Mandatory Credit: Photo by ARMANDO BABANI/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9774785a) (FILE) - A silhouette next to an Apple during the sale start of the new iPhone X at the Apple store Grosse Bockenheimer Strasse in Frankfurt, Germany, 03 October 2017 (reissued 31 August 2018). Apple is to release their third-quarter 2018 results on 31 August 2018. Apple results, Frankfurt, Germany - 03 Nov 2017

Apple has taken the unusual step of making changes to its iPhone software only for its users in Germany, in the hope of heading off a legal challenge from the chipmaker Qualcomm.

The tweak to an iOS search feature could neuter the effect of a legal ruling in Munich expected on Thursday, even if the German regional court agrees with Qualcomm that Apple infringed one of its patents. 

Apple has introduced plenty of iPhone features that are designed to appeal to users in a particular country, such as blocking spam calls in China. However, changes made in response to legal threats are rare. It has issued only a handful of such software updates in the past several years. 

Such country-by-country fragmentation of iOS might become less unusual as its increasingly bitter litigation with Qualcomm progresses, following another patent case that went against Apple last week in China

Apple has claimed that Qualcomm overcharged for its intellectual property, while the US Federal Trade Commission has also accused the San Diego-based chipmaker of anti-competitive behaviour. The two cases threaten to reset the value of Qualcomm’s highly profitable patent portfolio, a factor that has weighed heavily on its share price for almost two years. 

In response, Qualcomm has sought leverage for a potential legal settlement by accusing Apple of patent infringement in dozens of cases around the world, in addition to allegations of breach of contract and stealing trade secrets

Last week Qualcomm claimed its first significant win in that campaign when a court in Fuzhou, China, issued a preliminary injunction against Apple for violating two of the chipmaker’s patents with several older iPhone models. 

Apple has insisted that it can keep selling those iPhones in China without breaking the terms of the injunction, but it nonetheless moved to design around the offending features, which relate to photo manipulation and using apps on a touchscreen. 

Apple said last week that it would issue a software update “for iPhone users in China addressing the minor functionality of the two patents at issue in the case”. 

The situation could play out differently in Munich because Apple has already pre-empted any similar injunction that the regional court could issue. 

Apple issued its software update to German iPhone models earlier this year. The change affects how users search their contacts book from the iPhone’s home screen, using a feature called Spotlight. 

The modification was so subtle that it passed largely unnoticed by users. 

The Munich court is favoured by patent litigants because it has the power to issue an injunction more quickly than in other venues. 

Qualcomm is asserting several patents in Germany, including four related to iOS search, contacts and shortcuts in Spotlight. Other Qualcomm patents at issue in the case relate to power management, which will be more difficult for Apple to design around if it is found to infringe because they relate to iPhone hardware.

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