The United States International Trade Commission just ruled in favor of Apple in its case against HTC and banned the importation and sale of HTC Android devices including the Sprint Evo 4G, Verizon Droid Incredible, AT&T Aria, and T-Mobile G2. After a lengthy review, the Commission found that HTC devices infringe two claims of patent #5,946,647 — ultimately implicating the heart of Android itself and not HTC's specific implementation. The patent issued in 1999 and, in general terms, covers a device that scans computer text for data, like a phone number, and turns that number into a link that the user can then select to perform an act, like calling the number. The requirements and language of the patent claims are obviously more complicated, but that's a decent overview of what's covered. The ITC decision now goes to the desk of the president, who has 60 days to issue a rarely-used veto; the ban itself will go into effect on April 19, 2012 to provide HTC with a transition period, and HTC will be allowed to import refurbished products for warranty replacement purposes until December 19, 2013.
It's important to note that the ITC issued an exclusion order and not a cease and desist; HTC's current products already on US shelves will be unaffected. However, exclusion orders are generally broadly worded and aren't limited to any specific products — so we would expect Apple to use this ruling to go after all HTC phones running Android, from Android version 1.5 all the way up to and including version 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
It's a significant victory for Apple, especially since it can presumably now attack every other Android manufacturer with the same patent and its first favorable substantive ruling on the merits, but the ban may not ultimately have any real effect on consumers if HTC and Google can develop a patch that works around Apple's two specific claims. And indeed, that's what HTC is promising to do — here's the official statement we just received:
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. While disappointed that a finding of violation was still found on two claims of the ‘647 patent, we are well prepared for this decision, and our designers have created alternate solutions for the ‘647 patent.
Update: HTC just revised its statement on the case, saying that Apple's patent covers only a "small UI experience" and saying it will be completely removed from HTC phones "soon." We'll see how quickly that happens; any changes would have to first be deemed compatible with Android by Google and then approved and pushed to customers by HTC's carrier partners.
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. However, the ‘647 patent is a small UI experience and HTC will completely remove it from all of our phones soon.
For its part, Apple is just repeating its previous statements on the case:
We think competition is healthy but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.
We've asked for clarification on whether Apple will pursue further action against Android 2.3 and up; we'll let you know if we hear anything.