A federal agency ruled Monday that a set of important features commonly found in smartphones are protected by an Apple patent, a decision that could force changes in how Google's Android phones function.
The ruling, by the U.S. International Trade Commission, is one of the most significant so far in a growing array of closely watched patent battles being waged by nearly all of the major players in the mobile industry. These fights reflect the heated competition among the companies, especially as Android phones gain market share.
At the heart of the disputes are the kind of small but convenient features that would cause many people to complain if they were not in their smartphones. For example, the case decided Monday involves the technology that lets you tap your finger once on the touchscreen to call a phone number that is written inside an email or text message. It also involves the technology that allows you to schedule a calendar appointment, again with a single tap of the finger, for a date mentioned in an email.
HTC, the defendant in the case and a Taiwan-based mobile phone maker using the Android system, said after the ruling that it would adapt its features to comply with the court's decision. The company called them "small" parts of the user's experience.
The ruling was only a partial victory for Apple because the commission overruled an earlier decision in Apple's favor in the case, involving a more technical patent related to how software is organized internally on mobile devices. It would have been hard for HTC to adapt its devices to avoid infringing that patent, legal experts said.
The decision could potentially affect far more phones than those made by HTC because the underlying target of the suit is Google, creator of the Android system that now powers more than half of all smartphones sold worldwide. Apple is suing several other makers of Android devices, as is Microsoft, and companies that make Android products are returning the favor in most instances through countersuits.
"It's an important victory for Apple, but it's just one of many battles," said Alexander Poltorak, chief executive of the General Patent Corp., an intellectual property strategy firm.
The ruling by the six-member commission, which can take action against unfair trade practices by companies whose products are imported into the United States, will prevent HTC from selling phones in the United States that infringe the patent starting April 19.
To take effect, President Barack Obama's trade representative must sign the order. He could overrule the commission's finding, although such actions are rare. It also can be appealed.
The patent battles reflect the intense competition in the smartphone market. In the third quarter of 2011, phones running the Android system accounted for 52.5 percent of devices sold worldwide, up from 25.3 percent in the period of 2010. Apple's share of this market fell to 15 percent, from 16.6 percent, in the same period.
Apple's late chief executive, Steve Jobs, was outspoken in saying that Google had improperly copied many of the iPhone's innovations, telling his biographer that he was going to "destroy Android, because it's a stolen product."
After the ruling Monday, Kristin Huguet, an Apple spokeswoman, said, "We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."
A Google spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.