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Tim Cook: too practical for Steve Jobs’ “thermonuclear” war?

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The abrupt settlement of all outstanding patent violation charges between Apple(s AAPL) and HTC means that the companies won’t be sparring over patents in court again for at least 10 years. The puzzling question is why Apple would agree to such a deal when it had won so decisively in its legal battle over similar issues with Samsung? There are probably dozens of legal theories as to why it took the easy way out now. But perhaps the answer is simple: it’s just not CEO Tim Cook’s style.

The news hit late Saturday night in the form of a joint press release between the two companies. Cook was quoted saying, “We are glad to have reached a settlement with HTC. We will continue to stay laser focused on product innovation.”

Now, that’s just a press release statement, but you can almost hear an audible sign of relief from Cook. After all, this was the same man who has several times in public said he’s prefer not to be waging these protracted legal wars since it distracts from what he’s trying to do at Apple. Cook’s a pretty focused guy, and he’s done a lot of work to keep Apple moving forward since he took over the company over a year ago.

He’s been very clear that Apple wants other companies “to invent their own stuff.” But at what cost was he willing to enforce this? This past spring, before the historic Samsung verdict, Cook talked about the multiple patent wars his company was engaged in, describing them as “overhead.” “It’s overhead that I wish didn’t exist. If we could find a way to settle this…,” he said at the time.

Cook thought about these patent suits far differently than did his predecessor. Steve Jobs wanted to “destroy” Android(s GOOG) and Google, for what he saw as stealing his mobile operating system. Jobs threatened to spend “every last penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank to right this wrong,” he told his biographer. He was emotional and wanted revenge. Cook, unsurprisingly, given his background as a business operations guy, probably didn’t see this as a sound, long-term investment strategy. Rather, he saw these lawsuits in terms of numbers: the time, work hours, publicity and, above all, money it has been costing Apple to wage these wars.

Cook doesn’t strike me as the crusader type, looking to punish people or companies he feels have slighted him or Apple at any cost. That was Jobs’ thing. Cook has shown himself to be extremely alert to public perception of Apple, and he makes a lot of moves intended to guard Apple’s legacy and keep it moving forward. As Cook has been busy taking over Apple, he has shown us that he’s not afraid to make big changes in order to set Apple on the correct course. We saw it with Apple paying a dividend starting earlier this year; we saw it with Cook’s relative transparency on the Chinese labor issues; and most memorably in Cook’s dismissal of Scott Forstall last month.

Apple could very likely afford to keep up the HTC patent battle, in addition to the Motorola one that’s still going — it has plenty of money (more than $100 billion in cash now), lawyers and publicity capital. But perhaps Cook, always the guy with the spreadsheet, decided those numbers no longer added up.

Image courtesy of Flickr user ereneta

17 Responses to “Tim Cook: too practical for Steve Jobs’ “thermonuclear” war?”

  1. Nick Murphy

    Has the author forgotten that Steve Jobs’s Apple signed a cross-patent licensing agreement with Bill Gates’s Microsoft?

    Tim Cook’s actions do not diverge from Steve Job’s historical actions in this case.

  2. Terrence Martineau

    3 points…
    1) HTC and Samsung were the only companies previously make profit from android devices… but HTC like Moto, Sony, LG etc, etch is not making any money and has no signs of profitability in sight either..

    2) A stronger HTC means a weaker Samsung
    3) the fact that HTC was willing to pay to license Apple’s patents give them legitimacy in future court cases… like the one with Motorola coming up… and gives a market value for those patents…

  3. HTC sustained a infringement case against Apple back in September….it had something to negotiate with. Apple is losing more of these cases than they are winning. They are getting hurt in court….and they are getting hurt public relations wise. Time for Apple to tack in a different direction. Maybe Cook has figured that out….or the Board of Directors has figured that out.

  4. Michael W. Perry

    Bravo Tim Cook. I get ticked off at all these patent/UI/look-and-feel wars every time I use a Windows computer and have to fuss with all the petty differences introduced by Microsoft lawyers thanks to Apple’s earlier lawsuit.

    Better than fighting would be to simply exchange a little, per-device, money over each useful feature. Samsung would pay Apple for one feature. Apple would pay Samsung for another. In the end, all those payment are likely to equalize and the consumer would benefit from not having a host of confusing but trivial differences between various smartphones and tablets.

    For a comparison, imagine a world in which the early automakers had locked down various design elements. One owned round steering wheels. Another had a patent on a gas petal and still another on the pedals for gas and brakes. Even a curved windshield (as opposed to flat) was tied down.

    Worst of all, one company has convinced the USPTO to give it a design patent on vehicles with four wheels at the four corners of the vehicle. Imaging the things other companies would have to go through to avoid violating that.

    The high-tech industry needs to acquire a bit of sense and fire most of their lawyers.

  5. Double edged sword. Steve Jobs was the life machine for Apple. He was Apple and Apple followed him. He may have wanted to spend every bit of Apple’s money to kill Android, but he was also the one that made the money Apple has at their dispense to use in litigation combat . In my opinion, Tim Cook has been riding on Steve’s residual product success. While trying to change the portion of Apple’s negative image, he is also changing the exact direction that Steve and Apple used to catapult it to stardom.

    I don’t want to sound cynical, but I find it odd Apple is playing nice with HTC. I sense Apple is up to no good.

  6. Could it be as simple as HTC is no longer a threat. Apple offered HTC the same deal/rate as they offered Samsung – and seeing what happened to Samsung in court – HTC took the offer?

    Naw, it couldn’t be.