Foldable phones, 5G, and how Corning's Gorilla Glass fits into all of it
The smartphone industry is one that's filled with a lot of competition and passionate, loyal fans. People will spend countless hours debating which phone, operating system, camera, etc. is truly the best, but no matter if you have a Galaxy Note 10 (opens in new tab), OnePlus 7 Pro (opens in new tab), iPhone 11 (opens in new tab), or any other mainstream handset, they all have one thing in common — they use Corning Gorilla Glass.
When you step back and think about that, it's a pretty phenomenal achievement for Corning. The glass on your smartphone is something you interact with countless times every single day. It's the component of your phone that you're the most hands-on and familiar with, and over the 12+ years since the inception of Gorilla Glass, Corning's established itself as the defacto standard for glass on just about every mainstream phone.
Looking at Corning's history as a company, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it does such a good job at creating glass. Corning entered the glass-making market all the way back in 1879 when it created the encasement for Thomas Edison's lightbulbs, and over the years since has continued to innovate. Corning pioneered cathode-ray tubes for CRT TVs in 1939, was responsible for the first heat-resistant glass to be used by NASA for space missions in 1961, and created the world's first fiber optic cable in 1970.
Gorilla Glass wasn't born until 2007, but for a lot of people — myself included — it's the Corning product we're most familiar with. That's an impressive feat for a company that's now 140 years old.
I recently had a chance to tour two of Corning's R&D facilities, including its Sullivan Park Science & Technology Center and Performance & Reliability Lab that's used to test Gorilla Glass. During this visit, I sat down with Scott Forester, Corning's Vice President of Marketing and Innovation for Gorilla Glass, to talk about Gorilla Glass's development and its future with foldable phones.
Unlike smartphones, Corning doesn't release a new version of Gorilla Glass every single year. There was a four-year gap between Gorilla Glass 1 and 2, and two years separating 4 to 5 and 5 to 6. I asked Scott if Corning always has something in mind for its next generation of Gorilla Glass, or if the company waits to see how the public responds to its latest version before starting development on the successor.
Since Corning isn't focused just on consumer electronics, it has scientists and engineers that are continually working (aka playing) with glass and glass-ceramics to see what new things they can create. This constant testing and experimenting with glass lends itself nicely to the development of Gorilla Glass.
Here's what he says:
Since Corning has been around for over a century, the company has a lot of innovation processes that it can look back on and use for future applications. For example, the process for making long, thin, bendable strands of glass was discovered decades before Corning had an application for it in 1970 with the introduction of fiber optic cable. I asked Scott if Corning looked back at an older discovery the company had made when it set out to create Gorilla Glass, and it turns out that it did. Per Scott:
Corning launched its sixth generation of Gorilla Glass back in 2018, with the main focus of this latest iteration being to make the glass more resistant against repeated drops — something my butterfingers and I can attest to doing quite often. When asked about the biggest challenge going into creating Gorilla Glass 6, Scott said this:
Gorilla Glass 6 is an impressive achievement and is a more than welcome addition to the industry, but the smartphone form factor is quickly changing. Foldable phones are now a reality, with Samsung and Huawei preparing to launch their first mainstream foldables and other companies expected to follow suit very soon. This first wave of foldable phones use POLED (aka plastic) displays, but a transition to foldable glass needs to happen for these devices to be taken seriously.
A report came out back in March that Corning was in the process of developing a foldable variant of Gorilla Glass, and although we didn't get a chance to see it in person during the tour, Scott Forester did share some insight on the company's current development plans for it:
When asked if Corning was working specifically with OEMs that have already started creating foldables phones, Scott said, "The answer is yes." Corning has active working relationships with Samsung and Huawei, so a Galaxy Fold 2 or Mate X 2 with Gorilla Glass might not be too far off.
Scott also talked a bit about Corning's involvement with 5G and the expanded use of glass for the backs of smartphones — two trends that have not gone unnoticed over the last couple of years. While foldables are still at least a year or two down the road for Corning, these are two things the company is actively involved with.
Talking with Scott and getting to see Corning's facilities up close and in person, it's pretty remarkable the position that Corning is in. Yes, there are other companies out there making glass for smartphones, but Corning kind of has an unspoken stranglehold on the market. Since it doesn't have to concern itself too much with fierce competition, Corning can spend large amounts of time and resources to experiment with different things and create new glass-making processes that'll be used for years and years to come.
Smartphone displays can still break/scratch, and unless Corning reinvents the laws of physics, always will have that potential vulnerability. That said, Corning is on a constant mission to make glass thinner and more durable. Those efforts are seen with its drop tests, temperature and humidity-controlled bend tests, and even the company's "Fractologists" whose job it is to study cracked and shattered smartphone displays to better understand why the glass broke and what Corning can do to prevent that in the future.
These next few years are bound to be some of the most challenging Corning has faced yet for Gorilla Glass. Bendable glass isn't a completely new territory for Corning, but building that to cover a large smartphone display that can be intentionally bent hundreds of thousands of times is quite a tall order.
Add that together with the constant race to 5G and the recent push for colorful and stylized glass smartphone backs, and a lot of the mobile industry rests on Corning's shoulders. After talking with Scott and getting to see some of the company's operations up close and personal, I can't wait to see how Corning pulls all of this off.
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Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.
Great article Joe, very insightful interview!
Thank you -- glad you enjoyed it!
As I was reading this article, I was thinking about whether or not they could do some sort of glass and some sort of glass clear composite in the center of the fold. The glass may have to have a tapered thickness towards the fold to handle the stress of the folding composite that would be attached to both screens. I don't know. I'm just excited to see where technology goes from here.
Thanks for the article, very interesting.
This type of writing is the AC I know and love!
Great article. This kind of thing marks you out from the Android blog crowd.
"Foldable phones are now a reality, with Samsung and Huawei preparing to launch their first mainstream foldables and other companies expected to follow suit very soon." Not sure I can agree with the statement quoted above. Yes, they are real... I mean they do exist in our space-time continuum... but they are so FAR from daily usability as the tool that smartphones have become for millions of people. I think most of us will become worm food long before a fold-able phone becomes a reliable tool for daily, repeated use. Other than that the article was very good. I do wish we could get more phones with sapphire screens.