Apple beats HTC/Android in iPhone UI ITC skirmish

By Jonny Evans

Apple [AAPL] has won an anti-Android victory at home in the US, with HTC required to remove some of its handsets from sale because they used ideas patented within the iPhone.

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How people use their phones

As victories go, this one seems pretty muted: According to the US International Trade Commission (ITC), HTC will be required to withdraw a small number of handsets from sale in the US by April, or be required to stop using a specific interface feature.

The ITC decision relates to HTC devices that link data in documents such as an email to other apps -- so the action of tapping a phone number to raise that number in the device's dialer app would be considered in breach of the Apple patent.

Somewhat sourly, HTC says it plans to remove this feature in future phones. An Apple spokeswoman said "Competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

It's the software, stupid

The victory lends weight to Apple's arguments that some user interface features within Android are at least imitative of those found in Apple's iPhone. Some analysts now predict a global settlement between HTC and Apple will be the next likely outcome to the current wave of litigation between these and other companies. It isn't clear how it will impact Apple's other litigations.

It is interesting to note how Apple is focusing on the user interface in its battles.

The analysis must be that in order to consolidate its unique position within the smartphone industry, Apple must protect its user interfaces while continuing to innovate these, and ensuring these become interfaces people like to use more than anybody else's solution.

The logic is that as the smartphone industry becomes ever more competitive, it will be software and not hardware which separate the good from the bad. "After all," Apple's mandarins may wonder, "Everyone's components come from more or less the same places, so we can't compete on features as those are too easily imitated, but we can deliver a compelling user interface, and fight hard to ensure competitors cannot imitate that UI. They can make their own."

A truism that crops up from time-to-time among Apple watchers is recognition that it is a software company, despite all the hardware it sells.

At root, all its hardware is tied together by superb design that implicitly marries the software-led user experience. From the Mac to the iPod to the iPhone and the iPad beyond, the user interface is critical to the user's enjoyment of their product.

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Apple is a software company

Apple is very good at user interfaces. This is why it scores highly in a variety of customer experience and satisfaction polls. No surprise then that recent Changewave data revealed industry-crunching iPhone 4S satisfaction levels with software components -- Siri and "ease of use" seen as the two best things about the device.

The latest victory against HTC will give Apple a little more leverage when it comes to defending its software-led iDevice crowns.

Given the increasing levels of litigation in the smartphone industry and with the iPhone 5 and iPad 3 set to grab huge attention in 2012, the iOS team must be under enormous pressure to ensure all the UI components within iOS are properly licensed.

Equally, the Android teams should also accept that some of their work has been imitative. Rather than complaining that they willingly chose to play in what is becoming the world's most competitive market, they should take out proper technology-sharing licenses and make an attempt to formulate proper smartphone solutions for consumers.

It is not enough for Google to define its Android OS only as a cheap Apple alternative. It should define its own unique experience in the same way Apple seeks to define its offering.

(With the possible exception of Notifications in iOS, which did indeed follow the introduction of these within Android, but, in my opinion, did it better.)

At some point innovation will require new levels of cooperation between all industry players. Otherwise all parties will become frustrated at the lack of opportunity to innovate. Technology sharing, rather than tech litigation, will eventually become the norm.

I believe that this phase won't be achieved until we experience further consolidation in the mobile industry, with smaller players eaten up by their larger competitors. RIM, HTC, and soon Nokia, will all be on the takeover list, in my opinion.

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[BELOW: A propos of unrelenting legal drama, here's two blokes fighting a duel on bicycles.]

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