While Samsung's Galaxy S 5 phone is waterproof, Apple's next iPhone may feature nearly scratch-proof screens manufactured in Arizona from sapphire, one of the hardest surfaces known to man.
Late last year, Apple announced it was building a 700-employee manufacturing facility in partnership with GT Advanced, a New Hampshire-based materials manufacturing company that specializes in sapphire production. According to a new report, GT Advanced has installed more than 2,500 sapphire furnaces in the factory for Apple's exclusive use.
The facility is expected to make sapphire boules — essentially giant chunks of sapphire — that weigh between 200 and 235 kilograms, with each of those creating sapphire for many, many devices. The entire facility may be able to produce as many as 200 million sapphire panels annually. For comparison, Apple sold 150 million iPhones in fiscal 2013 and is on track to sell millions more than that in fiscal 2014.
Synthetic sapphire, chemically identical to the geologic stone, is generally called "sapphire glass," though the material isn't strictly glass, because it's not amorphous. Instead, it's extremely transparent to wavelengths of light that the human eye can see, and — more importantly for a smartphone display — it's extraordinarily scratch-resistant.
This substance has been used for years as a high-end watch crystal, in grocery store barcode scanners, and (more recently) as a protective cover for the iPhone 5s's Touch ID-equipped home button and to cover the iPhone's rear camera lens. Watch the video below:
It's generally considered to be one of the strongest materials known to man, with diamonds the only common substance to scratch it. For customers, it means that scratched smartphone glass — already reduced significantly because of advances in Corning's Gorilla Glass technology — could be nearly eliminated. Sapphire isn't indestructible, with Corning itself arguing that Gorilla Glass is a better material than sapphire because it doesn't shatter as easily, but it's apparent that Apple is spending many millions of dollars as part of a huge bet on sapphire.
A patent application from last year suggests that Apple's engineers have found a new way to laminate sapphire and glass layers together, potentially giving the iPhone the best of both worlds: ultimate scratch resistance, as well as anti-shatter abilities.
For business travelers, it means that the iPhone could become the gold standard for indestructible smartphones, as Apple simultaneously launches new larger-screened iPhones, perhaps in 4.7" and 5.5" sizes. It's also possible that Apple has effectively prepurchased much of the world's production of sapphire in the short-term, meaning competitors may not be able to offer comparably durable screens any time soon.
If the rumors are correct, the iPhone 6 is shaping up to be perhaps the biggest iPhone upgrade since the iPhone 4, and very likely the most successful. What about you? Is a larger iPhone with a sapphire screen likely to pique your interest? Let us know in the comments below.
Jordan Golson is an Apple Columnist for TechRepublic. He also writes about technology and automobiles for WIRED and MacRumors. He has worked for Apple Retail twice and has been writing about technology since 2007.