Apple wins partial victory in smartphone claim

Trade agency ruling that certain features are protected by their patent could affect Android phones

By NICK WINGFIELD

A 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, making them less convenient.

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 around the globe by nearly all of the major players in the mobile industry, reflecting the heated competition among them, especially as Android phones gain market share. At the heart of these 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 Monday involves the technology that lets you tap your finger once on the touchscreen to call a phone number that is written inside an e-mail or text message. It also involves the technology that allows you to schedule a calendar appointment, again with a single tap of the finger, for a date mentioned in an e-mail.

HTC, the defendant in the case and one of the world’s largest makers of smartphones running the Android system, said in a statement after the ruling that it would remove those particular features, calling 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 favor in the case, involving a different, more technical patent. It would have been hard for HTC to adapt its devices to avoid infringing that patent, legal experts said.

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.
To take effect, the order still needs to be signed by President Obama’s trade representative, who can decide to overrule the commission’s finding, though such actions are rare.

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 favor in most instances through countersuits.

The suits reflect the intense competition in the smartphone market. In the third quarter of 2011, phones running the Android system accounted for 52.5 percent of devices sold worldwide, up from 25.3 percent in the same period of 2010. Apple’s share of this market fell to 15 percent, from 16.6 percent, over the same period.

Apple’s late chief executive officer, Steven P. Jobs, was outspoken in his belief that Google had improperly copied many of the iPhone’s innovations with Android, telling his biographer that he was going to “destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product.”

The growing complexity of mobile devices has greatly expanded the range of patents that can be used as weapons in the business, and their exploding sales have made them a lucrative target. Florian Mueller, an intellectual property analyst in Germany and author of a popular blog on patent disputes, estimates that the number of patent lawsuits related to the mobile business worldwide is approaching 100.

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