Whoa. Apple just won a potentially huge partial court victory against HTC that could force HTC to stop selling its Android phones in the US. The United States International Trade Commission ruled that HTC was infringing on a system level patent that affects HTC Android devices running Android 1.6 to 2.2.
The collection of devices in question is basically a who's who list of Android phones in the US: Droid Incredible, Evo 4G, T-Mobile G2, Nexus One and a bunch of older Android devices. The patent that the courts ruled HTC was infringing on (#5,946,647) could be a big one too. According to Fortune, who took a deep dive into the specific patent, it works like this:
"When an iPhone receives a message that contains a phone number or an address — e-mail, Web or street — those bits of data are automatically highlighted, underlined and turned into clickable links." [Data detectors Apple calls them]
"Click on the phone number, and the iPhone asks if you want to dial it. Click on the Web address, and it opens in Safari. Click on the street address, and Maps will display it."
That's potentially huge, not only because it's an important feature of modern smartphones, but because it could mean Apple could go on to attack other Android phone makers because it's the OS that's infringing the patent, not the hardware. However, if HTC Android phones removed that feature (unlikely) or implement it in a different way (which we expect HTC to do), they could steer themselves out of trouble. And that's pretty much what HTC expects to do. HTC, which has responded to this decision with a rather more cheery outlook (this is about spin between the two companies as much as anything else), reached out to us with this statement:
"This decision is a win for HTC and we are gratified that the commission affirmed the judge's 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. However, the ‘647 patent is a small UI experience and HTC will completely remove it from all of our phones soon."
HTC sees it as a win because it's only been brought up on one out of the 10 claimed patent infringements, so it's not like Apple won outright on all counts. The the patent in question is also a fixable problem, and although I'd hardly categorise the court's decision as a win for HTC, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. If HTC doesn't fix this issue however, the ban on HTC Android phones in the US is set to go into affect on April 19, 2012. That certainly wouldn't be winning.
There are still some real moves left for HTC to make to avoid the import ban (a Presidential veto is an option), but this is sure setting up for a major stateside war (thermonuclear, even) between Apple and Android phone makers, much like with what's happening with Apple and Samsung Tablets in Europe and Australia.
UPDATE: Post edited since publication