Apple's HTC patent suit: Can it derail Google's Android devices?

Summary:Updated: Apple said Tuesday that it is suing HTC for infringing on 20 patents related to the iPhone and pursuing a permanent cease and desist order that could derail a wide range of Android devices.Specifically, Apple is suing HTC in a Delaware district court and the U.

Updated: Apple said Tuesday that it is suing HTC for infringing on 20 patents related to the iPhone and pursuing a permanent cease and desist order that could derail a wide range of Android devices.

Specifically, Apple is suing HTC in a Delaware district court and the U.S. International Trade Commission for violating patents related to "the iPhone's user interface, underlying architecture and hardware." Apple didn't detail the specific patents involved.

In a statement, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said:

"We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it. We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

Funny that's what everyone in the smartphone food chain says. The ITC is going to be quite busy evaluating all the patent lawsuits against various mobile phone players.

HTC wasn't commenting until it reviewed the complaint.

Also see: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' take and court documents (PDF).

For those keeping score at home, here's the ITC's plate:

The big question is whether Apple's first serve against HTC will escalate into a bevy of countersuits like the Nokia patent war has. It's unclear that HTC has the history or intellectual property to countersue Apple into a cross-licensing pact. Apple signaled that it wouldn't let competitors run off with its intellectual property a little more than a year ago and hasn't disappointed.

Apple vs. Android

It's hard not to take Apple's HTC suit as an indirect shot against Google. HTC is a big partner of Google and is launching an army of Android devices that are clearly aimed at the iPhone. Bottom line: Google's Android encroachment is the biggest threat to the iPhone and a patent suit could be a nice way to distract HTC. Would it be surprising if Apple also sued Motorola too?

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Indeed, Apple's complaint mentioned Android just as much as it does HTC. Devices targeted by Apple include HTC's Nexus One, Dream, Magic, Droid Eris and Google G1 among others.

Should Apple be successful it could derail the marketing and importation of many Android devices in the U.S.

In a footnote to its complaint, Apple said:

The categories listed are a shorthand summary of products currently accused of infringement by complainants. These descriptions, and the examples given therein, are not intended to exclusively define or otherwise limited the categories of accused products. Respondents have announced their intention to release additional products in the future that will infringe the asserted patents.

Then as an example Apple mentions that HTC will sell the HD2 in early 2010.

It's also notable that Apple hasn't sued Google directly. By going after device makers individually Apple could hamper the hardware partners that Google needs to bring Android to a bevy of devices.

A look at the patents

Apple's suit involves a bevy of patents ranging from user interface features such as scrolling and scaling to touch screen methods to power consumption to graphics.

The laundry list:

  • ‘331 Patent, entitled “Time-Based, Non-Constant Translation Of User Interface Objects Between States”
  • ‘949 Patent, entitled “Touch Screen Device, Method, And Graphical User Interface For Determining Commands By Applying Heuristics”
  • ‘849 Patent, entitled “Unlocking A Device By Performing Gestures On An Unlock Image”
  • ‘381 Patent, entitled “List Scrolling And Document Translation, Scaling, And Rotation On A Touch-Screen Display”
  • ‘726 Patent, entitled “System And Method For Managing Power Conditions Within A Digital Camera Device”
  • ‘076 Patent, entitled “Automated Response To And Sensing Of User Activity In Portable Devices”
  • ‘105 Patent, entitled “GMSK Signal Processors For Improved Communications Capacity And Quality”
  • ‘453 Patent, entitled “Conserving Power By Reducing Voltage Supplied To An Instruction-Processing Portion Of A Processor”
  • ‘599 Patent, entitled “Object-Oriented Graphic System”
  • ‘354 Patent, entitled “Object-Oriented Event Notification System With Listener Registration Of Both Interests And Methods”

What to watch going forward

As we look ahead to the next chapter in this Apple-HTC spat the following questions pop out:
  • What other Android bandmates of Google will be targeted? Motorola seems like a potential target.
  • Will there be a chilling effect on the Android ecosystem?
  • Will the discovery process in the HTC patent suit reveal whether there's Apple code in Android? While HTC, a hardware company is being targeted, most of the named patents have a software component and could tie into Android.
  • Does HTC have the intellectual property portfolio to countersue Apple? Let's face it these patent suits usually turn out to bring both parties into a big co-licensing deal. Nokia, Motorola, Palm and others have the portfolios to countersue Apple. Does HTC, which was founded in 1997, have the history or patent portfolio to compete?

Topics: Smartphones, Apple, Google, Hardware, HTC, Mobility

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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