iPhone 6 Sapphire Display Is the Big Question--WSJ Says Limited to Pricey Models

One of the biggest question marks surrounding the iPhone 6 is whether it will use a sapphire crystal display or a sapphire laminate. Thursday's Wall Street Journal reported that the material isn't quite ready and that if it's used, it will only be in high-end versions of both the 4.7- and 5.5-inch phones. Citing sources "familiar with the matter," the Journal says that it simply depends on whether enough sapphire can be manufactured. According to the report, sapphire displays for the iPhone 6 and the expected smartwatch will begin rolling off production lines this month at the new plant in Arizona that Apple has invested in. The article says that the plant won't be fully operational until next year. And amazingly, once it's at full capacity it will produce twice as much sapphire crystal as the the total amount produced by the current top 100 manufacturers combined. Apple certainly has plans for this material. But when? And how much will it cost the consumer?

The Journal says that a sapphire display would cost Apple $16 compared to $3 for Gorilla Glass. On the other hand, if the material is so hard that it results in less cracking and breaking, Apple would save money on warranty costs. But estimates suggest that the warranty savings wouldn't completely make up for the extra expense. Apple may simply choose to absorb the extra cost, which would reduce profit margins, but would give the phones a feature that people would love. And that Apple could market heavily.

Apple has always been focused on the experience of the user, and has always wanted to make devices that people love. The Journal says that an estimated 11% of iPhone displays are cracked or broken, and it's hard to love a broken device. Apple is probably the only smartphone maker that can afford to make this move. It's doubtful that any other manufacturer would be willing to make the $700 million investment that Apple is. 

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Sapphire has some downsides. It's heavier. And according to the maker of Gorilla Glass, their displays do better than sapphire in drop tests and are less reflective in sunlight. I'm guessing that Apple has these things figured out. Perhaps they're using a sapphire laminate and an anti-glare coating. The laminate would make the display harder but not necessarily heavier. And wouldn't be as expensive as a pure sapphire display.

Of course, with Apple going all-in for sapphire, the costs will inevitably come down, given the huge volume that Apple will producing.

You have to hand it to Apple for always moving ahead, pushing into new technologies, and focusing on making devices their customers will love.

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Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.