Apple has long been trying to woo the Chinese market, its second-largest after the US, even going as far as making compromises it would not even consider doing for any other region. Given the tensions between the US and Chinese governments, however, the Cupertino-based company might feel like it’s walking on eggshells. It doesn’t help that it is constantly bombarded with lawsuits, the most recent of which could see it not only pay billions of dollars to the plaintiff but also temporarily halt the sales of almost all its devices in China.
All this legal fuss revolves around Siri, Apple’s digital assistant that is now on almost all of its products, from iPhones to iPads to Apple Watches to Macs to Apple TVs and even to iPod Touches. It isn’t the only digital assistant in town, of course, especially in China. And as of June this year, China’s supreme court ruled that local company Shanghai Zhizhen owns the patent for a virtual assistant in China, something that it and Apple have been fighting over in court since 2013.
Now Shanghai Zhizhen is suing Apple, alleging that the US company’s Siri infringes on this newly-awarded patent. Not only is it asking for around $1.43 billion in damages, it also wants Apple to stop selling products that use Siri, which is pretty much all of its products sold in China outside of accessories. If Shanghai Zhizhen also applies for a preliminary injunction, Apple could be forced to stop selling those immediately during the length of the trial, which could also take years.
Despite is efforts to appease the Chinese government and attract Chinese consumers, Apple hasn’t had a winning streak when it comes to lawsuits. Twice it decided to settle trademark disputes over its iPad and iPhone names. That may have emboldened Shanghai Zhizhen to make an even more aggressive attempt at squeezing a hefty sum out of Apple.
That said, it isn’t a solid win for Shanghai Zhizhen either. Not only is such a preliminary injunction rarely given, the court might find that its Xiao-i AI assistant and Apple’s Siri are different enough to have no infringing patents involved. Then again, the conflict between the two world powers, not to mention the US’ campaign against Huawei and now TikTok, could bias the case against Apple.