HTC loses key patent battle: How does it affect you?

What was an apparent win for Apple in its patent lawsuit against HTC may not be the case. CNET breaks it down.

Could HTC phones like the Evo 3D be banned from the U.S.? Probably not. Josh Miller

Apple scored a legal victory yesterday over HTC, albeit a limited one.

The International Trade Commission, a federal agency with the power to enforce bans on products shipping to the U.S., ruled that HTC infringed upon one of Apple's patents . While clearly a win for the company, it could have gone a lot better; Apple originally accused HTC of violating 10 patents.

Apple claims technology in its iPhone 4S was ripped off by Android vendors such as HTC. Apple

In a statement to CNET, HTC general counsel Grace Lei said: "We are gratified that the commission affirmed the judge's initial determination on the '721 and '983 patents, and reversed its decision on the '263 patent and partially on the '647 patent. We are very pleased with the determination and we respect it."

An Apple representative, meanwhile, stuck to its party line: "We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

It's a key milestone in a long-running patent battle between Apple and HTC, one that has spread to multiple courts in different countries. But what does this mean for you? Fortunately, CNET offers this handy FAQ.

What was the exact ruling? The ITC ruled that HTC violated the 5,946,647 patent, which refers to a method of data detection that allows a mobile device to recognize things like e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and addresses in text and automatically move them to a calendar, dialer, or mapping application.

The ruling affects any HTC device that uses the feature, and potentially bans them from being shipped in the U.S. HTC says it is a "small UI experience" and that it would completely remove it from its phones soon.

But HTC lost, right? Should I stock up on its products now? Don't worry, HTC's products aren't going anywhere. The ITC has given HTC until April 19 to settle the technology issues, so until then the company's products are safe.

If some of HTC's phones still use that patent, then they will be barred from coming into the country. But given the amount of time HTC has, removing the feature shouldn't be a problem.

How many phones are affected? The Droid Eris and Nexus One were the phones listed in the original lawsuit, but it's unclear just how many phones violate the patent.

If you own an HTC phone, it's probably a safe bet to assume your device violates Apple's patents, and will need to be updated.

So how does my HTC phone change? Your HTC phone may work differently after the changes take place, and not for the better.

Because of the nature of the patent, consumers can expect to lose some functionality with their device. For instance, you may not be able to tap on a phone number in an e-mail to automatically make a phone call, requiring you to manually enter the number yourself. Likewise, you wouldn't be able to tap on an address to bring up its location on a mapping or navigation application.

Despite HTC's attempts to minimize the damage, the loss of such a feature could hurt it competitively not just against Apple, but against other Android vendors. As a result, you may find yourself looking at other Android devices if this key feature is missing from HTC's products. It's up to you whether you really need it.

Is this the end of HTC? Hardly. If HTC was going to lose this case, this is how the company would want to lose it. The ruling was basically as muted as it could possibly be without an outright victory. The extra few months that ITC granted also gives the company some added flexibility to make changes.

Analysts have noted that HTC could pursue its own technical workaround to get those features back using a different method. Companies have often used these workarounds to avoid infringing upon a patent and paying a licensing fee for the technology.

"If Google can implement this popular feature, which users of modern-day smartphones really expect, without infringing on the two patent claims found infringed, this import ban won't have any effect whatsoever," said Florian Mueller, a legal consultant who runs the FOSS Patents blog.

HTC could also appeal the ruling, according to Robert W. Baird analyst William Power. The company still has outstanding lawsuits against Apple in multiple courts.

How does this affect other Android users? With a positive ruling on this one patent, Apple could take the precedent and use it against other Android partners. The company already has ongoing litigation with Samsung Electronics and Motorola Mobility, so what's another patent?

But until any more rulings are made, Samsung, Motorola, and other non-HTC Android devices are safe for now.

Google, meanwhile, could also work on its own technical workaround, which could come in an update of its Android operating system. A successful implementation of the workaround--which would ideally come out before the April 19 deadline--would mean no disruption to any Android users.

Does this mean an end to the patent litigation? Sadly, no. The limited scope of this ruling means this was more of a jab than an uppercut for Apple. HTC will keep on making its case in other courtrooms, as will the other Android players. The various companies are all racing to get that one decisive ruling that will force both sides to the table. So far, that hasn't come yet.

 

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