Could Apple’s iPhone 6 Kill Corning’s Gorilla Glass?

To answer the question I pose in the title: No, not exactly.

However, that's not to overlook the fact that Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) possible use of one specific material in its upcoming iPhone 6 could spell disaster on specialty glass maker Corning's (NYSE: GLW  ) prominent Gorilla Glass franchise in the years ahead.

Speculation has swirled for some time now that Apple is preparing a significant change in its use of materials in its upcoming iPhone, specifically that Apple is will potentially ditch Corning's Gorilla Glass in favor of some kind of sapphire outer layer.

This is of course only conjecture at this early moment. However, judging by the commentary from a few of its executives lately, Corning appears it could be sweating the future of its popular mobile glass. And that's certainly worth investors' attention.

Gorilla Glass versus sapphire
This week, Corning executives Tony Tripeny and Jim Flaws took to the stage at Morgan Stanley's Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference, where they were hit with multiple analyst questions regarding their perspectives on Apple's growing interesting in sapphire glass.

And as you might expect, the two Corning execs came out swinging and denounced sapphire glass and all it's evils. Tripeny went on the attack saying:

When we look at it, we see a lot of disadvantages to 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 lives, and it continues to break. I think, while it's a scratch-resistant product, it still breaks. And our testing says Gorilla Glass, about 2.5 times more pressure that it can take than Sapphire can. So when we look at it, we think from an overall industry and trend, that is not attractive in consumer electronics. 

Tripeny certainly makes a compelling case in Gorilla Glass' favor. And just in case you missed the point, Corning has also added a section to its website comparing the two specialty materials in some real world tests.

However, Apple's interest in sapphire is also hard to overlook as well. Apple first introduced the material into its product lineup with a sapphire ring used to protect the iPhone 5's rear facing camera. Apple further incorporated sapphire in the iPhone 5s, where it now also covers the home button and finger print scanner. Where Apple will go from here with its use of sapphire is anyone's guess. However, many point to a litany of sapphire-related patents that Apple has filed in recent years to a broader ambition to eventually cover either the front screen or entire outer casing of the iPhone in the substance.

Apple's interest in sapphire is certainly understandable. Sapphire has a reputation for being one of the strongest and most scratch-resistant materials on earth, so much so, that it's just slightly less scratch resistant than a diamond. The key problem that's always held sapphire back from mainstream adoption is it's historically been hugely uneconomical to mass-produce. However, Apple appears to be actively seeking ways to solve this problem as well.

Apple being Apple
Last year, word broke that Apple had signed a $578 million multi-year contract with industrial crystal maker GT Advanced Material (NASDAQOTH: GTATQ  ) . Apple's contract was reportedly to serve as funding for a new manufacturing facility in Arizona that will house GT Advanced Technology's large scale Advanced Sapphire Furnace. The announcement has also helped to fuel a massive rally in GT Advanced Technologies stock over the last year. All told, GT Advanced Technologies have surged a jaw-dropping 516% in the last 12 months alone.

Furthermore, the GT Advanced tie-up would be a classic Apple move. Apple tends to dominate its suppliers (Cirrus Logic anyone?), so it's not unreasonable to assume Apple's contract with GT Advanced Technologies will give Apple exclusive rights to most of, it not all, the new plant's output, at least for a few years. So if GT Advanced Technologies can create some kind of economically viable sapphire production process, it could set the stage for Apple to move away from Corning's Gorilla Glass in time.

An ideal position for Apple
Apple also tends to be a taste maker in tech, whether you buy it or not.

Detractors deride Apple for playing up what they view as only marginal improvements to its newest devices as genuine innovations. However, it's also hard to overlook the fact that Apple tends to push the envelope when it comes to product design. The iPhone 4s brought Siri. The iPhone 5s introduced fingerprint scanning. Only now are rivals like Samsung catching up to Apple on some of these features. The fact that we're even talking about these features as major differentiators between Apple and the rest of the pack goes to show how effective they can be as marketing tools if nothing else.

So in the final analysis, Corning's Gorilla Glass is and will remain the smartphone industry standard in the short-term. There are simply too many compelling reasons to use it today. However, Apple's observable interest and de facto role as smartphone taste-maker could spell trouble for Corning in the years to come, which is perhaps why Corning's executives came out so strongly against sapphire in the first place this week.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2014, at 11:19 PM, GaryDMN wrote:

    Don't be surprised to see Corning ramp up their sapphire efforts and Gorilla Glass is capable of addressing markets more markets that just mobile devices. There has never been a high volume market for sapphire glass, but Apple has the cash to take an advanced process and scale production, in ways broad line glass manufactures wouldn't dare. If 10 smartphone manufactures tell Corning they will buy millions of screens each, it would justify the investment to scale up.

  • Report this Comment On March 08, 2014, at 10:28 AM, twolf2919 wrote:

    I can see how Apple has/will address sapphire's huge cost disadvantage versus Gorilla Glass, but do any of their "litany of patents" you refer to address Sapphire's greater propensity to "break"? The Corning executives mentioned how gorilla glass can handle more pressure - and I've read the same in other literature - about both sapphire and diamond! Pressure-based force is just one area where sapphire seems to break more easily. How about breakage due to shear forces?, sapphire makes a great lens cover, where its thickness relative to other dimensions is rather high, but a whole phone screen? How will Apple prevent "flexing" of a large but only mm-thick sheet of sapphire? Or am I looking at it wrong - will making the sapphire screen extremely thin actually help it not break from flex?

  • Report this Comment On March 08, 2014, at 12:58 PM, banmate7 wrote:

    I am in both GTAT and GLW. It need not and probably will not be a zero sum game between them overall. They have some intersecting markets and obviously some aren't.

    Don't be surprised if you even see some cooperation between them. GLW is a great American company. GTAT might become one.

    I am long and hopeful for both...having ridden impressive gains in both so far.

  • Report this Comment On March 09, 2014, at 11:33 PM, bdkennedy1 wrote:

    It's about 10 times more expensive. (Not if they are manufacturing it themselves)

    It's about 1.6 times heavier. (But it can be thinner)

    It's environmentally unfriendly. (Not if Apple recycles them)

    It takes about 100 times more energy to generate a Sapphire crystal than it does glass. (That doesn't matter if they are using renewable energy)

    It transmits less light, which means either dimmer devices or shorter battery lives, and it continues to break. (They don't know that because they have nothing to base this on.)

  • Report this Comment On March 09, 2014, at 11:54 PM, GaryDMN wrote:

    Sapphire glass will prove he critics wrong. The Corning marketing campaign uses a non-real world test that basically tests flex, to the level that a smartphone case, especially a Liquid Metal would not allow a screen to bend and break, without breaking the entire smartphone. There are YouTube videos that show crossbow arrows bouncing off a sapphire glass monitor screen, with bent metal tips. That is a bit more shock than 99% of smartphones will experience. There is no question Sapphire is more expensive, but Apple and GTAT seem to have the right combination of scale and overall cost savings, to drastically lower the cost of screens, lower than ever before posible. Based on the size of the AZ plant and the investment, Apple will be the largest producer of sapphire glass in the world, by a long shot. Apple has been planning this for years, so I anticipate they will get it right the first time, with both sapphire and Liquid Metal.

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