The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled Monday on the first definitive case of the smartphone patent wars, handing a narrow victory to Apple. The commission ruled that HTC devices that use “data tapping” technology in a specific way will be hit with an import ban starting April 19, 2012.

The technology, as outlined by patent expert Florian Mueller in his blog, allows devices to look at phone numbers in unstructured data formats such as e-mail and allows other applications — such as a dialer app — to process that kind of data. The ban applies only to devices that use the technology and, Mueller said, if Google and HTC can create a workaround in the Android system, the ban won’t apply to any HTC devices.

“If Google can implement this popular feature, which users of modern-day smartphones really expect, without infringing on the two patent claims found infringed, this import ban won’t have any effect whatsoever,” Mueller said.

In an earlier interview with The Washington Post, Mueller said the main question going into the hearing was whether the commission would uphold the rulings of an earlier judge.

If Apple can claim more small wins like the “data tapping” patent, Mueller said in his post, it could advance its case against Android feature by feature.

In response to the ruling, Apple reiterated its previous statement about the case, saying, “We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”

In a statement, HTC General Counsel Grace Lei said that the company is “gratified” that the ITC upheld part of a previous decision finding no infringement on Apple patents and that it reversed a ruling on a patent that an administrative law judge said had been infringed upon.

The company will remove the infringing functionality “from all of our phones soon,” it said.

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