In May 2018, I attended the annual Society of Information Display conference in Los Angeles and saw the first public demonstration of a foldable display. I got to play with the prototype of the foldable smartphone that BOE, a Chinese display manufacturer, was showing off at its booth. I saw for myself how a folding display could revolutionize the design of smartphones in the future.
Since then Samsung has introduced its first-generation foldable, the Galaxy Fold. At least three other smartphone vendors have their own foldable smartphones in the works for delivery late this year or early next year.
Foldable smartphones were the first products to use a foldable screen. But last May, Lenovo introduced the first commercial foldable laptop, the ThinkPad X1 Fold. I got to test it at a Lenovo event in Orlando, and found the concept of a foldable-screen laptop to be as transformational as a folding smartphone.
However, all of these early foldable devices have one design flaw. They use a plastic polymer for the display cover, which is less hard than glass and therefore easier to scratch, warp and even gouge during use. As users of the current crop of conventional smartphones know, the glass on their screens is highly scratch resistant and very tough, thanks mostly to the Corning Gorilla Glass that is on over seven billion devices in use today.
When I ask the makers of first-generation folding smartphones and laptops about their use of plastic polymer covers, they point out that it’s currently the only flexible material they have available to them. Thus they’ve chosen to use it, even with its less scratch-resistant surface. Most believe that the advances in plastic polymers will result in sturdier screens before long. But once foldable glass becomes available they will most likely move to it.
Since Corning is the leading provider of glass smartphone screens with its Gorilla Glass, I asked the company for feedback about its work in folding glass and timetable for its use in foldable smartphones and laptops. I ended up discussing the subject via email with John Bayne, Corning’s senior VP and general manager for Gorilla Glass, who reports that the company’s work on bendable glass for folding screens is well underway.
Here’s what he told me:
Foldable devices are being positioned as the natural evolution to larger displays for smartphones and another major step change in form factor design. However, while an interesting design concept, the use case and form factors have yet to be finalized and design concepts continue to evolve. The current plastic based solutions have fundamental challenges around optics, scratch and warp.
We believe glass will be a key component of the ultimate cover solution. That said, we also know today’s glass solutions still need to be improved. Corning is currently working on developing a better ultra-thin, durable and optically advantaged glass solution for the inside cover of a continuous display that can bend at a tight radius hundreds of thousands of times without significant damage at the fold.
We are working with our customers on this challenge and are currently sampling our development glass with them to optimize the product for their design requirements. While we can’t put a specific timeframe on it right now since the glass is still in development, we believe that our glass solution will be ready in the next 12-18 months.
Decades of development
Bayne mentioned that Corning has a long history of creating folding glass. When I asked Corning officials about this, they directed me to the work they have done in fiber optics as an example of the company’s long roots in creating flexible glass.
To learn more about this history, I spoke with Claudio Mazzali, senior VP of technology for optical communications at Corning. He told me that the company has been bending glass for almost 50 years. The need for folding glass came about when telecommunications providers and other Corning customers needed to move beyond copper cables, which became rigid with higher data speeds. Glass fiber optics are able to deliver higher-speed communications, and Corning created flexible glass fibers for use in all sorts of settings. and spaces. According to Mazzali, these fiber cables can bend at 90 degrees with no loss of data speed.
A few years back, I got a striking demonstration of this during a visit to Corning’s optical communications manufacturing facilities in Hickory, NC. Corning employees wrapped a live cable around my finger a couple of times and there was no degradation of the ultra-high speed data traveling through these glass-fiber optic cables.
At first, Corning was only able to deliver these bendable glass fiber optic cables over very short distances, but over the years, as customers needed to use these cables for very long distances, such as for use in underwater cables spread across ocean floors, the company was able to deliver these high speeds at much greater distances.
These particular flexible glass-fiber cables are a critical part of the rollout of 5G networks. To produce the kind of coverage and speeds that 5G is capable of delivering, telecommunications carriers need to put it in hundreds of thousands of new antennas and base stations, large and small, all tethered to glass fiber optic cables. As Mazzali pointed out, these new base stations and antennas will require a lot of creative physical engineering using bendable cables that can be deployed on all types of poles, buildings, and other structures to meet coverage demands across the U.S. and around the world.
Having worked with bendable glass in fiber optics and applications for so long, Corning is confident that it can deliver the much-needed bendable Gorilla Glass for future foldable devices. Mazzali says that Corning’s research is centralized and that the work done there can be translated for use in all Corning divisions as needed.
The other big area where bendable glass is relevant today—and will be only more so in the future—is in automotive applications. Mike Kunigonis, Corning’s VP and general manager of automotive glass solutions, told me that automobile customers began asking for glass that could be shaped and curved for years.
In their quest for innovative design, car manufacturers want to include more displays and longer front windows, requiring glass in new shapes. Corning developed a new process called “Cold Forming Gorilla Glass” that economically shapes to the glass for use in new automobile designs. “The cold form process delivers a lot of savings,” says Kunigonis. Future heads-up displays may also require glass formed into new shapes.
The lure of the foldable laptop
Given that Corning has a proven history of being able to create bendable and flexible glass, there’s every reason to believe that it will eventually deliver a Gorilla Glass cover for folding smartphones and tablets, replacing the inferior plastic polymers that are on early foldables.
The bigger question is whether there will be a real market for folding smartphones and laptops. The industry is in the early stages of creating flexible-screen devices and is bound to experiment with all types of form factors before we can even judge if there is one design that will catch on.
I am one of the few analysts that has had a chance to work with both a folding smartphone and a folding-screen laptop, and I am inclined to believe that laptops may be the folding-screen devices that gain more ground with business users—and, eventually, consumers. By nature, laptops are larger, bulkier, and heavier than smartphones. Reducing their weight and size by giving them foldable screens will make them much easier to carry and use. That makes them an ideal platform for flexible screens to disrupt.
As for foldable smartphones, I do see early adopters and users in some vertical markets buying them to meet specific mobile computing needs and desires. However, I am not yet convinced there is a mass market for folding smartphones, given that early models such as the Galaxy Fold are very expensive, with a design that has some flaws. But regardless of which form factor gets the attention of a broader market, there’s no question that flexible and folding displays will bring new and innovative designs to smartphones and laptops.