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Is Apple showing a kinder, gentler side toward Android?

Apple and HTC reached a licensing agreement over the weekend that brings a two-year patent dispute to an end, and possibly more importantly, suggests Apple may be softening its legal stance against Android. 

Apple aggressively pursued patent infringement allegations against HTC, Samsung and other Android device manufacturers for several years. However, following the death last year of former CEO Steve Jobs ? who famously had a personal vendetta against Android ? certain developments could suggest the new regime is less interested in using law suits to help it win on the mobile front.

?Regarding the HTC settlement, believe it or not ? and you?ll find many who will try to convince you otherwise - what you are seeing is the new, kinder, gentler Apple,? said Carl Howe, vice president of research and data sciences at Yankee Group, Boston.

?As long as Tim Cook has been CEO, Apple has been less interested in pursuing legal assaults against competitors, choosing increasingly to find ways to settle differences out of court,? he said.

?To my mind that says that Cook has been focusing more on winning in the market, not in court.?

A door opens
As evidence of Apple?s less aggressive legal front, Mr. Howe reports that Apple has instigated no new intellectual property law suits since Mr. Cook became CEO of Apple, with a few exceptions involving core technologies.

Additionally, almost all of the litigation going on currently was filed when Mr. Jobs was CEO or has been in response to other companies suing Apple first. Many of these cases do not concern Apple?s core technologies, which the company still intends to defend.

Cross-licensing activity has also increased, with companies such as Nokia and the Swiss Railroad Company.

Another reason why Apple may be stepping back a little on the IP legal front is because of growing concern among regulators around the world, who do not view the mobile patent wards favorably.

Still, the deal with HTC suggests that a door may have opened for Android manufacturers to strike a deal with Apple and avoid costly law suits when core technologies are not involved.

?It suggests to me that [Android manufacturers] now have opportunities to make many of these lawsuits go away; the open question is whether they will take advantage of the new kinder gentler Apple or keep fighting,? Mr. Howe said.

?Given their willingness to strike deals with Microsoft over technologies that one could argue Microsoft had no involvement in creating, I suspect they will settle these disputes,? he said.

Bigger fish to fry
On the other hand, HTC may be the only Android manufacturer Apple is open to dealing with since it is not as big a threat as some of the others, such as Samsung and Motorola.

In fact, it may be possible that Apple is simply releasing a smaller fish so it can go after bigger fish.

?It is really hard to say if Apple is softening its stance since HTC is not seen as significant a threat to Apple as other Android manufacturers,? said C. Graham Gerst, partner at Global IP Law Group LLC, Chicago.

?It very well could be that Apple is settling with one that it doesn?t consider a threat so that it can redouble its efforts against the others,? he said.

If Apple does continue to count on legal attacks as one strategy for competing in the mobile space, this could give HTC an opportunity to expand its market share now that it has a licensing agreement.

?If Apple continues to be aggressive in its patents suits, it will provide HTC an advantage because it no longer faces the risk of injunctions,? Mr. Gerst said.

Patent license
The 10-year licensing agreement between Apple and HTC was announced over the weekend and covers all current and future patents from both companies. Financial terms were not revealed.

The legal dispute between the two companies began in 2010 when Apple alleged that HTC violated 10 of its patents. HTC countered with claims that Apple has infringed five mobile-related patents.

It is not clear how beneficial the Apple, HTC licensing agreement is to either side since the terms of the settlement are confidential.

?Apple clearly held the upper hand in the patent case with both companies,? said Mr. Gerst.

?HTC?s patent portfolio is far less impressive than Apple?s in the mobile space,? he said. ?Apple also had far more success in enforcing its patents.

?In addition, Apple has been successful so far in the case against HTC while HTC has not had any major victories against Apple.?

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York