Qualcomm says it has scored an important victory in its long-running global patent battle with Apple over patent rights. According to Qualcomm, a Chinese court ruled that several recent iPhone models infringe multiple Qualcomm software patents and has ordered a nationwide ban on iPhone sales. Apple says it has already appealed the ruling.
The ruling occurred on November 30, but Qualcomm announced the ruling today.
Apple has downplayed the ruling’s significance, telling media outlets that the ban has not yet taken effect and that it only applies to older versions of iOS software, not to the current version, iOS 12. The ruling also only applies to older iPhone models—including the iPhone 8 and iPhone X—but not to the iPhone XS and XR.
In a statement to Ars, Qualcomm disputed Apple’s claims.
“The preliminary injunction orders are effective now,” Qualcomm general counsel Don Rosenberg said. “The orders aren’t specific to the operating system installed on the phones.”
He said that if Apple ignored the ban, Qualcomm would ask the Chinese courts to force Apple to comply.
So is Apple really facing an imminent iPhone ban? It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here because we don’t have a copy of the ruling. Qualcomm says the Chinese court has banned the company from sharing it.
But one reason Apple and Qualcomm have conflicting interpretations of the ruling seems to be the slow pace of the legal process.
Qualcomm filed its lawsuit in late 2017, and it focused on the phones and software Apple was selling at the time: iOS 11, and phone models from the iPhone 6S through the iPhone X. The iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and iOS 12 weren’t on the market yet, so Qualcomm didn’t include them in its lawsuit.
The wheels of justice turn slowly
By the time the Fuzhou Intermediate People’s Court issued its ruling, Apple had released those new products. The ruling focused on the products named in Qualcomm’s lawsuit.
The big question, then, is whether Qualcomm can convince the same Chinese court to quickly extend its ban to the latest Apple hardware and software.
Theoretically, Apple could redesign its software to avoid infringing the patents. But Qualcomm’s description makes the patents sound fairly broad, which could make that tricky. According to Qualcomm, “the patents enable consumers to adjust and reformat the size and appearance of photographs and to manage applications using a touch screen when viewing, navigating, and dismissing applications on their phones.”
Qualcomm has long been an important supplier of wireless chips for the iPhone, but in recent years the companies have been locked in a bitter, escalating feud. Early last year, Apple sued Qualcomm in the United States and in China, accusing the company of extortion and anticompetitive conduct in its negotiations over patent licensing.
Apple has increasingly worked with other chipmakers, including Intel, to lessen its dependence on Qualcomm. In September, Qualcomm sued Apple, accusing Apple of sharing details about Qualcomm’s modem chip designs with Intel.