Why You'll Never See An iPhone with a Sapphire Screen

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It was supposed to be one of the big features of the new iPhone 6 - the amazing Sapphire screen that would be nearly indestructible.  Well, there was a phone that shipped with this amazing technology and it was designed to be far more robust than the iPhone - the highly unpopular hardened phone called the Kyocera Brigadier (look at the customer reviews in Amazon). 

Problem is that even though this phone is wrapped in rubber, the screens, according to the complaints on Amazon, are breaking a lot.   It turns out that Sapphire isn’t a miracle material for smartphone screens, it turns out Sapphire actually sucks - which is why you aren’t likely to see it on an iPhone anytime soon. 

Let’s talk about why.  

Panasonic

The big indicator of this for me is the Panasonic ToughPads and ToughBooks.   These products represent the pinnacle of hardened technology.  If your life depends on a piece of hardware - chances are it came from Panasonic and ToughBooks and ToughPads are what the military and petrochemical companies use in the field because they are really hard to break.

These products used hardened glass not Sapphire.  This isn’t because Sapphire is expensive, because these products command a huge purchase price and differentiate on durability, it is because Sapphire doesn’t work in large form factor products.  

Why Sapphire Sucks

Sapphire is harder than hardened glass like Gorilla Glass and more scratch resistant - which is why folks believed it would be far better.   It sounds cooler too, in terms of sounding rich Sapphire is a jewel while glass is well, glass.  This jewel part may sound cool but it is the Achilles heel of the technology.  In this instance strength is actually weakness.   Sapphire is stronger but that strength comes at the cost of flexibility.  Chrystal structures don’t flex which isn’t a problem for Jewelry or cutting tools but is a huge problem for anything much larger than a watch.  

Phones flex, the new iPhone 6 actually flexes excessively because they unfortunately made the frame of aluminum rather than steel or magnesium alloy like most phones in its class.  But while both of these materials are far stiffer than Aluminum they aren’t anywhere near the zero flex limits of Sapphire.   In addition if you hit a crystal at a fault, you can easily crack it which is part of the process for cutting diamonds.   You take the hardest material known to man and you can easily break it if you hit it on a fault.  

Sapphire isn’t as hard and while manufactured Sapphire may be fault free, any chipping can create an artificial fault that will cause a phone screen to break if it dropped.   As the folks with the hardened Kyocera Brigadier found out, even with a rubber wrapped case, the screen broke easily when dropped.

What Makes Hardened Glass Better

In short, it flexes.   The way it is manufactured allows the glass to be able to bend just enough so that if dropped or bent slightly it won’t crack or break.  This doesn’t mean it can’t break as we certainly have seen when it did, but that it is harder to break it.  This is why Apple helped develop Gorilla Glass in the first place, they needed something that would handle the stress users put on smartphones and while you certainly can break an iPhone it is still a relatively infrequent event but had they used Sapphire they likely would have had a second scandal to go with Bendgate, in fact it wouldn’t have been Bendgate it would have been Breakgate had they used Sapphire and that would have been far worse. 

Wrapping Up:  Sapphire Sucks-At Least for Phones

Sapphire has its uses and it is likely better for traditional high end watches like Rolex which have exposed crystals and where they can afford both from a weight and design perspective to make them really thick.  In that case the ability for the solution to avoid scratches exceeds it weakness in flex because flex in heavy watch simply isn’t an issue.  But even as you grow displays for smartwatches the need to keep the cost and weight down coupled with a need to grow the size of the solution will cause the flex risk to exceed the scratch risk and while Sapphire has very limited room to improve, hardened glass is improving regularly and that suggests that over time it will be increasingly preferred even for smaller devices.  

As a result, I doubt Apple will ever use Sapphire on a phone now, they have to know they missed a disaster by the skin of their teeth, but don’t be surprised if they either don’t use Sapphire for the Apple watch or shift back to hardened glass in future versions because, as it turns out, Sapphire sucks.   




Edited by Stefania Viscusi

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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