
The ruling by the six-member commission, which can take action against unfair trade practices by companies whose products are imported into the United States, will prevent HTC from selling phones in the United States that infringe the patent starting April 19. NYT