Can Corning's Phire Rise Up To Sapphire's Challenge?

Almost a year ago, Corning’s most renowned offering, Gorilla Glass, was facing severe competition. Gorilla Glass, the most widely used cover glass on smartphones across the world, was at risk of being replaced from Apple’s iPhone 6 by a sapphire-based cover glass, which was found to be significantly scratch-resistant. Apple’s move to invest in the creation of a large sapphire crystal fabrication facility with GT Advanced Technologies initially fueled speculation of sapphire replacing Gorilla Glass in the iPhone 6. In the end, Gorilla Glass turned out to be the winner, maybe not because of its better drop-resistance, but due to sapphire supply issues.

Despite the win, Gorilla Glass’ reputation came into question. Sapphire had exposed a major weakness, which raised concern among smartphone manufacturers. Corning then came out with another version of its cover glass, Gorilla Glass 4, which claimed to be twice as strong compared to any other cover glass in the market. However, its scratch resistance still wasn’t comparable to that of sapphire. At its investor meeting on February 6, Corning unveiled its “design-in” version of Gorilla Glass, named Project Phire. Below we take a look at it.

See our complete analysis of Corning here

Phire Vs. Sapphire

According to the presentation given by Corning at their annual investor meeting, Phire is significantly stronger than Gorilla Glass 4, successfully clearing the drop test at heights way beyond Gorilla Glass 4′s threshold. However, Corning has been known to considerably up its performance with every new version of Gorilla Glass, so it is not really a surprise to see a marked improvement with Phire. Additionally, with Corning focused on addressing the issue of screen breakage from dropping a device, improved drop test results are expected with every new installment of Gorilla Glass.

What stands out about Phire, unlike previous Gorilla Glass versions, is its scratch resistance. The image given below was presented by Corning, comparing the results of a scratch test between Gorilla Glass (version not mentioned), Phire and Sapphire.

While Gorilla Glass had wide bands of scratches, both Phire and sapphire had very fine marks. With almost no visual difference between scratches on Phire and sapphire cover glasses, it is clear that Corning has overcome the only disadvantage that its previous versions of Gorilla Glass had. This presentation indicates that Phire may be superior to sapphire-based cover glass due to its strength, as suggested by the drop test results.

Will Costs Be An Issue?

An important parameter that will drive Phire’s success is its cost. While Corning has yet to provide any details on this aspect, we believe that given Corning’s reputation of being a low-cost producer of its glass products, it is likely that costs involved in the production of Phire will also be low. But the point of comparison that will truly drive its success will be its costs compared to sapphire-based cover glass and how much of a premium Corning charges for Phire. Given that Corning claims that sapphire costs ten times more to manufacture compared to Gorilla Glass, the Phire might have a lot of leg room in terms of how much higher the costs can go while maintaining its cost advantage.

Phire could fetch Corning higher revenues since the company is likely to charge a premium for it. This should help moderate the price declines that Gorilla Glass has been suffering from in the past year. Additionally, since Phire appears to match sapphire’s scratch resistance, it could enter markets where sapphire has been dominating such as watch glass, smartphone camera lens covers and fingerprint scanners, thereby increasing revenue streams.

Corning announced that Phire will be available commercially in the second half of 2015, so we can expect some more details soon. We will keep an eye out for any information regarding the costs involved in Phire production and how that compares to sapphire, since at this point it seems that it is this parameter that may decide Phire’s fate.

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