Corning Takes the Fight to Sapphire on Samsung Galaxy Gear S3


The death match between Corning and Sapphire heated up last week when Corning, responding to both the threat and opportunity Sapphire has been exploring, came up with a product that seems to have the flexibility of glass and the scratch resistance of a jewel.   And it took the fight to Sapphire by showing up on the new Samsung Galaxy Gear S3, which arguably is closer to Steve Jobs’ model than the Apple Watch is. 

Let’s talk about both things this week.

Sapphire vs. Gorilla Glass

A few years ago, Corning was blindsided by Apple’s effort to bring Sapphire to Smartphones.   Their Gorilla Glass product was dominant and it had been created largely to address what had become a massive breakage problem with the iPhone class of product.  Sapphire, while popular on watches, had never worked on larger form factors because of the cost of manufacturing the product.  Apple’s effort failed largely because the supposed fix for the manufacturing problem didn’t work.  But, in looking at Sapphire while there were advantages like scratch resistance, a new problem emerged: it was incredibly brittle.   You see, Sapphire is a crystal which makes it both incredibly hard and incredibly brittle.   In a watch the brittleness isn’t a big problem because watches generally don’t flex. Back when phones were mostly keyboards, they didn’t flex that much either. 

But as the displays and Smartphones got bigger and bigger, and thinner and thinner, they also accidentally got far more flexible, and while glass will bend a little, Sapphire largely doesn’t bend at all.  In addition, much like you cut a diamond by first introducing or utilizing a defect or flaw, a little nick in Sapphire will significantly increase its chance of breaking.  Crystals also tend to be less clear than glass. 

A few years back, a couple of our executives were arguing who had the best $10K Rolex and they all agreed the head of sales’ watch looked the best.  Sadly, it was a Chinese knock off with a glass crystal not a Sapphire one; the glass just looked far better and, at the time, he bought his version of the Rolex in bulk.   Granted you wouldn’t dive with that watch, but when one broke he just pulled out a new one and spent thousands less than his peers.  

So while Sapphire crystals in watches seemed sacrosanct, it really only made it into a few relatively limited production phones.  But, even in watches, Sapphire had issues largely because it is still very expensive to create and machine and there was always a chance that, as smartwatches become more capable, they could eventually replace smartphones and Corning Gorilla Glass in the process. 

In short, even though glass was generally better than Sapphire, that scratch resistance and its growth in smartwatches meant Corning needed a response.  That response was “Project Phire” which is now called Gorilla Glass SR+.   And it just launched on the Samsung Galaxy Gear S3.   This gives the S3 the most advanced Gorilla Glass crystal in the market (for now). 

Samsung Galaxy Gear S3

Apple screwed up the Apple Watch in a lot of ways and, what I think is kind of funny, is that the Samsung Galaxy Gear S3 is a better Apple Watch than Apple has so far made.   Here is the issue, if you are going to call something a “watch” it needs to look like, well, a watch!!   This is one of the reasons Jobs used terms like iPod and iPad, they looked like a Pod and Pad.   The Apple Watch doesn’t look like a watch; it looks like an iPod mini on your wrist.   The funny thing is that Samsung doesn’t name their Watch a Watch, which gives them the brand flexibility to create very different designs, even one that looked like the Apple Watch if they wanted.  While the Samsung Galaxy Gear 3 also does a lot of things, it works with both Android and iOS, like the iPod worked with Windows and MacOS, and it actually is good at doing what a watch does, tell time.  

Wrapping Up:

I think there are a number of lessons here.   One is that if you are going to take on a new market, be really sure the firm, or firms, that dominate that market won’t be better at going after yours.   In this case, moving Sapphire into phones triggered Corning into going after watches and the clarity of glass in a similarly robust product like Gorilla Glass SR+, which will likely sell more watches. We could be seeing the end of Sapphire watch crystals as a result. 

And, finally, if you are going to name something after a product that exists, like say a watch, it should fricken well look like that thing.  Samsung with the Galaxy Gear S3 has done a far better job of this than Apple.  As I write this (on top of the Samsung announcement) the Galaxy Gear S3 is arguably the best smartwatch entering the market, suggesting Apple has to experience a miracle when they launch their new watch in a few weeks.   

Edited by Alicia Young

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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