Longtime Apple supplier and Gorrila Glass maker Corning is working on glass that can fold — and it could debut just in time for the first foldable iPhone.
There’s a bit of context to understand here. The first early foldable smartphones — like those from Samsung and Huawei — use plastic polymers instead of glass for their displays.
While plastic is more flexible than glass, it carries a number of disadvantages. It’s much easier to scratch, it’s not as hard, and it can wrinkle and crease over time. Glass is stronger and can actually fold a lot further than you may expect. But not quite enough for foldable smartphones — yet.
To be clear, Corning already makes glass that can bend. Its Willow Glass material can be rolled up like a sheet of paper. But Willow Glass is unsuitable for smartphones because its production process uses salt, which corrodes the components found in displays.
“We have glasses we’ve sampled to customers, and they’re functional, but they’re not quite meeting all the requirements,” Bayne told Wired.
In addition to the production process, there are other concerns. To get a tight enough bend radius for a foldable smartphone, the glass must be fairly thin. But thin glass will also be much more susceptible to damage when dropped.
Now, Corning is attempting to use its glass knowledge to develop bendable display glass with a high bend radii that can also survive a drop and resist everyday scratches. That’s no easy feat, but they’re working on it.
“People either want better performance against a drop event or a tighter bend radius,” Bayne said. “We can give them one or the other; the key is to give them both.”
Wayne told Wired that he believes Corning foldable display glass will be ready for mainstream smartphones within a couple of years. That may line up perfectly with Apple’s plans.
The timeline is significant because Apple has used Corning glass since the first iPhone, so it’s likely that the glass for the first foldable iPhones could be sourced from the U.S. company. Past reports suggest that Apple is developing foldable smartphone tech, but an actual folding iPhone probably won’t arrive until 2020 or later.
Apple, historically, is a slow adopter when it comes to new smartphone trends (at least for the ones it doesn’t start). That’s largely because the company isn’t going to debut a mass market “beta product” like the current foldable smartphones.
In addition to the problems of plastic, early foldable smartphones have other challenges to overcome — like a clunky form factor and an unrealistic price tag. Those issues have to be addressed before they go mainstream, and Apple’s first folding smartphone (and Corning’s foldable display glass) may just be right on time.