Patent Win Will Boost Apple Fight Against Android

The partial legal victory that Apple won Monday against HTC won't affect either company's short-term sales but could play an important part in Apple's long-range attempt to stymie Android's march, an expert said Tuesday.

On Monday, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled in favor of Apple in a 20-month case against Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC and its Android-based devices. Apple had accused HTC of violating a total of 10 of its patents, and sought an outright ban on U.S. sales of the rival's devices.

Yesterday, the ITC said that, starting April 19, 2012, HTC will be barred from importing phones that violate one of the 10 patents. The patent relates to "data tapping," technology that lets a user tap, say, an address or a phone number in an email address to pull up a map in another app or dial that number.

But analysts believe that the ban won't immediately change the dynamics of the U.S. smartphone market.

"We expect this ITC ruling will be appealed and won't be material to Apple or HTC shipments in the U.S. through [the first half of 2012]," said Brian Marshall, an analyst with International Strategy & Investment Group (ISI), in an email today. Only in the longer term, Marshall added, would a ban have any impact on the iPhone's share of the U.S. market.

Florian Mueller, who writes the popular FOSS Patents blog, weighed in as well.

"This ruling falls far short of anything that would force HTC out of the U.S. market in the near term," Mueller wrote Monday .

But it seems unlikely that HTC will wait for the April deadline, saying today that it will strip the offending feature from its phones.

"The '647 patent is a small UI experience and HTC will completely remove it from all of our phones soon," said HTC general counsel Gracie Lie in a statement. An HTC spokesperson declined to identify which of its smartphones violate the '647 patent, the one the ITC ruled the company infringed.

HTC also claimed victory in the ruling.

"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," said Lie, referring to other patents that Apple had claimed HTC violated.

The '263 patent was one of two an ITC judge said HTC had violated in an initial ruling last summer . The Monday decision by the ITC tossed out that patent, related to real-time signal processing. According to Mueller, the '263 patent would have been a much more potent weapon in Apple's hands than the '647 case it won.

In Apple's long game however, even the '647 patent ruling may be important.

"This gives Apple increased confidence in its strategy in the courts, that Android phones infringe on its intellectual property," said Marshall in an interview today. "I think we'll see them going on the offensive and getting more aggressive."

Marshall believes the victory, even though it's small, could lead to a stronger position for Apple in its other cases against Android vendors.

Apple is embroiled in lawsuits, countersuits, and ITC complaints with a host of Android smartphone makers, including HTC, Samsung and Motorola.

Mueller agreed that the win before the ITC, while small potatoes in the short term, could mean more down the road. "Apple has made some progress," said Mueller. "It's a starting point. "[Apple] now has one patent that it can also assert against other Android device makers."

But he also cautioned that minor victories like this won't be enough.

"Apple needs to find several more patents of [this] kind or, alternatively, one or two fundamental patents for which there's no viable workaround in order to really have competitive impact with its many litigations targeting Android," said Mueller.

Apple isn't interested in striking financial settlements with its Android competitors, said Marshall, who noted that with nearly $80 billion in cash, Apple has no motivation to make a deal involving money.

"Apple doesn't want the cash, it wants to stop the shipment or sale of Android products it believes create an unfair playing field," said Marshall. "And with this ruling, it's starting to look much more favorable for Apple."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

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