Corning Is Being ‘Unclear’ About Sapphire iPhones

sapphire

Corning — or at least a representative executive of said company — did its best this week to shatter excitement around Apple’s Sapphire embrace — or, at least, make the benefits of Apple’s glass strategy less clear.

Corning Glass senior vice president Tony Tripeny laid on the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) pretty thick during a Morgan Stanley conference this week.

Here’s what Corning doesn’t want you to know about sapphire iPhones. 

Tripeny didn’t mention Apple by name, but it was a transparent reference to the Cupertino giant, which used to be a valued partner. Apple has used Corning’s Gorilla Glass for past iPhones, and is expected to switch to sapphire for future iPhones.

Here’s what Tripeny said:

“We see a lot of disadvantages of Sapphire versus Gorilla Glass. It’s about 10 times more expensive. It’s about 1.6 times heavier. It’s environmentally unfriendly. It takes about 100 times more energy to generate a Sapphire crystal than it does glass. It transmits less light which…means either dimmer devices or shorter battery life. It continues to break. I think while it’s a scratch resistant product it still breaks and our testing says that Gorilla Glass [can take] about 2.5 times more pressure that it can take…Sapphire on. So when we look at it, we think from an overall industry and trend that is not attractive in consumer electronics.”

He went into other details about why it’s more expensive, details irrelevant to the topic post, which is precisely how Tripeny is either misleading us or is himself misinformed.

I’m going to give you my thoughts what Tripeny isn’t telling us here, but first let’s take a quick look at Apple’s history with Gorilla Glass.

How Steve Jobs Convinced Corning to Make Gorilla Glass

Gorilla Glass probably exists because Apple needed it for the iPhone.

We learned this from the author of a Steve Jobs biographer, Walter Isaacson. In a 2011 interview with Fortune Senior Editor at Large Adam Lashinsky, Isaacson told this story, which he learned not from Jobs, but from the CEO of Corning:

Steve Jobs needed glass for the iPhone stronger than anything then available. So he “flies to Corning, New York, sits there in front of the CEO, Wendell Weeks, and says, ‘This is what I want, a glass that can do this.’ So, Wendell Weeks says, ‘We once created a type of process that created something called Gorilla Glass.’ And Steve said, ‘No, no, no. Here’s how you make really strong glass.’ And Wendell says, ‘Wait a minute, I know how to make glass. Shut up and listen to me.’ And Steve, to his credit, shuts up and listens, and Wendell Weeks describes a process that makes Gorilla Glass. And Steve then says, ‘Fine. In six months I want enough of it to make–whatever it is–a million iPhones.’ And Wendell says, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve actually never made it. We don’t have a factory to make it. This was a process we developed, but we never had a manufacturing plant to do it.’ And Steve looks at him and says what he said to Woz, 20, 30 years earlier: ‘Don’t be afraid, you can do it.’ Wendell Weeks tells me… Because I flew to Corning, because I just wanted to hear this story. Wendell Weeks tells me, ‘I just sat there and looked at the guy. He kept saying, ‘Don’t be afraid. You can do this.’”

And Jobs was right: Corning could do it, and they did. Corning later improved the product, too, making it stronger and lighter. It ended up being sold to a wide variety of customers, not just Apple.

All was well in Corning, New York, until Apple found what the company believes is a better alternative: sapphire.

Why We Believe Apple Is Moving to Sapphire

To the best of my knowledge, there is no definitive proof that Apple will use Sapphire in future iPhones. However, the circumstantial evidence is strong.

For starters, Apple appears to be hoarding sapphire. The company built what is apparently a sapphire manufacturing plant in Mesa, Arizona.

It’s pretty clear that Apple is going to be using a lot of sapphire in future products. It’s a little less clear that this sapphire is going to become part of future iPhone screens. But it’s likely and there’s tons of evidence for it.

Ironically, Tony Tripeny’s comments can be safely added to the circumstantial evidence list.

How Corning Is Being Unclear About Apple’s Sapphire Prospects

Corning’s Tripeny is essentially trying to create the perception that Corning knows something about Sapphire that Apple doesn’t. They’ve studied the issue, and concluded that Sapphire is just no good for smartphone displays. Apple, we are expected to believe, is simply deluded about the benefits and risks of using Sapphire, and if they knew what Corning knows, they’d abandon their delusions about sapphire and come rushing back to Corning, New York, and place a big order.

In fact, either Apple knows something about sapphire that corning does not, or — more likely — Corning is being disingenuous about what it knows about what Apple knows.

Tripeny made six claims about the benefits of Gorilla Glass over Sapphire:

  1. Sapphire is about 10 times more expensive than Gorilla Glass
  2. Sapphire is about 1.6 times heavier than Gorilla Glass
  3. Sapphire transmits less light than Gorilla Glass
  4. Sapphire is environmentally unfriendly
  5. Sapphire, though scratch resistant, still breaks
  6. Gorilla Glass can take about 2.5 times more pressure than Sapphire can

We can dispense with claims 1 – 3 quite easily. Tripeny is using the most common logical or argumentation fallacy in the book. In the United States, it’s called the strawman argument and in the UK, it’s called an Aunt Sally. The fallacy is to misrepresent your opponent’s claim, then argue against your own misrepresentation.

Tripeny is arguing in each of these points against the use of sapphire as the sole protective glass on the iPhone. Surely he is aware of the fact that Apple has patents on a range of technologies called “Sapphire Laminates.” This is the use of a very thin layer of sapphire bonded to glass.

Also: Apple’s sapphire partner, GT Advanced Technologies, recently acquired a company called Twin Creeks. That company’s ion cannon technology can make sheets of sapphire thinner than a human hair.

The use of laminates with glass, rather than all sapphire, makes sapphire far cheaper, lighter and more light transmitting.

The fact that Corning’s executive didn’t even mention this overwhelming probability shows how disingenuous he’s being.

But even if Apple didn’t use its own sapphire laminates technology, the additional costs, weight and light transmission are hardly fatal.

For example, a piece of Gorilla Glass used to make an iPhone costs about $3, whereas (according to Apple’s sapphire partner, GT Advanced Technologies) a comparable slab of sapphire costs between $9 and $12.

Using these numbers, the additional price of a sapphire iPhone could be as little as $6 more for Apple to make or as much as $9 more. It’s also worth noting that the cost to make sapphire is dropping fast, and Apple itself may be innovating ways to bring it down even further using its massive economies of scale.

If, however, the technology really does significantly reduce the number of screens Apple has to replace at its own expense, the change pays for itself to some unknown degree. It could even make iPhones more profitable overall.

So the cost argument is misleading. And if it’s not, it’s an exaggeration to say that the increased price is prohibitive.

The weight and light transmission arguments are equally exaggerated.

To the environmental argument — gimme a break. Most manufacturing is bad for the environment, especially the manufacturing of smartphones. They’re packed with toxic chemicals in energy-hogging factories. To say that sapphire might be slightly less environmentally friendly than Gorilla Glass is like saying that deep-frying french fries in safflower oil contributes more to the obesity crisis than frying in canola oil. It might be technically “true,” but to say so would be a disingenuous over-focus on a someone irrelevant fact about a massive issue with vastly more relevant causes.

Tripeny’s final two points — that sapphire’s scratch resistance doesn’t keep it from breaking and that Gorilla Glass can withstand more applied pressure — is another misdirection that fails to mention the main relevant point: The relationship between scratching and breaking.

If you were to drop 100 iPhones on a linoleum floor, some roughly consistent percentage of them would break, and some percentage would not break. Let’s say that with a Gorilla Glass phone — I’m making these numbers up just for the sake of argument — 80 percent of will end up with shattered screens that need to be replaced.

The ones that break probably do so because the glass had micro-scratches on them, etched into the surface from normal wear and tear.

Drop 100 brand-new, completely un-scratched Gorilla Glass iPhones on the floor, and a smaller percentage of them would break — again, fake numbers for our mental exercise — call it 40%. Why? Because they don’t have scratches.

Back to sapphire, including sapphire laminates. These are far less likely to scratch. So after months or years of use, you could drop 100 sapphire-screen iPhones on the Linoleum floor, and their rate of breakage would be closer to brand-new Gorilla Glass phones.

The point for Apple isn’t whether any particular phone will or will not break when dropped. The point is that the total number of phones that require expensive screen replacements is lower — potentially millions lower each year, for a company like Apple.

So how do people break the glass on their iPhones? In the overwhelming majority of cases, it’s by dropping them, not applying direct, steady pressure until the screen shatters.

So Tripeny is disingenuously arguing about the superiority of Gorilla Glass in the most unlikely scenarios for breakage, while not addressing the overwhelmingly most likely case — phones that break because they’re dropped and because scratches make them prone to shattering.

All this disingenuous misdirection by Tripeny about the relative benefits and risks of Gorilla Glass and sapphire glass leads strengthens my belief that Apple is really on to something here.

So don’t fall for Corning’s baloney.

Sapphire will almost certainly bring a vast improvement to the appearance and durability of iPhone screens.

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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