Apple wins initial patent ruling on HTC's Android phones

In an initial determination, an ITC judge has found that HTC's Android handsets infringe on two Apple patents, but HTC says it can work around the patents and will appeal

HTC's Android smartphones infringe on two Apple software patents, a judge with the US International Trade Commission has said in an initial determination.

The determination, made on Friday by ITC administrative law judge Carl Charneski, is not a final decision in the case, which has been running since March 2010. However, it does make it more likely that HTC — the largest Android phone maker and the most active Android developer after Google itself — will face a ban on selling such handsets in the US.

The Taiwanese company said on Saturday that it will appeal the ITC judge's initial determination, and that it has workarounds ready to let it continue making Android phones while avoiding infringement.

"We are highly confident we have a strong case for the ITC appeals process and are fully prepared to defend ourselves using all means possible," HTC's general counsel Grace Lei said in a statement. "We strongly believe we have alternate solutions in place for the issues raised by Apple. We look forward to resolving this case, so we can continue creating the most innovative mobile experiences for consumers."

Apple had originally accused HTC of violating 10 Apple patents, and the Taiwanese hardware maker retaliated a couple of months later with its own patent infringement claims. Apple also lodged a second, separate ITC complaint against HTC on 8 July.

'Linkify' function

The initial determination on Friday found patent infringement in Android's 'Linkify' function. This scans text messages and emails for web page links, email addresses and phone numbers, and lets users click on those pieces of highlighted text to open web pages or call or email people. Similarly, Linkify lets people click on street addresses to open up a relevant map.

It's possible that working around this patent requires a fundamental change to Android's architecture.

– Florian Mueller

All of this functionality is covered in Apple's patent number 5,946,647, filed in 1996 and covering a "system and method for performing an action on a structure in computer-generated data". The ITC judge found that HTC's Android devices violated claims 1, 8, 15 and 19 of that patent.

The other patent, number 6,343,263, was filed in 1994 and covers a "real-time signal processing system for serially transmitted data". Again, the judge found HTC to be infringing in four areas, specifically claims 1, 2, 24 and 29, of this patent.

While the '647 patent deals with a specific kind of functionality, the '263 patent describes something every smartphone does: use an API to negotiate between a cellular network, application or driver software, and the CPU. According to open-source patent expert Florian Mueller, this means Android faces a serious problem.

"It's possible that working around this patent requires a fundamental change to Android's architecture, and possibly even to the architecture of the underlying Linux kernel," Mueller wrote on his blog on Saturday.

Motorola, another big Android phone maker, has already asked the ITC to invalidate the '647 and '263 patents, along with 10 other Apple patents, on the basis of prior art.

Android is under attack on several fronts. Apart from the HTC case, Oracle is suing Google over Android's implementation of Java, and Microsoft is methodically collecting royalties from as many Android manufacturers as will pay up, over patents that are allegedly infringed upon in the mobile operating system.

Meanwhile, HTC has been expanding its own mobile technology patent portfolio at a furious pace. It bought 82 patents in April and earlier in July picked up graphics visualisation firm S3 Graphics from processor manufacturer Via. On 1 July, ITC administrative law judge E James Gildea made an initial determination finding Apple in violation of two S3 patents in its Mac and iOS products.

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