The idea behind the Apple iPhone 5C is that it comes with a pre-cracked screen so you don’t have to worry about cracking it yourself. But since it’s not an actual product, we generally have to wait patiently for our own clumsiness, drunkenness, short temper or a combination of the three to do the job.
You may not know it, but your smartphone or tablet probably uses Corning’s damage-resistant Gorilla Glass already. There’s a short list of devices here, though pay attention to the part that says, “Due to customer agreements, we cannot identify all devices that feature Gorilla Glass. Your favorite device may include Gorilla Glass, even if you don’t see it listed.”
Apple isn’t listed, but the existence of Gorilla Glass as a consumer product came about as a result of the original iPhone, according to an interview Steve Jobs‘ biographer Walter Isaacson had with Fortune‘s Adam Lashinsky in 2011.
The short version is that Jobs wanted to use glass instead of plastic for the iPhone’s screen, but glass cracked too easily. Someone suggested he check with Corning, which had gained notoriety by developing a type of tough but light glass in the 1960s called Chemcor that eventually made its way into “tableware, ophthalmic products, and applications for the automotive, aviation, and pharmaceutical industries,” according to the company.
As the story goes, Jobs flew to Corning, New York to meet with Corning CEO Wendell Weeks and explained that he wanted the iPhone’s screen to be made of glass, but that it had to be durable and he needed enough of it within six months to be produced for all the iPhones he was planning to sell. Weeks apparently told Jobs about the development of Gorilla Glass, but said he wasn’t set up to actually mass-produce it. Jobs, in typical Jobsian fashion, apparently placed an order for a ton of Gorilla Glass anyway, repeatedly telling Weeks, “Don’t be afraid. You can do this.” Corning’s official version of the story is simply that the company “began developing a tough new cover glass for electronic devices in 2006.” The iPhone was unveiled in early January of 2007 and went on sale in late June.
So that was the first version of Gorilla Glass, which was then followed up by the introduction of Gorilla Glass 2 at CES a year ago. Gorilla Glass 2 was basically Gorilla Glass, except 20% thinner than the original. With the recent introduction of Gorilla Glass 3 – which should find its way into devices later this year — Corning is using “a completely new glass composition, with durability enhancements developed at the structural level of the glass.”
If you’ve ever cracked your smartphone or tablet screen, you may be dubious of Gorilla Glass’s effectiveness. The company admits that Gorilla Glass can break “if subjected to enough abuse,” but that it’s “better able to survive the real-world events that most commonly cause glass to scratch, chip, or break.”
However, whereas Gorilla Glass 2 was basically a reduction in thickness of a product developed in 2006, with Gorilla Glass 3, the company is promising “enhanced scratch resistance, reduced scratch visibility, and better retained strength once a scratch occurs.”
It’ll be interesting to see how well this new process actually holds up in real-world use. Until then, here’s a demo of a sheet of Gorilla Glass 3 taking its licks from a steel ball that weighs almost a third of a pound, along with some additional background about the product: