A Boule of Unprocessed Sapphire
Remember that big sapphire manufacturing deal in Arizona that Apple was working on? According to some excellent sleuthing from Mark Gurman at 9to5Mac, Apple is working with sapphire producer GT Advanced to make enough sapphire for 200 million iPhone displays, and if so, Apple will leave the competition flat-footed once again.
Apple bought a major manufacturing facility in Arizona in 2013, and the company signed a deal with GT Advanced to use some of the space in the facility to make sapphire. As Apple has done with many of its suppliers in Asia, the deal is that Apple owns the space and buys the equipment, and the supplier operates that equipment to make stuff exclusively for Apple.
Hard, Clear, and Strong
Sapphire—or more specifically, synthetic sapphire—is hard, clear, and strong. It's largest application to date has been watch crystals, and Apple making this large investment sparked immediate speculation about what Apple might use it for.
The first answer was Apple's rumored iWatch wearable device, but some folks also suggested it was for Touch ID covers, or even iPhone displays. While the iWatch may or may not get a sapphire display of its own, documentation uncovered by Mr. Gurman strongly indicates that it will be used for smartphones.
In addition, GT Advanced has taken delivery on 518 sapphire furnaces, enough to produce between 103 million and 116 million iPhone displays over the course of a year. The company has another 420 of the machines on order, enough to produce a total of as many as 200 million such displays.
Read the full piece for all the documentation and images of the machines and other information. It was a great piece of reporting.
That Was Then
I'm more interested in the ramifications, though. One of the things that made the original iPhone so awesome was the use of Gorilla Glass, an all but abandoned glass product made by Corning. Gorilla Glass made it possible to put a device with a giant glass front in our pockets without it being shredded to death by keys and the other assorted things we keep in our pockets.
It was so good, the rest of the industry quickly adopted Gorilla Glass and similar glass products for high end smartphones, eroding Apple's early adopter advantage over time. If Apple abandoned Gorilla Glass for sapphire, it would re-establish that advantage, and do so in a way that would be very hard for the rest of the industry to duplicate or emulate.
That would leave the iPhone as the most scratch-resistant smartphone on the market for a long, long time.
The reason it would be harder for other companies to emulate is that sapphire production on this scale hasn't been done before, and the capital investment necessary to make it happen is enormous. Because of Apple's fabulous cash hoard, Apple has been able to lock up one of the top sapphire producers in the world, provide space for almost a thousand very expensive machines, and because Apple owns those machines, control where the sapphire goes.
Could Samsung follow suit? Probably, if it was very, very committed to doing so, but it would take time, and a lot of it. Apple has been working on this for years, and this facility still isn't online. If Samsung was willing to commit the billions of dollars necessary to make this happen, it would be many years before the company could produce devices with sapphire displays in quantity.
The 64-bit A7 processor, the Motion coprocessor, Touch ID, and sometime within the next year or two, sapphire displays. Apple continues to catch the competition with its pants down, even while Apple haters proclaim the end of innovation at the company.