The Death of Sapphire and the Birth of “Phire”

Last fall, after Apple introduced the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and they did not include the much rumored sapphire screen they had been working on with GT Advanced, I started looking into why this did not happen. In a column I wrote in Time last fall, I explained there were major production issues related to sapphire and found out that, in the end, GT Advanced had serious problems producing sapphire screens and could not deliver. In that article, I stated Apple had never planned to have sapphire screens in the new iPhones but that apparently was not correct. My sources did not clarify a key point related to the original intent vs what took place by the beginning of 2013 that took sapphire completely out of the picture for the newest iPhones. Apple went into the deal with GT Advanced wanting to use sapphire screens but, by late 2013, they realized this just could not happen.

Over the last few months I have delved deeper into the role sapphire could play in smartphones and keep coming up with the incredible difficulty involved with making these screens in serious quantities and at a cost that makes sense to use in even top of the line smartphones. Also, the trend in smartphones is moving to larger screens where the cost of a sapphire screen would be even more expensive to produce and buy. Because of the high price of sapphire screens, they would never be used on the majority of smartphones sold as most of them are under $249 and sapphire would make them much more expensive.

I recently recorded a podcast with two professors of material sciences that helped me gain an even better understanding about the costs and manufacturing involved with creating sapphire screens in volume. Joining me in the discussion were Richard Lehman, a professor and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Rutgers and director of the school’s Advanced Polymer Center; and Dr. Helen Chan, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Lehigh University.

You can listen at this link. Here are some of the key points we discussed:

• Glass is used in almost all smartphone screens and is a great solution. Lehman pointed out that sapphire is used in watches and products that have a long life. However, smartphones have a lifespan of 18 to 24 months and the extra cost may not be worth it for most people.

• Lehman said glass costs about a nickel per square inch to manufacture while sapphire costs several dollars per square inch. He also pointed out manufacturing glass is highly scalable and Dr. Chan explained it takes a 2,000-degree furnace to melt the sapphire boules, which has a serious impact on the environment.

• While neither professors are experts in manufacturing, they brought up key points on the virtue of sapphire as a potential material for screens, but questioned anyone’s ability to make these screens in large volumes. In addition to the melting, the sapphire must be cut razor thin and subjected to extra polishing, according to Chan. It takes at least 4 different steps to produce each sapphire screen.

They also pointed out hardness (a key attribute of sapphire) might not be the best way to go with next generation smartphones. Here is a link to a video from uBreakiFixCo that illustrates this point well and explains the breaking point of glass vs sapphire.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast, as it really helped clarify this issue for me.

Although the podcast and the uBreakiFixCo video explains for me the option of using sapphire as a screen material for smartphones, it really brings up a key question in my mind about the long term prospects of sapphire being used as an alternative to glass. Given the additional cost to make a sapphire screen vs glass and the increasing evolution of glass itself (it is getting stronger and more scratch proof), it seems anyone pursuing sapphire for use on smartphones would be up against some pretty formidable challenges and chances of success. Add to that the fact that, with glass, you can add to its surface a microbial coating, make it much less reflective than sapphire, and even curve it as some smartphone vendors are doing now and it seems to me glass is destined to dominate the smartphone landscape for the foreseeable future.

However, a recent development by Corning may make the use of sapphire in smartphones moot. At their investors meeting earlier this year, Corning discussed the virtues of their newest version of Gorilla Glass 4 and shared its key attributes over Gorilla Glass 3. They include:

-> 2X Improvement in damage resistance

-> 25% reduction in thickness for the same retained strength. Gorilla Glass 4 at 0.55mm has the same retained strength as Gorilla Glass 3 at 0.8mm (>40% reduction in thickness)

-> Up to 2X improved drop performance on rough surfaces and is in production and on commercially available products today

But, in a slide toward the end of the investor presentation, they talked about something new in the works that got a lot of attention on Wall Street and with the media.

It is called ProjectPhire and is a new glass-based solution with damage resistance like Gorilla Glass and scratch performance approaching sapphire. It is in the design phase now but will be available for use in smartphones by late in the year. Here is part of the slide that explains how it is similar to sapphire.

From what I understand about ProjectPhire, it will deliver an experience very similar to sapphire but at much lower costs and in a process much more eco-friendly. If ProjectPhire delivers on this promise, I think it virtually takes sapphire out of the smartphone screen debate in the future. While sapphire is not going to die given its use in watch crystals, jewelry, and, in Apple’s case, on the fingerprint reader/button on iPhones, this new version of Corning Gorilla Glass could end up becoming the de facto standard in mid-to-premium smartphones. And then the need to even consider the use of sapphire in these types of smartphone screens dies.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

42 thoughts on “The Death of Sapphire and the Birth of “Phire””

    1. Although, it a metaphorical sense, mute still sort of works. And “moot” does not mean what many people think it means.

      Totally worthless post, I know. It’s what I excel at…

      Joe

  1. Isn’t the endgame plastics, so we can get something that’s both scratch-proof *and* flexes instead of breaking in case of a fall ?

      1. I’m not sure who put Eco-friendliness in the equation (a passing hipster probably)… and I’m fairly sure plastics is extremely Eco-friendly compared to something that “takes a 2,000-degree furnace”.
        Have you been thinking ?

        1. I’ll go along with “Think before you type.”

          Do you know anything about Apple? Or plastic?

          Plastic is made from oil. It doesn’t biodegrade. It isn’t recyclable.

          The furnace energy (which likely would have come from renewable sources, since we’re talking about Apple) still has less of an environmental impact than plastic, or Apple wouldn’t have pursued it.

          Or haven’t you paid any attention to anything Tim Cook has said on these matters?

          1. Your blind trust in Apple’s PR is… amazing, and frightening.
            You’re assuming so much about what is eco-friendly and what isn’t, and about how truthful paid employees and a company are when doing PR…
            Even plastics vs aluminum is mostly in favor of plastics, yet Apple don’t care.That should give you an hint.

          2. “Even plastics vs aluminum is mostly in favor of plastics, yet Apple don’t care.”

            When I read statements like that, I am allowed to make a great deal of assumptions about who/what I’m dealing with.

            I’m glad you’re impressed with yourself. But your condition isn’t contagious.

          3. Are you familiar with the expression “A little knowledge is dangerous”?

            I would be happy to engage you, IF you were dangerous.

          4. This is beyond ridiculous. PR isn’t facts, do yourself a service and brush up on the subject ? Invective really never convinces anyone.

          5. Better yet, school me. Pretend I’m incapable, and show me all the science and market data that proves plastics are more eco-friendly and recyclable than aluminum.

            Take as long as you need. I’m looking forward to reading your dissertation.

          6. This is why I called you out. You’re a spewer of words. A poseur.

            You type “2+2” a lot. You never make the leap to “4.”

          7. Could be worse, I could have “informed” as a handle, were it should be “vindictive ignoramus” instead.

          8. The ecological impact of a little plastic shell or aluminum shell is is so tiny so it doesn’t really matter, even at the volumes of the iPhone.The plastic content in plastic cups for average day usage by a person is probably bigger than that.

            But Apple just tells that for propaganda. Which is the normal bullshit from companies.

            If Apple really cared about the environment, it could invested in technologies for something like biodegradable plastics. Or it maybe it would have used it’s marketing muscle to promote such things. But Again, companies usually don’t do that, and Apple isn’t special in that regard.

          9. First, the article was about sapphire vs glass screens. Plastic is a ridiculous choice for screens. It is not the f’n “endgame.”

            Second, Apple and the tech industry at large, have taken a great deal of heat for techno waste ending up in landfills and leaching into the environment. So I categorically reject the idea that choosing readily recyclable materials over non-recyclable materials is simply for propaganda. Apple is leading in this area, whether you recognize it or not. Comparing the problem to plastic cups destroys your credibility on the subject. A company can only reasonably address the problems they help create.

            Third, Apple HAS been using its marketing muscle to promote eco-sound manufacturing practices. If you are unaware of this, you are not paying attention.

            Fourth, Apple sells premium products. Premium products are not made out of biodegradable plastic. Many people, myself included, thought the “unapologetically plastic” 5c was a mistake on many levels.

            You don’t have to agree. But if you think Apple should be moving toward plastic, you are in the very small minority. Plastic. Seriously?

          10. I didn’t explain myself well. What type of case the iPhone has is meaningless with regards to the environment.Too smaller quantities of plastic/aluminum.

            But if Apple would have used it’s capital to invest in a company that makes biodegradable plastic(say for plastic cups) – that would have been important. Or if it would have used it’s marketing muscle to help real environmental causes – that would have been something.

          11. Last time I looked, Apple wasn’t in the plastic cup business.

            Apple doesn’t publicly do “moonshots.” Neither you nor I know what they might be working on. But, if Apple were to start trumpeting their investments in solving environmental issues completely unrelated to their enterprise, even I would view that as cynical propaganda stunt. We would all be justified in questioning their judgment/motives.

            So, are you arguing that Apple’s environmental efforts can only be taken seriously if they try to solve ALL of the world’s problems?

          12. >> if Apple were to start trumpeting their investments in solving
            environmental issues completely unrelated to their enterprise, even I
            would view that as cynical propaganda stunt

            Maybe you’re right about that. On the other hand they could find good investments and spin them well(like some people are saying google-x is doing, and in general google-x really improves the google brand among many people. ) . I wonder how the general response was to their recent claims about huge solar projects. Personally i think that at this stage investing in solar, is nothing but a solid investment with little risk.

            As for data with regards to plastic waste , because we were talking about the case of the iphone. So in general each year 275 million tons of plastic waste are generated(in 192 coastal countries – but let’s go with that). On the other hand a plastic phone case weights say 30grams. a rough calculation means that the total weight of the iphone(if it used plastic cases) , would be around 4500 tons of plastics. that’s pretty inconsequential compared to 275 million tons – or even if would have looked to the relative plastic garbage of those iphone users which come to say at least 5 million tons, or even if it’s 0.5 million tons which is unlikely.

          13. Let’s say some technology came along(like this one[1]) which most likely made plastic cases definitely better fr the environment, would apple have pushed towards it’s use in it’s products ?

            My guess is probably not.
            [1]http://theconversation.com/recycling-the-unrecyclable-a-new-class-of-thermoset-plastics-26594

          14. My guess is ‘probably not,’ as well.

            Apple already solved the device recycling problem by using recyclable metals. Aluminum is not only easily recycled (with recycling infrastructure near universal), but there is a huge market for recycled aluminum. Recycling aluminum is profitable; this encourages recycling.

            My guess is few, if any, iPhones or iPods or iPads end up in landfills.

            This being the case, why should Apple even consider plastic –which doesn’t feel remotely premium– in their premium products? As I wrote earlier, the iPhone 5c was a mistake on many levels.

            This looks like a big opportunity for Samsung, not Apple.

  2. Gee, isn’t this supposed to be the beauty of competition and free markets? Maybe Corning was always planning to get to ProjectPhire? But, one would suspect that they wouldn’t be getting there this fast without the threat from Apple having dabbled with sapphire. One could say that Apple lit a Phire under them! 🙂 (bad pun)

      1. “I’ve been to Corning, they know glass. That’s all.”

        “they know glass. That’s all”? – that’s your conclusion from your visit?

        I’m deeply worried about your judgement.

        >> Public notice <<<

        Can anyone please actually visit Corning's HQ & factories in NY, Kentucky, and Japan please?

        Please conduct an *actual* audit & assessment on operations & financials.

        1. I visited the Corning, NY headquarters. And there’s nothing at all wrong with knowing everything about glass. It wasn’t an insult, but there’s a reason they don’t make the “whole device”.

          I also know enough where if I need to know anything, I come to you!

    1. for Watch it is obvious. His post focuses on the use of it in smartphones and other big screen devices.

      Another not brought up dirty secret of sapphire is the environmental toll its production takes.

        1. There are a lot of counter arguments to the points in that article. From what we have learned, I see the benefits but also the real challenges to do sapphire on phones. So not increasingly convinced Apple brings it to phones. Also it is seems to be increasingly un-necessary. Also even if they did sapphire, it would be a thin layer on top of glass.

          But given what I’ve written about Apple owning the high-end customers, if they ever did bring sapphire to phones they would be the only vendor to do it. The others it is too expensive and they can’t sell at high ASPs.

          1. Maybe the article is not bulletproof, but it raises an important point – the value of sapphire to marketing. From the little i know about luxury marketing , one of the ways to create luxury value , is to use unique(or mysterious) production processes and materials and to create stories about that. And that works in many types of luxury products. Another trick is to have “an air of superiority”

            And like you say ,Apple would be the only vendor to do so.

            So they’ll be able to get people phone with the best materials, a display almost as hard(or scratch resistant) as diamond,made from sapphire – precious stone basically, something that no other company is able to do, etc. I’m sure they’ll put it in much better way than me. And i guess that it’ll be worth lots of money for them.

            BTW , with all the great analysis of the iPhone by really smart analysts , like you , or ben thompson and others, there’s little deep deconstruction of Apple’s marketing techniques, which are undoubtedly critical for Apple. I wonder, why is that ?

          2. I agree it is critical for Apple and one of their strengths. I’ve seen Ben T do some stuff around some of the ads. I personally don’t spend much time on it unless there is something more profound there I need to tease out.

            If I feel the need to do something or can add value/insight on something marketing related I will.

          3. Indeed. I’d argue that the whole glass-backed, then metal-encased design thing already is a case of that hype over function mechanism. Both materials are extremely poor choices for something that’s bound to fall and scratch, and has radios in it. And are quite expensive, especially to end up hidden away in a case more often than not. Yet Apple managed to not only sell it, but also force the whole high-end of the industry to follow. That’s impressive marketing – and also highlights the competition’s inability to communicate, though Apple hasn’t been very successful in reinventing plastics, either, I’d say.

          4. >> glass-backed, then metal-encased design .. hype over function

            Definitely true.

            >> competition’s inability to communicate

            For many years, android was inferior the iPhone. You cannot communicate over that. And even once android became very good, the old brand stuck in the minds of people and that’s hard to communicate over that. And still Apple is very good at marketing.

      1. Ben, Do we know where GT Advanced was going to get their energy when the plant went online? If I read about it, I don’t recall.

        Glass and its lower production temperatures has always made sense in the present. But aluminum, in the long term, must have looked good on the eco balance sheet. Apple seems to be walking-the-walk on their enviro/energy initiatives.

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