Why Apple Never Targeted Sapphire Screens for the New iPhones

When Apple and GT Advanced announced a partnership to make and purchase sapphire screens, most of the media jumped to the conclusion Apple was going to use them in their upcoming smartphones. However, when the iPhones were launched and no sapphire screens were used in the iPhone 6 or the iPhone 6 Plus, I began digging into the reason. What I have learned about this issue and why Apple chose not to include sapphire in this generation of iPhone is fascinating and reinforces why all of us need to be more careful before jumping to conclusions. Many have suggested the decision not to use sapphire was the result of manufacturing issues – with more time, Apple would, in fact, put sapphire on the iPhone 6. As I looked closer at Apple’s announcement and after looking more at the benefits and drawbacks of sapphire, it seems Apple had good reasons to go with “ion strengthened curved glass” (Gorilla Glass) vs. sapphire. 

While sapphire has been hyped as an alternative screen for smartphones, the continued use of strengthened glass has less to do with production issues and more with what smartphone manufacturers know about consumers and their preferences. More importantly, about how they actually use them and what they are willing to pay for their smartphones.

By the way, some reports stated that. up until a few weeks before the theiPhone announcement, Apple was going to use Sapphire but dropped it because of yield issues. This is not true. My sources tell me sapphire was never targeted for the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus and its role in future iPhones has not even been decided yet. Also, anyone that knows the manufacturing process knows that, to make tens of millions of screens for an iPhone launch, any order for a screen had to be put in place well over six months ago and planned meticulously into the final manufacturing of these new smartphones by Apple well in advance.

Here is what I was able to find out about sapphire vs glass by doing many interviews and looking at the current research:

•       The trend in smartphone design is to achieve thinner, lighter devices, while making them bigger at the same time. That’s not easy to do. To increase the size of a smartphone and still keep the weight down requires thinner, lighter material. What we know about sapphire is it is more than 30% denser than glass and would require a compromise on both fronts for widespread use in phones. Corning has shown it can manufacture Gorilla Glass to be thinner than a sheet of paper and strengthened with a process that makes it more damage resistant.

•       Cost is a big factor with consumers and the smartphone category is hugely competitive these days. Apple is already pushing the envelope on price when comparable devices are priced at or lower than the iPhone 6, and Apple would have had to charge even more for a sapphire covered phone.  The cost to produce a sheet of sapphire is estimated to be roughly 10 times that of strengthened glass. In fact, one source I talked to said the cost could be even higher. Our researched opinion early on was, if Apple did add a sapphire screen for a new iPhone, it would add at least $100 to the base cost of the iPhone. That could be a deal breaker for mainstream iPhone customers.

•       Design flexibility and adaptability – the latest smartphone designs from Samsung, Apple and others are sleek, sporting displays with glass that curves to the edge of the device. Because glass can be manufactured to extremely thin dimensions and still be chemically strengthened, it is more flexible and can be formed and shaped into the designs you see in the iPhone 6 and others. http://www.ubreakifix.com/blog/sapphire-vs-gorilla-glass-bending-and-impact/ Sapphire is bulkier and must be cut into shape, creating both cost and production issues on larger surfaces. Today,  Sapphire in phones shows up in only industrial style products, like the Kyocera Brigadier which uses a bulky casing to protect the screen.

•       Battery life – by far the number one complaint among consumers is battery life in a phone. Manufacturers need to look at every component that draws energy and work to minimize the impact to help keep battery life strong. One of the biggest drains on battery life is brightness of the screen.  According to Bernstein Research, which conducted research on the benefits of glass vs. sapphire as a cover material, glass transmits light much better than sapphire. Therefore, to get the same level of brightness using a sapphire screen requires more energy. That problem can’t be fixed easily as the basic properties of sapphire make it transmit less light than glass. This also impacts other things like glare. Glass can have an anti-reflective solution imbedded into the material, reducing the effects of the sun when reading outdoors. To achieve anti-reflection with sapphire, it has to have a coating applied which, over time, will wear off. This issue alone may make it tough for Apple to ever use sapphire in iPhones since most people have their iPhones for at least two years and some even longer.

•       Environmental impact – manufacturers know consumers are starting to care a lot more about the impact the products they buy are having on the environment. Sapphire requires 100 times more energy to produce than glass. The energy requirements alone make sapphire problematic as a viable material to use on a smartphone. It is not out of the realm of possibility sapphire could end up on very high end smartphones someday but it’s less likely they could ever be used in smartphones aimed at the mass market.

•       Durability – this is by far the most promoted benefit of sapphire and perhaps the most misunderstood. This is the area I got tripped up on by assuming too much from the Apple investment in GT Advanced. Sapphire is extremely hard and highly scratch resistant. That is why it is found on products such as luxury watches. But it is largely untested as a phone screen. While sapphire is a very hard crystal, it is inflexible and extremely brittle.  Sapphire’s inherent structure makes it susceptible to flaws that can occur along the crystal plane. I was told by multiple sources various field tests subjected sapphire to scratch and break tests against strengthened glass. It performs better on scratch resistance but, when you drop it, it is more likely than glass to break. Glass actually flexes and can absorb the shock of a drop more readily than sapphire. Sapphire is prevalent on luxury watches and other products that don’t experience the same drop risk as a smartphone.

Like many who jumped on the sapphire bandwagon without really understanding it, I had assumed it was unbreakable. But in talking to various experts, they said the way to look at this is to think of a sheet of ice (also a crystal); small cracks weaken the surface and it will hold together for only so long before some impact will cause it to break. Those small cracks add up in the normal wear and tear we put our phones through every day – knocking around in our purses and pockets with keys and change or scuffing against the surface of a counter repeatedly. Current solutions, such as Gorilla Glass, apparently are reinforced with a chemical that alter its atomic structure and actually strengthens the area around scratches and insulates the glass longer against breaking. While surface scratches may be more visible earlier on, a glass screen will stay more intact over time than one made with sapphire. Once sapphire is exposed to a scratch or a flaw, visible or invisible, its risk of breakage and eventual failure is high. On watches, this is less an issue because they are seldom dropped and the watch surface is smaller. But in a smartphone with larger screens and many usage variables, this could make it difficult to put in smartphones and guarantee it is less prone to breakage.

I don’t doubt over time there could be some breakthroughs with sapphire and new coating processes could make it possible to use as a screen on a smartphone. However, from the research I did, it does not appear it could happen any time soon. Plus, sapphire’s less then flexible and brittle nature suggests, as least to me, that using it in large screen smartphones would still be difficult even if they were able to coat it in a way to keep the screen from splintering. I now at least understand why Apple did not use it in the new iPhones and the more I study this it seems it could be problematic for Apple to use it outside of their smartwatches anytime in the very near future.

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.

20 thoughts on “Why Apple Never Targeted Sapphire Screens for the New iPhones”

  1. Thanks for the perspective, Tim.

    So everybody assumed Apple built that sapphire factory because they wanted to make a ton of sapphire for displays. But it looks like they actually did it because they wanted to lower their costs for lenses and fingerprint sensors by cutting out the middlemen (and incidentally they wanted to make a ton of lenses and fingerprint sensors).

    Also, I guess this means that the versions of the Apple Watch with a sapphire screen are actually more likely to break than the sport version with a glass display. Not the first time something upscale turns out to be actually inferior to the cheaper less trendy equivalent.

    1. Tim already mentioned the Kyocera and its consequences in his article. The Huawei isn’t priced or available yet, so the consequences of using sapphire aren’t fully known. Is it a coating or a cover or some other variation?

      More importantly, Apple needs to supply more iPhones in a day or two to meet customer demand than Kyocera/Huawei would sell of their sapphire models in a year.

        1. Your link is to the Ascend Mate 7 and G7. No hands-on there. Don’t see any hands-on for the Ascend P7 with sapphire at Anandtech. The Ascend P7 preview from May doesn’t mention sapphire at all.

  2. Also it is not Apple’s style to do everything they can each year.. They always leave something to entice people for the next years model. This years big change was size and a new style of case. The iPhone 6S will look identical to the 6/6+ but will have a sapphire screen and they will make a very big deal about it. It will be a key distinction or differentiator that no other smartphone maker like Samsung will be able to compete with Apple on.

      1. Another form of ripoff is when handset makers include and hype features that really aren’t ready for prime time. There are many; Samsung’s fingerprint reader and Apple Maps come quickly to mind.

        One can only imagine the hysteria from critics and media if Apple included large sapphire covers that resulted in more breakage.

        1. I admire your even handedness about it. No one get’s off for free. Kip Rode’s post has happened in so many other contexts, and may happen yet.

  3. Honestly…most of the “facts” just seemed like excuses why Apple may say they didn’t use it. The main reason, is as you mentioned, cost. It costs far too much. Talk was that if Apple goes deep into Sapphire, it could lower the cost. But it’s still a substantial cost. It will likely happen in future iterations. Remember that Apple needs to have some “new features” added to each model it brings out. Why blow Sapphire when you’re already putting out a thinner phone as is?

    1. Apple has never even implied that they would use sapphire as an iPhone display cover. Once again, the media deduces poorly, and that leads others to somehow claim Apple is intentionally holding it back for a later phone.

      Contrast that with Samsung co-CEO Shin in Sep 2013, boasting “Not in the shortest time, but yes, our next smartphones will have 64-bit processing functionality.” A year later, no 64-bit in Galaxy S or Note. Shall we all assume Samsung is intentionally holding back 64-bit for 2015’s smartphones?

      1. To be clear…I’m not blaming Apple. I’m just explaining the most likely reason behind their decision making, which is sound. And I’m not going to speak to Samsung’s policies as all I know about them is they look to see what innovations others come out with, in order to copy it.

        1. Why would one expect Apple to say why they didn’t use sapphire on iPhone when they never said the GTAT deal was for iPhone display? Apple already announced its use for some Apple Watch models. And we know of its prior and current use for home button and camera covers on iPhones (and probably the next iPads).

          1. Are you arguing with me, or the author? I didn’t write this article. I only posted to explain that the author wrote his article as if he were making excuses for Apple, when in reality Apple rightly didn’t go with Sapphire, despite the speculations, because of the price.

          2. I’m arguing with the last three sentences in your first post, as it seems you make the same assumptions that the wrong-headed media and analysts made. They hyped sapphire for iPhone 6. Now they accuse Apple of dropping it due to poor yield (i.e. execution) or intentionally dropping it so they’d have something for the next version.

            The author, Tim, is saying that they were probably wrong from the beginning and that the evidence (which he comprehensively recaps) was there all along. A few journalists/analysts did write about higher cost and breakage/brittleness a long time ago.

          3. Are you arguing against the fact that Apple holds back readily available features it can easily deliver now in order to put them future versions? It’s not just Apple…this is standard business practice. Nvidia does the same thing with their video cards. Every industry does this. It’s nothing new.

            Now let’s go back to the last line in my first post as you seem to be confused. The assumption about the use of sapphire glass. You are assuming that Apple never considered it internally for short term or long term. You’d be just as wrong as you think I am. Apple spent a considerable amount of money on their Sapphire Glass manufacturing plant. And as I mentioned…Sapphire glass is currently expensive. So yes, there has definitely been talk of using Sapphire glass in phones/ipads. But then we go back to another point I made in that same first post. Price. The price of Sapphire Glass is currently high. As I mentioned, Apple is expecting the price to drop if volume goes up and also if they happen to have their own manufacturing plant for it.

            So…back to your pointless argument:

            – Apple and most other successful companies have a history of taking part in a successful business strategy of not releasing everything you possibly can right away, in order to have selling points for future iterations. This is standard business practice. If you dispute this…you know nothing of business and we are done.

            – Apple has invested money into a Sapphire Glass manufacturing plant. You don’t do this just to make screens for your desktop/laptop line which is dwarfed by your iPad/iPhone line.

            – Sapphire Glass is expensive, and Apple is expecting to bring the price down over time by increasing production volumes, to make it possible to include in the iPhone.

            To think that Apple has not considered Sapphire Glass for the iPhone…is foolhardy. And shows one out of touch with the reality of business or how Apple operates.

          4. The simple point is that the sapphire cost was way too high, and the production volume was way too low to have been a match for the volumes/cost needed for iPhone 6. This has been known and spoken about by sapphire process experts since Apple contracted with GTAT; however, most of the media, analysts and commenters have selectively chosen to ignore that and engage in speculation instead.

            Once the process has matured, production ramped, and costs decreased, sapphire most likely would make its way to iPhone. Obviously that was not now – maybe iPhone 7, or at best, iPhone 6S. If you understood Apple, you’d recognize their conservative history of limiting new processes/hardware/software to just some products or lower-volume products, before moving them later to more or higher-volume products. This is not unique; it’s industry best practice that engineers and project managers fully understand.

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