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Corning weighs in with its own 600-pound gorilla

The Tobisha Tablet on display at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Hilton January 6, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology tradeshow, runs through January 9 and is expected to feature 2,700 showing off their latest products and services to about 126,000 attendees. The new tablet is expected to be release in 2011.

David Becker/Getty Images

This year's surprise success story at the Consumer Electronics Show wasn't a tablet company or an application developer, it was a 150-year-old glassmaker.

Until the world's biggest technology conference got under way in Las Vegas last Thursday, more people had associated Corning Inc. with cookware than with tablet computers.

However that quickly changed after Microsoft announced during the CES keynote presentation that the newest version of Surface - a table-sized multi-touch computer designed for businesses - would use a component called Gorilla Glass to protect the screen. In the days following the Microsoft keynote, a slew of other companies, including Motorola, Samsung and Sony, announced the displays on their tablets, smart phones and televisions would also use Gorilla Glass.

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Suddenly, the company behind the ultra-tough glass technology became one of the most talked-about names at CES. Retail and industry representatives crowded around the Corning booth on the showroom floor to watch as demonstrators easily shattered normal glass panels, but failed to put a crack in Gorilla Glass, which is especially designed to withstand stress even when the glass itself is very thin. Corning first developed the technology five years ago, and since then has found an indirect way to cash in on first the smart phone, and now the tablet, revolutions.

"In 2006, smart phones were starting to get bigger, and designers were becoming more conscious of how nice the devices looked," said Bill Seiderman, the company's marketing manager. "A good alternative to plastic was glass, but to get tough glass it needs to be at least two to three millimetres thick, which adds to weight and reduces the sensitivity [of touch screens]"

Gorilla Glass, which undergoes a chemical treatment that strengthens the surface, can be about one millimetre thick. Since first developing the technology, Corning has progressively adapted it to larger screens: from smart phones to tablets and laptops to televisions. This year, the explosive growth of the mobile device market prompted the company to make an appearance at CES for the first time, armed with a slick advertising campaign featuring a smart-phone-wielding gorilla.

The tablet market represents an especially lucrative opportunity for Corning. Forrester Research expects U.S. tablet sales to more than double by the end of 2011, reaching some 24 million units. Unlike televisions, however, tablets screens are much more likely to undergo stress, normally as a result of being dropped.

In addition to tablets and smart phones - since 2006, the company has produced Gorilla Glass for about 200 million units - Corning is also moving into the larger-screen market. The company's highlight announcement at CES was a deal to make glass for the displays on Sony's Bravia line of flat-screen televisions. Corning expects the addition of the TV industry business to turn Gorilla Glass into a billion-dollar market in the next few years.

"The whole market is growing," Mr. Seiderman said. "Designers who want the look and feel of glass on larger formats no longer have to compromise."

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