Almost nothing can scratch it, yet it responds keenly to human touch. And it oozes the luxury feel that Apple craves.
Little wonder, then, that Apple is investing heavily in sapphire.
While the ever-secretive company has been mum on its plans, Apple has been stockpiling patents regarding its use and signed a $578 million deal with a specialized manufacturer to grow a synthetic version of the mineral at a massive Mesa, Ariz., plant. The facility will pump out more sapphire than the rest of the producers in the world combined when it reaches full capacity, said Eric Virey, an analyst at research firm Yole Développement.
Thats triggered feverish speculation that iPhones will soon receive an opulent upgrade. By using sapphire, one of the hardest minerals in the world after diamond, Apple could give consumers a much tougher screen. But experts say sapphire is not only harder than glass but also more sensitive to touch, perhaps helping Apple as it tries to feel its way into new industries such as mobile payments, gaming and medicine.
It opens up a lot of doors for Apple, said Matt Margolis, an analyst at PTT Research.
Current models of the iPhone already contain touches of sapphire, which shields the camera lens and the fingerprint scanner. With its heightened supply, analysts predict Apple will use the material to make screens for the next version of the iPhone, which is widely expected to debut next week, and perhaps for a wearable device like a smartwatch. Apple and GT Advanced Technologies, the manufacturer it is working with, declined to comment.
Its a steep investment, even for deep-pocketed Apple sapphire is far more expensive than the glass it now uses but manufacturers often have to roll the dice to distinguish themselves from the pack in the fiercely competitive smartphone market, Virey said.
The display remains one of the major opportunities for differentiation, he said.
When scouting materials for smartphone screens, manufacturers key concerns are hardness and transparency. Sapphire, which is clear in its pure form, is a top choice, said Andrew Hsu, director of concept prototyping at Synaptics, which develops touch screens.
Other than the fact that its expensive, its pretty much a better material than glass, he said.
Given sapphires hardness, a screen made of the substance would likely be tougher to scratch or crack than the Gorilla Glass Apple has used in recent iPhones, experts say. That could be a strong selling point as 11 percent of iPhone users have a device with a cracked screen, according to SquareTrade, which peddles warranties for electronics.
But sapphire has a softer side. Touch-screen devices recognize a users finger by detecting the change in the electrical field above the display. Sapphire has better electrical properties than glass, enabling it to pick up on touch more easily, experts say. GT has claimed that sapphire performed 42 percent better than Gorilla Glass in touch testing.
A spokesman for Corning, which manufactures Gorilla Glass, defended the products durability and sensitivity. And experts note that the toughness of sapphire depends on the cut, meaning a screen made from the mineral might not necessarily hold up better than one made of Gorilla Glass.
Touch-screen technology is already sophisticated, but analysts see ample room for improvement. With a sapphire screen, Apple might be able to extend fingerprint sensing across the display. That could make mobile payments easier by letting users register the prints of multiple fingers or sign their signature more easily on their smartphone screens, Margolis said.
Sapphire screens would also allow for more precise typing, and they could even recognize instruments ranging from styluses to old-fashioned pencils, experts say. A more responsive screen also promises to make virtual games more engaging.
This can improve the user experience in gaming, typing and playing instruments in apps like Garage Band, Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, wrote in an email.
Users might also be able to use their phones while wearing gloves, a boon for people in industries such as medicine, Hsu said.
The technology could also make Apple products more accessible to the nursery set. Although many young children have an affinity for technology, touch-screen devices with glass screens do not always pick up on their tiny fingers, Hsu said.
Whats more, sapphire is denser than glass, meaning Apple may be able to use a thinner layer to shield its devices, Hsu said. With slim phones in vogue, thats no trivial consideration, he noted.
Everyones looking at ways to save tenths of millimeters, Hsu said.
As with other technological innovations, Apple was not the first to adopt sapphire, but it may be the company to set the industry standard. Luxury smartphone-maker Vertu offers phones with sapphire screens, and Kyocera recently released a device with such a display for the mainstream.
Analysts say smartphone manufacturers will be watching Apple as they assess whether to use sapphire in their own devices. Of course, if sapphire spreads across the market, Apple would have to find a new way to wow consumers. Could a diamond-encrusted screen be next?
I wouldnt rule that out, Hsu said, laughing.
Source: MCT Information Services