Enlarge / iPhones are seen at an Apple Store in Tianjin, China.
Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

Apple’s patent battle with Qualcomm in China has intensified this week, with Qualcomm seeking a broader ban and Apple claiming it has a workaround to avoid Qualcomm’s patents.

On Monday, Qualcomm announced that a Chinese court had banned the sale of most iPhone models. However, Apple’s newest models, the iPhone XS and XR, were not covered by the ban because they had not yet been introduced when Qualcomm filed its lawsuit late last year.

Qualcomm remedied that oversight this week, asking the same Chinese court to ban sales of the XS and XR.

But Apple isn’t ready to capitulate to Qualcomm’s demands. The company claims that the ruling is specific to an earlier version of iOS, iOS 11. Apple claims that the current version, iOS 12, doesn’t infringe Qualcomm’s patents—though Qualcomm denies this. The iPhone models mentioned in the ban continue to be available for purchase in China.

Apple has asked a Chinese court to reconsider the ban. And on Friday, Apple told Reuters it would push out a software update to work around Qualcomm’s patents, clearing the way for Apple to continue selling all iPhone models in China. Apple claims that Qualcomm’s patents cover “minor functionality” of the iPhone operating system.

Qualcomm is unlikely to accept this, of course. And the inherent vagueness of software patents means that it may not be easy to figure out who is right. Qualcomm has not provided us with details of the specific patents Apple has infringed, but software patents often cover broad, vaguely worded concepts, leaving it open to interpretation which software might infringe them. That vagueness can lead to the kinds of standoffs and confusion we’re seeing in China right now.

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