The Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X have wowed crowds at MWC 2019 with their folding tricks but while these two bend in different ways, they share one thing in common that enables them to do so. They use plastic polymers for screens instead of glass because the latter just doesn’t bend so easily. That said, Corning, creators of the ubiquitous Gorilla Glass, is already working on a solution that could satisfy all requirements. It’s just a matter of time and working around the laws of physics.
Before the time of Gorilla Glass and its ilk, phones used plastic on their screens, touch sensitive or not. These days, you rarely see plastic screens on smartphones except when they’re advertised as “shatterproof” like Motorola’s ShatterShield tech on its old Force branded phones. Plastic may be making a comeback thanks to foldable phones, but it won’t be without its drawbacks.
Plastic is great at flexibility but it’s terrible at protection. They’re easily scratched, which was one of the hard truths that came to light in the ShatterShield debacle a few years back. They also wrinkle over time, especially when folded repeatedly. That latter point will be especially problematic for foldable phones. For the Huawei Mate X, this also means that the “outie” screen will be easily scratched.
Glass does bend, though not as much as plastic. In fact, Corning does already have a lesser known flexible glass product called Willow Glass. The tradeoff, however, is that it’s not as durable as Gorilla Glass and is, in fact, unsuitable for smartphones. Gorilla Glass’ strength comes from removing sodium ions and packing the same space with larger potassium ions to create more rigidity. In contrast, Willow Glass is “alkali-free”, which has neither sodium nor potassium.
The good news is that Corning is already on the case to bring those two worlds together. The bad news is that it’s going to take a few years. That may sound like a lot of time, but it does give the foldable smartphone segment time to mature and test the waters first.