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How Corning’s Crash Project For Steve Jobs Helped Define The iPhone

If the iPhone had shipped with its original plastic screen rather than Gorilla Glass, the whole experience would have been less magical.

How Corning’s Crash Project For Steve Jobs Helped Define The iPhone
[Photo: Blake Patterson/Wikimedia Commons]

About six months before the iPhone hit store shelves in 2007, Steve Jobs called Corning’s CEO, Wendell Weeks, and asked him if he could create a glass cover for a new Apple product that would resist scratches and breakage.

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Corning would have to scramble to have something ready for the manufacturing ramp-up that preceded the iPhone’s release. But the iPhone itself was conceived in a remarkably short timeframe, as Apple hurried to pre-empt other phone makers that were adding iPod-like music features to their devices, threatening Apple’s iPod business.

Actually, the original iPhone spec called for a plastic cover over the touchscreen display. The story goes that Jobs, after using a prototype iPhone for a few weeks, became very worried that the device’s display would get scratched when jumbled around in user’s pockets with keys and coins. So he gathered his engineers and demanded a new glass covering be used for the iPhone. Hence Jobs’s phone call to Weeks.

Jobs’ six-month deadline was a real challenge for Corning, the VP of Corning’s Gorilla division, John Bayne, told me. Bayne said it normally takes Corning close to two years of R&D to get any new product to market.

Fortunately, like the iPhone itself, Gorilla Glass benefited from some earlier R&D, Bayne explained. In the 1960s Corning had worked on strengthened glass for car windshields, and while that product never came to market, Corning would later roll that work into a new glass used in TVs and laptops. And that served as the backbone of the glass Corning proposed to Jobs for the future iPhone. (Bayne’s comments are unusual because it’s standard operating procedure for Apple suppliers to never talk about their relationship with Apple.)

Apple accepted Corning’s invention, and Gorilla Glass has been a key (if under-appreciated) component of the iPhone ever since, making 2017 the 10th anniversary of Gorilla Glass as well as the iPhone.

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Prior to the iPhone, plastic screens were standard fare on smartphones. The iPhone delivered a whole new design metaphor, introducing a glass touchscreen as the main user interface. That, perhaps more than anything else, opened the door for the device to be used like a computer that fits in your pocket. The Gorilla Glass defined the feel of the user’s finger moving around on the touchscreen. For many, it was that tactile experience, combined with the rapid and smooth response of the software, that was the iPhone’s magic.

After Gorilla Glass was used in the iPhone, other smartphone makers quickly followed suit in switching from plastic to glass to cover the front of their devices. Corning says that since 2007 it’s delivered 58 square miles of Gorilla Glass–the equivalent of 28,000 football fields.

While many other smartphone makers have crowed about using Gorilla Glass, Apple has rarely (if ever) publicly acknowledged Corning as the maker of the iPhone’s glass cover.

The Gorilla’s Future

Over the years Corning has strengthened Gorilla Glass exponentially: Gorilla Glass 5 can survive a drop from a height four times higher than the Gorilla Glass used in the original iPhone.

I asked Bayne what the future holds for Gorilla Glass. Smartphone vendors continue to ask for thinner and lighter glass, he told me, which makes the glass even more susceptible to breakage. So the current goal is to develop a thin and light piece of glass that’s virtually unbreakable. Bayne believes Corning will achieve that within the next two to three years.

Gorilla Glass has become more important to Apple and other smartphone vendors as more new smartphones—such as the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X—have glass on their backs as well as their fronts. This is needed to enable the wireless charging features coming out in new models. Since glass is RF (radio frequency) neutral, it allows various radio and electromagnetic signals to be transmitted through the back of the phone.

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As a result of Apple and Corning’s long-term relationship, Apple has invested $200 million in Corning to help it further develop its glass manufacturing. The investment is part of a larger Apple effort to help American manufacturers innovate.

I spoke to Steve Jobs just after he got off the stage at the iPhone announcement event in January 2007. I remember him telling me he believed the iPhone would usher in a new era of mobile computing. Ten years later that sounds almost like an understatement. And Gorilla Glass has been a defining factor in the experience of using an iPhone. Corning may deserve more credit than it’s gotten for its contribution to Jobs’ world-changing device.