Friday, November 11, 2011

The Gorilla Glass Story

This story appears in the recent biography of Steve Jobs, "For the iPhone, the original plan was for it to have a plastic screen, like the iPod. But Jobs decided it would feel much more elegant and substantive if the screens were glass. So he set about finding a glass that would be strong and resistant to scratches. The natural place to look was Asia, where the glass for the stores was being made.

But Jobs’s friend John Seeley Brown, who was on the board of Corning Glass in Upstate New York, told him that he should talk to that company’s young and dynamic CEO, Wendell Weeks. So he dialed the main Corning switchboard number and asked to be put through to Weeks. He got an assistant, who offered to pass along the message.

“No, I’m Steve Jobs," he replied.

“Put me through.

” The assistant refused.

Jobs called Brown and complained that he had been subjected to “typical East Coast bullshit.

” When Weeks heard that, he called the main Apple switchboard and asked to speak to Jobs.

He was told to put his request in writing and send it in by fax. When Jobs was told what happened, he took a liking to Weeks and invited him to Cupertino."

The story is incorrect. I introduced Wendell Weeks to Steve Jobs,the original reason for the introduction was not gorilla glass and was at Wendell's initiative not Steve's. Wendell and I had had a discussion about another program at Corning. As a result of the discussion Wendell asked that I contact Steve and ask for a discussion. When Steve could not get through to Wendell he emailed me the "east coast bullshit" memo at Intel which I forwarded to Wendell. Wendell and I composed a response which he emailed to Steve requesting a dinner meeting at Kueletto's. Later, a friend of mine who worked at Apple wrote a short brief for Wendell before the meeting so he knew what to expect from Steve.

In truth, Corning had been reaching out to Apple for some time. In the early 1990's, Wendell's predecessor as CEO, John Loose, had sent me and two others out to Apple to brief them on the functioning of the display market. At the time, Apple's understanding of the display supply chain was very limited. Apple was still building a majority of their notebooks with monochrome displays when most of the competition had already switched to color. The returns to scale had already tipped in favor of color and monochrome's big discount was rapidly vanishing.

The story is telling in one sense, in that it was very easy for me to contact Steve Jobs while it was impossible for Steve Jobs to get through the Corning switchboard to talk to Wendell (east coast vs. west coast open communications). When I was fund-raising for Toprover, I reached out to Steve again and was able to get him to look at their web presentation on TV/home automation software. (Interestingly, the Toprover site and any presence it had in the internet archives has since vanished.) I also had the impression that he read some of the things I wrote for Visus et Veritas, or at least that we thought alike. A few years ago, before the retina display, I wrote an article stating that the screens for mobile devices had too few pixels to do justice to the apps that were being proffered. One of the things that Steve told Wendell was that if Corning was going to be a high tech player, they needed to have a presence in Silicon Valley. I had told Wendell 20 years earlier (before he was CEO) that Corning needed a lab in the valley.

(added) When IBM went looking for an operating system for its original PC, they investigated Digital Research's Disk Operating System (DR DOS). However, when the IBM people came to meet with the ownere of Digital Research, he was having too much fun sailing his boat around and missed the meeting. IBM decided that he was not serious about their business and went to Microsoft for their version of DOS and the owner of Digital Research eventually drank himself to death knowing that he could have been Bill Gates. Not being able to get anyone on the phone, Mr. Jobs would probably have ben even less inclined to call Corning back than IBM was for Digital Research. Reaching out first was key.

Norman Hairston


  1. A further comment about the foregoing, when I was new to Corning and, coincidentally working on a project for Wendell, I spent about 3 hours on the phone with Al Shugart. In silicon Valley, Al was the Steve Jobs of the previous era. In no case did I ever have a problem getting through to anyone in the valley or getting them to talk about their business. They, of course, do not want to waste their time with you but in general, if it involves something of interest to them conversation in the valley flows freely.

    It may well have been, absent Wendell reaching out to Steve that Steve would have called Wendell about the coverglass need for the iPhone. However, absent the reach out from Corning, when Steve did not get through, his next call would have been to another glassmaker rather than to me.

  2. hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)

  3. You go Norm. I think it is important to set the record straight.


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