There have been plenty of rumors building around the hotly anticipated Apple (AAPL) iPhone 6, but one of the more interesting ones has nothing to do with advanced new capabilities or moving to a phablet size.
Late last year, Apple signed a $578 million contract with GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT) to supply sapphire glass via a new Arizona factory and large-capacity furnaces to produce the material in quantity. Presumably, the material would be used in the rumored Apple iPhone 6.
It’s looking like Apple and GTAT are moving quickly toward production and that the factory will have the capacity to churn out between 100 million and 200 million 5-inch iPhone displays protected by sapphire glass.
If that’s true, and if the new Apple iPhone 6 features a big slab of sapphire glass, the numbers that Apple moves alone will quickly launch sapphire glass into the mainstream. If other smartphone manufacturers follow suit, Corning (GLW) — the maker of Gorilla Glass — will find it suddenly has competition.
What is sapphire glass? It’s not the gemstone, it’s a synthetically produced crystal made from aluminum oxide. It’s extremely hard, scoring a 9 on the Mohs scale (in comparison, diamond rates the highest score of 10, and Gorilla Glass is reported to be somewhere in the area of 7). Sapphire glass has been around since 1902, and has been used commercially for a range of applications including lasers, armored windows, camera lenses and semiconductors.
Who has the most to lose if if Apple manages to hit a home run with sapphire glass in the Apple iPhone 6? That would be Corning, which has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the consumer electronics market with its Gorilla Glass line. According to Corning, there’s no concern. In fact, its website has a page dedicated to the issue. (The suspicious among you will note that the very act of putting up such a page indicates that there is cause for concern).
Among the facts presented by Corning:
- As the “cover glass of choice for the consumer electronics industry,” Gorilla Glass has been used in more than 1.5 billion devices
- The sapphire covers currently in use are on watches that are “much smaller than a mobile phone and are two to three times thicker than Gorilla Glass.”
- “In one of our commonly accepted strength tests, sapphire breaks more easily than Gorilla Glass after the same simulated use.”
- “Additionally, sapphire’s cost and environmental hit are huge issues.”
In other words, nothing to see here. Sapphire glass hasn’t been proven on something as big as a smartphone, it’s thick (which presumably results in a bigger smartphone with a display that could be distorted or less sharp), it’s expensive and far from green. And, despite all the media frenzy, the stuff doesn’t live up to the toughness hype.
But that’s according to the Gorilla Glass maker…