A patent dispute over an apparently minor technical trick - the ability to turn phone numbers and addresses into interactive links - may wind up preventing HTC from importing its phones to U.S. shores.
Apple ( AAPL ) brought its suit against the Taiwan-based smartphone manufacturer, which builds some of the most popular and advanced Google ( GOOG ) Android-based models available in North America , its biggest market. The patent infringement suit in the U.S International Trade Commission named the Nexus One, Droid Eris, myTouch and Hero, among others, but will now affect newer models like the Droid Incredible and the T-Mobile G2.
The ITC agreed with Apple that HTC had violated the former's '647 patent, though it affirmed the previous judge's ruling that HTC had not broken patents labeled '721 and '983. In addition, the ITC reversed a previous ruling on the '623 patent, so HTC chalked the whole battle up as a victory.
It could be a pyrrhic victory, however, as the HTC has to stop selling its phones in the U.S. by April 19. In order to get around the ban, it will have to redesign its UI - tech site Gizmodo suggested that it will probably rework the feature rather than remove it entirely, as clicking on phone numbers and addresses has become an integral part of most smartphone user experiences.
"We are very pleased with the determination and we respect it," the company wrot ein a press release. "However, the '647 patent is a small UI experience and HTC will completely remove it from all of our phones soon."
Apple, whose founder Steve Jobs famously declared that he wanted to "destroy Android" for copying (as he saw it) the iPhone, can take some gratification from the fact that it's thrown one of its biggest competitors on the back foot. Indeed, HTC passed Apple and fellow Android maker Samsung for total sales in the U.S. last quarter, and the delay could allow Apple to snatch back the crown.
There's still a long way to go in the great mobile manufacturer patent war, though. This graphic from Reuters neatly illustrates what a tangled mess the whole system has become, with pretty much every player suing each other.