Google is already working on a foldable Pixel phone

But don’t expect to see it anytime soon. The search giant says foldable screens aren't yet a must-have feature.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read
Google Pixel 3A XL

Google announced the Pixel 3A on Tuesday, but also confirmed it's prototyping foldable displays.

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Google has been prototyping technology for foldable phones, but don't expect a folding version of the search giant's flagship Pixel phone or its cheaper Pixel 3A anytime soon.  Phones with screens that bend and hinge have been touted as the future of smartphones, generating tons of hype and excitement with their ability to transform from a phone into a tablet. 

Some of the early enthusiasm, however, has faded since the screens on review units of Samsung's Galaxy Fold began breaking. The embarrassment forced Samsung to postpone the release date for its $1,980 device, which was one of the first major foldables to be announced.

Google has also experimented with the foldable form, said Mario Queiroz, who leads development of Pixel phones, ahead of the search giant's I/O developer conference. But Google isn't in a rush to get a folding product to market.

"We're definitely prototyping the technology. We've been doing it for a long time," Queiroz said in an interview last week at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. But, he added, "I don't think there's a clear use case yet."

Close up with the Galaxy Fold's original screen, notch and hinge

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Foldables are good for people who want bigger screens, he said, but that won't be enough to spur consumer interest.

"I think it needs to be more innovative than that," he said, referring to the expanding screen size that foldable phones offer. "The use case is going to need to be something where you go, 'Hey, I definitely need to have this.' Right now, you don't need to have a foldable. It's kind of a 'nice-to-have.'"

It's unclear how far along Google is in developing its foldable prototype or how its screen would operate when opened and closed. Samsung's Galaxy Fold has a smaller screen on the front and opens up into a larger one on the inside. Huawei's Mate X, another foldable, has a different design that puts its 8-inch screen on the outside.

Samsung Galaxy Fold, unfolded.

Samsung's Galaxy Fold, unfolded.

Angela Lang/CNET

In a follow-up statement, Queiroz reiterated that there are no plans to go to market with a foldable right now.

"We're prototyping foldable displays and many other new hardware technologies, and have no related product announcements to make at this time," he said. "We're focusing our excitement today on the new members of the Pixel family, the awesome and affordable Pixel 3A and 3A XL," midtier versions of Google's flagship phone line that the company announced Tuesday.

Google's experimentation with a foldable comes as phone makers across the board have struggled with sales amid rising prices for high-end phones. Last week, Google said Pixel sales are lower this year than last year. Google CFO Ruth Porat said it was because of "recent pressures in the premium smartphone market." Google's rivals are feeling the pressure too. Apple said last week that it sold fewer iPhones year over year, while Samsung also struggled with disappointing phone revenue.

Watch this: Our Galaxy Fold didn't break. Here's what's good and bad

Google launched the Pixel 3A, which starts at half the price of the premium version at $399, in part to deal with those sluggish sales. The midtier model is designed to make Google's flagship line more accessible. A foldable Pixel, should one ever reach the market, would compete at the opposite end of the spectrum. For example, the rumored foldable Motorola Razr supposedly would sell for $1,500.

Foldable phone sales will reach 30 million units, accounting for 5% of the high-end phone market, by 2023, according to a Gartner forecast last month. They will likely be considered a luxury item for years.