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

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