Apple just won a patent case against HTC in the United States, and as a result, HTC’s Android phones–and possibly all Android phones–could get a tiny bit harder to use.
The patent deals with how Android phones scan text for phone numbers or e-mail addresses, and then perform an action when the user taps on the text. Apple had originally accused HTC of violating 20 patents last year, but this is the only one that HTC infringed on, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
With the decision, HTC will be banned from importing a handful of its Android 2.2 phones–AT&T’s Aria, Sprint’s Evo 4G, T-Mobile’s G2 and Verizon’s Droid Incredible–unless the company works around or removes the data markup feature. But as The Verge’s Nilay Patel points out, the ITC issued an exclusion order, which is broadly worded enough that Apple may go after other HTC phones or other Android phone makers.
HTC has suggested that it doesn’t have a workaround in place, saying in a statement that the patent is “a small UI experience and HTC will completely remove it from all of our phones soon.”
In other words, thanks to Apple’s patent win, some HTC Android handsets won’t be able to make phone calls by tapping on phone numbers that are written out in text in the web browser or other apps. Also, other Android phones may remove this functionality to avoid being sued by Apple. (Update: As dbolot1 points out in the comments, the ruling specifically applies to HTC phones running Android 1.6 through Android 2.2, leaving out most current phones. It’s not yet clear whether Apple will try to make a claim against other HTC phones or other Android handsets running Android 2.3 or higher.)
Is it a deal-breaking change for Android? No, and that’s what makes the decision so frustrating for Android users. Apple isn’t likely to sell any more iPhones because of this tiny feature, and HTC isn’t likely to sell any less. The spirit of patent law is to allow companies to innovate without their ideas being stolen, but the infringing feature in this case is so minor that the decision probably won’t benefit Apple in any significant way. Only the users suffer.