A few years ago, Apple made a very interesting decision to pursue sapphire screens for use in iPhones. The reason is that sapphire is virtually scratch proof and one of the hardest materials next to diamonds. They had struck a deal with CT Advanced in Arizona who had proven to them they had the type of furnaces that could melt this material so it could be used to create ultra-thin, scratch proof sheets that could be cut for use in iPhones.
But about 9 months before they were to deliver, the supplier ran into major difficulties in creating these sapphire screens, or surface covers as they are called in the industry, and the deal imploded. Thankfully for Apple, their current supplier of iPhone screens was Corning who had not stood still when it came to making their glass screens harder and more scratch proof than ones of the past. While not as scratch proof as sapphire, the newest version of Gorilla Glass at that time had become thinner with stronger materials than the last version and, in the end, Apple killed the sapphire project altogether and committed to using Corning’s Gorilla Glass for the iPhone. So did Samsung and many other vendors who to date use Gorilla Glass in most mid to high-end smartphones.
While sapphire is a very hard material and very scratch proof, there is one major problem with it that actually makes it questionable for use as a smartphone screen. While the surface is very scratch proof, it is much more breakable than Corning’s Gorilla Glass and even some soda lime glass that has special composites to make it tougher.
Even worse, if there is even the tiniest flaw in a sapphire screen, it becomes even more fragile when it comes to being dropped or accidentally hit by any solid surface or object.
At a special event in Palo Alto last week, Corning announced its newest version of Gorilla Glass 5, which is by far the thinnest as well as strongest glass screen they have ever made. When they were working on the specifications of Gorilla Glass 5, they studied one key issue that drove a critical part of its ultimate design. In the past, Gorilla Glass was created to withstand a drop from about the waist of most individuals. But in their research, they realized that, for a lot of people, they often lift it much higher when using it to take selfies or take photos. So, with that in mind, Gorilla Glass 5 is designed to withstand a drop of 1.6 meters (a little over five feet). They showed us a smartphone using Gorilla Glass 5 that had already been dropped around 20 times and dropped it again on a hard surface — it did not break. They showed other tests of Gorilla Glass 5 taking a direct hit from various objects and withstanding all without any breakage.
Gorilla Glass 5 is already shipping to vendors and will be in some smartphones by this fall. Corning’s commitment to creating even thinner glass with harder surfaces is significant. I believe Gorilla Glass 5 makes it unlikely a sapphire smartphone screen of any type will ever gain traction. This product from Corning pretty much makes a need for it less likely.
However, it appears Corning is working hard to continue to make Gorilla Glass even more durable and scratch proof. In discussions with Corning officials, they acknowledge sapphire’s true scratch proof surface is something they would like to ultimately have in Gorilla Glass in the near future. To date, Gorilla Glass is actually very scratch proof but not perfect in this area. That is why they have another project in the works called “Phire” they announced earlier this year. Phire apparently will be a new version of Gorilla Glass with additional properties that could make it even more scratch proof, yet be highly durable and fundamentally unbreakable. Corning has not given any timing for when “Phire”-based Gorilla Glass could get to the market but, when it does, it probably represents the final nail in the coffin of sapphire screens for smartphones since demand for sapphire covers would be minimal to nonexistent in the future.