A bit over a year ago, Qualcomm started the process of suing Apple at the US International Trade Commission (ITC) over alleged patent infringement. At the time, Apple was accused of violating six Qualcomm patents, ranging from power-saving technology to processor design. And while the case is far from over, according to Reuters the ITC has delivered its initial determination, finding that Apple has violated one of the six patents. Importantly, however, the ITC has also ruled that they will not be imposing an import ban, as Qualcomm originally requested.

All told, Apple stands accused of violating multiple Qualcomm patents due to a complex intermix regarding the use of Intel modems in their phones. Qualcomm’s case does not directly accuse the Intel modems of being infringing, but does claim that the resulting implementation in Apple’s phones violates those patents. Apple in turn pays royalties relating to these patents for phones using Qualcomm’s modems, but not on phones using the Intel modems.

This latest development comes as the ITC has slowly whittled the case down over the past year. While Qualcomm’s complaints originally involved six patents, earlier this year half of the patent claims were removed from the case, leaving just three patents.

The ITC, in turn, has ruled today as part of its initial determination that Apple has indeed violated a Qualcomm patent, albeit just one of those remaining patents – what Reuters calls “related to power management technology”. We’re waiting on the ITC to publish the formal decision in order to confirm which specific patent it was, as all three remaining patents are related to power efficiency.

Update: The US ITC has since published the Initial Determination. Apple has been found to infringe on claim 31 of the '490 patent. This claim covers "wherein the modem processor is further configured pull data from the application processor after transmission of the modem processor to application processor data and before the interconnectivity bus transitions from an active power state to a low power state."

Qualcomm's Patents Allegedly Infringed by Apple
U.S. Patent No.
(Year of Issue)
Name Abstract Description Qualcomm's Description
Programmable streaming processor with mixed precision instruction execution. Relates to a programmable streaming processor that is capable of executing mixed-precision (e.g., full-precision, half-precision) instructions using different execution units. Enables high performance and rich visual
graphics for games while increasing a mobile
device’s battery life.
Low-voltage power-efficient envelope tracker. Techniques for generating a power supply for an amplifier and/or other circuits. Extends battery life by building intelligence into
the system so the antenna is always using just
the right amount of battery power to transmit,
whether it be video, text, or voice.
Compact and robust level shifter layout design. The field of invention relates to a semiconductor device and methods of manufacturing a semiconductor device handling a plurality of voltage, specifically multi-voltage circuits for shifting the voltage level between voltage domains. Maximizes smartphone performance while
extending battery life by connecting high
voltage circuits and low voltage circuits with
efficient interfaces.
Direct scatter loading of executable software image from a primary processor to one or more secondary processor in a multi-processor system. In a multi-processor system, an executable software image including an image header and a segmented data image is scatter loaded from a first processor to a second processor. Enables “flashless boot” which allows your
smartphone to connect to the internet quickly
after being powered on, while extending battery
life and reducing memory size.
Power saving techniques in computing devices. As the name implies. Enables the applications on your smartphone to
get their data to and from the internet quickly
and efficiently by acting as a smart “traffic cop”
between the apps processor and the modem.
Power tracker for multiple transmit signals sent simultaneously. Techniques for generating a power tracking supply voltage for a circuit (e.g., a power amplifier). The circuit may process multiple transmit signals being sent simultaneously on multiple carriers at different frequencies. Enables a mobile device to send high-speed data
such as live video from your phone by combining
many lanes of traffic into a data super-highway
while prolonging battery life.

Notably however, this initial determination is not final, as it's part of the longer trial process for the ITC. The case will next go in front of the entire commission, who will be reviewing the findings. The commission, in turn, can either agree with the findings or send it back for further review, so the case is far from closed. However for the moment, having avoided an import ban, this is essentially a win for Apple, and both they and Qualcomm (and Intel) are treating it as such.

The initial determination in this case comes as Apple has begun phasing out Qualcomm modems entirely. The latest iPhone XS models are powered solely by the Intel modems, which for Qualcomm makes the issue all the more important as Apple will be importing an ever-larger number of potentially infringing phones.

Ultimately the current case will likely be resolved in 2019, assuming that there are no appeals. The ITC has set January 28th, 2019 as the target date to complete the investigation.

Source: Reuters

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  • osxandwindows - Friday, September 28, 2018 - link

    Seems like QC is having a bad time.
    They failed to provide evidence when asked for some of their claims.
  • HStewart - Sunday, September 30, 2018 - link

    I believe the problem is that patents are becoming to generic which is good for the patent lawyers but bad for the companies making products.

    Qualcomm desires to have a monopoly in telecommunications market and Apple does not want to go along with that. No one Qualcomm latest generation mobile chips have modems integrated into it.
  • rrinker - Tuesday, October 2, 2018 - link

    Seriously - one of the ones that got struck is for a freaking level shifter - those are a dime a dozen from any number of vendors because they are so needed in these days of multiple voltage logic it isn't funny. How else does your 1.1V CPU take to 3.3V peripherals or even 5V peripherals. And the antenna power one - well seeing as how it is absolutely IMPERATIVE for Qualcomm's abortion called CDMA.... really, ask a cellular engineer. The biggest joke played on the tech industry was Qualcomm's huge overselling of the capabilities of CDMA. It sounded great, but it was all on paper, in real life it NEVER was able to reach even a fraction of what Qualcomm claimed. They need to disappear for the benefit of the whole industry.
  • V900 - Friday, September 28, 2018 - link

    Well that kinda sucks for Qualcomm.

    An import ban would have been the only verdict that Apple (and other patent violators) would have respect for.

    Never underestimate the kind of influence that a company of Apples size can wield.

    Thats why all these courts and commissions ultimately are irrelevant. The violators skate by, if they're big and rich enough, while smaller companies and individual inventors get shafted.
  • verl - Saturday, September 29, 2018 - link

    Only other way would be a very hefty fine. Intel's penalty in the AMD vs Intel case was nowhere near enough (fined/payed out a total of around 2.7 billion in a year where their revenue was at least 10x that).
  • Dragonstongue - Sunday, September 30, 2018 - link

    they never actually paid it from my understanding, it was easier just to invest this money and wait to get told you have until X day or the amount will be tripled...was 1.2 Bln, not 2.7, either way is still WAY less then should have been

    In November 2009, Intel agreed to pay AMD $1.25 billion as part of a deal to settle all outstanding legal disputes between the two companies.
    additional 6.5 Mln separate case but tied to it, and later one additional $10 Mln for "misled customer fund"

    Either way, even though AMD could "not" produce the sheer amount of chips that they would have needed to produce had Intel not done anything to stop them from being sold with "buddy buddy deals" likely would have been in the 10s of billions per year for many many years, so that paltry under 1.3 Bln means jack crap.
  • verl - Sunday, September 30, 2018 - link

    Reason why I said a total was because of the EU fine as well.
  • Peskarik - Saturday, September 29, 2018 - link

    Apple has too much influence and is in too many portfolios of too many pension and hedge funds. Doing anything that would hurt it would be career-ending. Maybe EU could do something like that, but not anyone inside US.
    Look at Apple fanboys, they queue for days/weeks to spend 2 grand on a phone with no tangible improvements (not to count the improved face recognition and other tracking apps) and crap reception. Who else has this kind of influence on the weak-minded?
  • RBFL - Saturday, September 29, 2018 - link

    My guess is that there are multiple infringements on pretty much every phone given the range of IP deployed and the complexity of the devices. That is why companies cross license.

    Finding an infringement is quite hard and the number of junk patents out there make it even harder. In this case QC may have a stronger case as Apple do license this patent but probably in an abstract sense, i.e. if you buy QC you get the IP.

    IP protection is needed but patents often do not do a good job. However transitioning to a new system at this point is almost impossible. Some progress has been made on how to interpret them and competing evidence/prior art.
  • star-affinity - Saturday, September 29, 2018 - link

    How do you know the majority that's queuing up is having the phone from last year? Maybe the didn't get a new phone for several years and thus the upgrade will be more than tangible.

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