A man walks past a billboard displaying a handset of Taiwan smartphone maker… (Patrick Lin, AFP/Getty…)
Apple Inc. has persuaded federal authorities to ban U.S. sales of some Google-powered Android phones that unlawfully use iPhone-like features.
But don't expect the more than 500 varieties of Android smartphones and tablets to disappear from shelves any time soon.
The ruling Monday from the U.S. International Trade Commission was one of the more anticipated developments in Apple's global legal battle with major Android manufacturers such as Samsung Electronics, Motorola Mobility and HTC Corp.
In dozens of lawsuits around the world, Apple is determined to prevent rivals from selling phones that it has said "slavishly" copied features from its blockbuster iPhone. The suits cover many of the sophisticated technologies that make a phone function, including crucial mechanisms that control how devices send and receive data as well as simpler software features that display smiley-face emoticons on the screen.
This time around, some legal observers said Apple's victory covered a technology that was closer to the smiley-face side of the spectrum.
The trade commission ruled that Taiwanese phone maker HTC was infringing a single 15-year-old Apple patent that governs the way phone numbers and addresses are displayed in email messages. On the iPhone and some Android devices, when an email contains a phone number you can tap the number to automatically initiate a call.
"I don't see this is a big deal," said Bijal V. Vakil, an intellectual property attorney at White & Case. "It's going to make Apple feel better," he said, but "it's just one independent case."
HTC also expressed a lack of concern about the ruling, saying that the email feature was a small part of the user experience and that it would remove the function from its phones by the trade commission's deadline in April.
Though the iPhone is Apple's most popular and profitable product, the company has watched as Google-powered phones have rapidly taken over the smartphone market, doubling to nearly 53% of devices sold during the last quarter from about 25% a year earlier, according to research firm Gartner Inc. The iPhone has held steady at about 15% of phones sold each quarter.
The trade commission case involved 10 patents, but officials granted Apple a victory on only one.
Observers agreed that Apple missed a chance to land a knockdown blow against Android rivals when commission officials rejected its claim on a broader patent controlling the way that smartphones process and transmit data, a fundamental process in mobile phones. The ability to bar competitors from using that technology could have meant major limitations for Android handsets — and second thoughts for potential buyers.
Florian Mueller, a patent specialist and consultant who has been following the disputes closely, said if Apple had prevailed on the broader data-processing patent, HTC's phone redesign "would be like having to take an entire floor out of your house and completely replace it — that would be hard to do without the house crashing down."
But the minor email patent that Apple won, he said, extending the home improvement analogy, "is more like if you just had to replace your TV."
Still, many lawsuits remain, Mueller noted, including several in Germany and the U.S. that are likely to advance in January. And it won't take many victories for Apple, he said, before Android phones begin to shed enough features to look watered down.
"It's not like you can win on a single patent like this and force people out of the market," Mueller said. "But with a whole team of such patents, certainly that could be meaningful from a competitive point of view."