New iPhones with scratch-resistant sapphire glass seemed like a sure bet just a couple of months ago, but a new analysis suggests that new screen material was always a long shot.
As DisplayMate’s Raymond Soneira wrote, sapphire isn’t just expensive and difficult to manufacture. It also has nearly double the reflectance of glass, making the screen harder to read in bright sunlight. It’s also a brittle substance that’s more prone to shattering than glass, despite its scratch resistance.
Apple’s intended sapphire supplier, GT Advanced Technologies, had at least solved the cost issue. According to MIT Technology Review, the company figured out how to laminate ultra-thin sheets of sapphire over conventional glass to bring costs down. It’s also possible, as Digital Trends has noted, that sapphire’s scratch resistance would have translated to better shatter protection, due to fewer nicks and scuffs to weaken displays over time.
Not that it matters anymore. Earlier this month, Apple and GT Advanced parted ways after GT failed to meet production milestones. GT has filed for bankruptcy and is looking to sell off the sapphire furnaces at its Arizona facility.
Apple still gets sapphire from other sources for the iPhone’s rear camera lens cover, and the company will use sapphire in more expensive versions of the upcoming Apple Watch. According to Soniera, the basic Sport version is more likely to be used outdoors and in impact situations, where the durability and anti-reflective properties of glass are preferable anyway.
As for future iPhones, Soneira speculates that they’ll get the same anti-reflection coating found on Apple’s iPad Air 2 . If that’s the case, sapphire would make even less sense, because it would lose its scratch resistance when sitting beneath the anti-reflection layer.
Why this matters: Scratch-resistant sapphire would have been a welcome feature for anyone who slaps on a case for more than stylistic reasons. And prior to the iPhone 6 launch, numerous unconfirmed reports claimed that the new material would be a key feature. But Soneira believes the likelihood of everything coming together this year was “close to zero.” With GT closing up shop, the wait for an unbreakable iPhone may be considerably longer.