Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer explains why he's "bullish" on foldable phones

At Google I/O, Lockheimer also shed light on Google's Fuschia OS, saying "it's not about replacing Android or ChromeOS."

Foldable phones grab all the headlines, but are they that useful? The Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X have certainly got people talking - and that's exactly what device manufacturers want. But is there a real use case for foldable phones?

Following Samsung's decision to cancel the launch of its foldable phone, the highly-anticipated form factor was noticeably absent at the Google I/O developer conference in Mountain View, California this week. However, Google's Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer told developers at the event, "I'm pretty bullish on foldables in general."

While it may take a while for foldable phones to become mainstream, "I don't think it's going to be a fad," he said, citing his own personal experience using a foldable phone.

"I'm much more intentional when I use my phone," Lockheimer said. "I didn't expect that." 

Lockheimer, Google's SVP of platforms and ecosystems, oversees Android, Chrome, Chrome OS, and Google Play. He said that he initially chalked up foldable phones as devices with simply a bigger screen. However, he said that an outside display lends itself to "quick triage," while opening a foldable phone for other purposes is a much more deliberate exercise. Lockheimer said he had far fewer moments when he'd pick up his device and suddenly realize, "30 minutes later, I'm still on my phone."

Also: Google is already working on a foldable Pixel phone

Foldable phones were mentioned briefly in the keynote address at Google I/O, and Google discussed features in Android Q that would lend themselves to foldable phones. For instance, Android Q will be able to detect when an app has been paused and when it needs to be resumed, and it offers enhanced support for resizing of apps.

Those features could have been showcased on Samsung's foldable phone, which was supposed to launch in late April. However, the launch was delayed following reports from early reviewers that the screen would crack after just a few days of use.

Samsung, however, isn't the only smartphone maker debuting a foldable phone soon --  Huawei, for instance, officially unveiled the Mate X at Mobile World Congress 2019. During the I/O keynote, Android Senior Director Stephanie Cuthbertson said, "multiple OEMs this year will launch foldable phones running Android." Gartner predicts that foldable phones will represent 5 percent of the high-end smartphone market by 2023.

Meanwhile, Google's hardware makers are also experimenting with foldable form factors, ZDNet's sister site CNET reported this week. However, Mario Queiroz, who leads development of Pixel phones, told CNET that Google isn't in any rush to bring a folding product to market.

"I don't think there's a clear use case yet," he said.

While Lockheimer sounded generally more upbeat about folding phones, he also noted that a lot of the features in Android that would work for foldable phones -- such as resizable apps -- can also be useful for ChromeOS.

Lockheimer also shared some insight into Fuschia, a future OS that Google is working on. He said the open source project is about "trying out new concepts around operating systems."

"It's not about replacing Android or ChromeOS, it's about learning new technologies," he continued. "There are all kinds of form factors ... devices that require different operating systems, not just phones and PCs."