Mobile Phone As Home Computer (2023)

a product/business idea by Philip Greenspun in September 2005What would you call a device that has a screen, a keyboard, storage forpersonal information such as contacts, email, documents, the ability toplay audio and video files, some games, a spreadsheet program, and acommunications capability? Sound like a personal computer? How about"mobile phone"?

A mobile phone has substantially all of the computing capabilitiesdesired by a large fraction of the public. Why then would someone wantto go to the trouble of installing and maintaining a personal computer(PC)? The PC has a larger keyboard and screen, a larger storagecapacity, can play more sophisticated games, and has a fastercommunications capability.

This is a plan for building an appliance into which a mobile phone plugsand that extends the phone's capabilities without requiring the consumerto become a system administrator or be aware that he or she owns morethan a phone. In the rest of this document we will call the new device"The Appliance".

Dethroning the Mighty PC

At first glance it would seem difficult to make something better thanthe PC, a product so beloved by customers that more than 200 million areexpected to be purchased worldwide in 2005, for a total cost ofapproximately $200 billion.

If you are an architect and want to run a computer-aided design program,the PC is great. If you are an electrical engineer and want to designcircuits, a PC is great. If you are a filmmaker and want to edit video,a PC is great. For all of these customers it would be difficult indeedto supplant the PC. For a large segment of the market, however, the PCrepresents confusion, misery, and wasted hours.

The PC is a scaled-down circa 1965 mainframe. The hardware engineershave done a brilliant job in changing the way that the circuits areconstructed. The software engineers, unfortunately, have presentedtoday's consumer with much of the same complexity that professionalprogrammers faced in 1965.

Consider as an example the mainframe file system. The mainframe had ahierarchical file system in which files were divided up into folders.This made it faster to find a particular file by name. The mainframealso had some fast memory, what we call "RAM" today, and some slowmemory, which was and is called "disk". Programmers knew that theycould work on data in RAM but that changes would be erased when theprogram ended or the computer restarted so they saved those changespermanently to files on disk.

What does a personal computer designed for a 65-year-old grandmotherwith no technical training demand her to know? All the same stuff!Grandma has to pick one and only one folder in which each file willreside. Grandma works on a document for awhile and, satisfied with herchanges, quits the word processor. She is asked "Do you want to savethese changes?" "Save them where?" she might wonder. And why weren'tthey already saved somewhere? The result of exposing this muchcomplexity to grandma is that all of her files will be on her desktopand she still won't be able to find important documents withoutresorting to search.

Alan Cooper argued in his 1995 book About Face that thefile system should be used by the operating system but hidden from theuser. There should not be a "file" menu on the typical application. JoeUser works on a document and closes the application when he isdone. If he later wants to go back to an earlier version he asks "let mesee what this document looked like a week ago" or "let me see what thisdocument looked like when I said 'call this Final Draft'". The filesystem is still there, of course, but the interface is divorced from theimplementation.

The PC industry, however, is seemingly unable to change. Nothing hasbeen done to address the havoc wreaked on users except to build betterdesktop search tools for finding those lost files more quickly. Youwould think that the success of programs such as iTunes, MusicMatch, andWindows Media Player, which present a multi-categorized view of files inthe underlying hierarchical file system, would inspire the authors ofother PC programs but this seems not to have been the case.

The Central Principle

As far as the consumer is aware, the only computer that he or she ownsis the handheld mobile phone. The Appliance is a means of driving thephone from a full-size keyboard and display.

(As far as the engineers building The Appliance are concerned, the phoneis the key that identifies the user and the phone is a USB flash drivefor storing a working subset of documents and information. TheAppliance itself is mostly a standard PC running a standard operatingsystem plus a thin layer of custom software.)

(Video) Turn Your Phone Into a Powerful PC

Evidence that it can work

Where is the evidence that there are a substantial number of consumersinterested in a simpler way of computing? There are millions ofJapanese consumers whose only home computing device is an iMode phone,providing them with text messaging, Web pages, and various social andcommercial services. In the U.S. the best example of a successfulsimpler computing product is the Palm operating system. The Palm OSdoesn't hassle the user with "Do you want to save this file?" and "Whichapplication would you like to run today?" You open a document, edit it,and close it when you're done. If someone asks you "Which applicationdid you use to edit that document?" you wouldn't be able to say.Microsoft Outlook is another good example of simplified computing.Within Outlook there are tasks, notes, emails, calendar items, andcontacts. A user can edit any of these without really thinking about"now I am in the special application that I use for editing tasks". Auser is not asked to confirm changes upon editing and then closing anote. Rather than being asked to create a folder hierarchy, a user canview notes by category, by creation date, or by "color". All of theseways of organizing notes are available simultaneously.

Fundamental ways in which the phone/appliance is more powerful

The combination of the phone and Appliance is more powerful than astandard PC in some ways. The physical phone plus a PIN number servesas a secure key identifying the customer and a means of billing thecustomer. This is gradually being adopted in a lot of Europeancountries and Japan as a payment method in shops, for vending machines,and in dealing with government. Someone engaged in online shopping withthe phone/Appliance combo should not need to enter credit card data,shipping address, etc. every time he or she buys something. Similarlysubscription services can be added to and dropped from the customer'sphone bill without the customer having to remember additionalusername/password combinations.

What must it do?

The combination of the phone/Appliance must be able to support thefollowing activities:
  • Web browsing, which includes email access via Hotmail and Gmail, andwhich includes on-demand streams of audio and video
  • the ability to transfer recent and/or selected email messages to thephone itself
  • continuation of the instant message sessions that are very likelyalready active on the phone alone
  • shopping without constantly retyping address and payment information
  • calendar and contacts (basically just using the big keyboard andscreen to enter data more easily into the phone; the Appliance backs upthese data but the phone has a complete set)
  • word processing, spreadsheet
  • digital photo organization, editing, printing, uploading to printingservices, and publishing to the Web
  • music collection storage, access to subscription music services suchas Rhapsody and Yahoo Music, organizing the subset of music that will beavailable on the phone (podcast spoken-word streams can be considered"music")
  • play a DVD movie on the big screen; would be ideal if portions ofthe movie could be transferred to the phone for later viewing
  • burn an audio or MP3 CD with music
  • play a video game sold on DVD and designed for a Windows machine(** this requirement could be relaxed on the assumption that agame-lover will own a separate Xbox or PlayStation **)
Most things on this list that a PC does can be supported via Web orInternet applications, e.g., if the user receives an email with anattachment in an unusual format the Appliance will automatically uploadit to a Web-based service for conversion and display in a browser.

The Hardware

The Appliance is a box containing the following

    stuff you might find in a standard PC

  • DVI output for LCD monitor
  • USB ports for connecting the phone itself, a keyboard, a mouse, aprinter, and other devices
  • a DVD drive/burner for putting in games or movies to play, makingbackups to take off-site, and making music CDs
  • a fast CPU
  • two big hard drives, mirrored (RAID 1), and connected aseasily-swapped cartridges
  • sockets for digital camera memory cards, e.g., CF

    stuff you might not find in a standard PC

  • a 4-port Ethernet switch
  • an 802.11 base station
  • a DSL modem
  • a cable modem
Aside from the cartridge-based hard drives, all of the hardware can bedelivered in a standard mid-sized PC case and powered by a standard PCpower supply. The networking extras can be accomplished via one or twoplug-in PCI cards. The all-in manufacturing cost should be similar tothat of a mid-range PC and therefore the total retail price of theAppliance should be around $350, without software (this is about whatDell charges for a Celeron-based PC without monitor). As explainedlater under "making money", however, a consumer's acquisition of theAppliance might be subsidized by the carrier.

The Software

The Appliance runs a standard operating system such as GNU/Linux orMicrosoft Windows, augmented by software to enable remoteadministration and integration with the telephone.

As with any standard mobile phone, all software is provided free by thecarrier and kept up to date by the carrier in a way that is transparentto the customer. The customer pays a monthly bill for service.

All software is modified so that the File menu is removed and thecustomer is presented with the versioned multi-categorized view ofdocuments envisioned by Alan Cooper. The need to incorporate aconsistent document browser and email/messaging interface into everyprogram implies a requirement that all software incorporated into theAppliance be open source.

For user interface consistency with the phone, the applications on theAppliance take their user interface conventions from the phone operatingsystem. As of late 2005, the majority of smart phones run one of threeoperating systems: Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile. If a customerowns a Nokia Symbian phone, for example, the applications on theAppliance that he or she purchases should have an immediate familiaritywith consistent color schemes and design.

The Internet Connection

The phone has whatever communications capabilities a phone has thesedays. In the absence of alternatives the phone is used by The Applianceas its means of connecting to the Internet. As of 2005 this usuallymeans a throughput of between 50 and 100 Kbps. If the customer wishes ahigher-speed connection he plugs The Appliance into a phone line orcable TV coaxial cable. A dialog box comes up asking the customer if heis willing to add $30 per month (for example) to his existingcommunications bill. If so, The Appliance finishes configuring theconnection to DSL or cable Internet. Note that in no case does thecustomer type a name or billing address into any form or set up TheAppliance with this information. As far as he is concerned the mobilephone carrier already knows who he is, where he lives, and how to billhim.

Note that the kind of easy addition of DSL makes a lot of sense forcarriers such as Verizon that own both mobile phone companies andoffer high-speed home Internet connections.


Nearly all of the network-based services required by a consumer using aphone/Appliance combination already exist. There are severalall-you-can-listen subscription music services, for example. There aredozens of internet-based backup services. There is no need for themaker of the Appliance or the carriers to reinvent or rebuild theseservices. All that is required is for the makers of the Appliance topick a vendor in each category, negotiate a discounted price, and makesure that the client software from each vendor is modified so that theconsumer does not see new interfaces and the consumer does not see new"manage my account" pages nor become aware that he or she hasestablished a relationship with an additional company.

Casual Encounters

Suppose that you visit your friend Bob. You have your phone in yourpocket, you want to surf some password-protected sites on the Web,change some documents, maybe buy some stuff, and he happens to have anAppliance in his house. Instead of trying to get all of your work donewith the phone's tiny screen and keyboard you plug your phone into Bob'sAppliance. The software ensures that you get access to (a) Bob'shigh-speed Internet connection, (b) Bob's keyboard and display, and (c)Bob's fast CPU, but not access to Bob's personal files. The softwareensures that as you surf the Web your bookmarks and saved passwords areavailable.

What if you're away from home and your houseguest Jenny wants to use"the machine"? She doesn't have your phone to plug into the Applianceand certainly does not have your PIN number. If you've set up theAppliance to "allow guests to surf the Web" she can sit down at thekeyboard and monitor and enjoy Internet access but not access to yourpersonal files or information.

Connection Sharing

If more than one person in a household has a phone and an Appliance, allof the Appliances ought to be able to share a single high-speed Internetconnection. Hence the incorporation of an 802.11 transceiver in theAppliance. If multiple Appliances are present in the household they setup a secure mesh network and all transfer their Internet data via thesame DSL or cable connection.

If someone shows up in the household with a laptop computer running aconventional operating system and wishes to use the Internet connectionthis can be authorized by the phone/Appliance owner. It is an openquestion as to the best way to do this. It might work if a dialog boxcould come up on the Appliance or phone with the MAC address of thelaptop and asking for confirmation that it is okay to let this personhave access.


The most critical data are already backed up in virtue of a customeradopting the phone/Appliance combination. Contacts, calendar items,recent documents, etc., are all stored on both the phone and theAppliance.

Off-site backup can be accomplished in three ways. If it is connected viaa high-speed Internet connection, The Appliance will offer the customerthe option of a network backup service. For people with large photo andmusic collections we can sell a matched "offsite backup store".This is just a standard USB external hard drive pre-formatted andincluding a key that only a particular customer's Appliance willrecognize. When the Appliance sees this matched offsite backup store itcopies the contents of its internal hard drive onto the USB drive. (Thekey is necessary so that an evildoer can't simply walk into your house,plug in a hard drive, and get all of your private info. For additionalprotection the backup operation could be limited to times at which thephone is connected to The Appliance and a PIN number is entered.)

The third option for backup, and one that works with large photo andmusic collections, is to break the mirror and pull one of the diskcartridges out for storage in a remote location. A replacement diskcartridge is installed and the mirror reestablished.


Software upgrades will be handled seamlessly and remotely. A singledisk drive failure is handled with a notification to the consumer thatnew data might be at risk and that a new hard drive is on its way in themail. The consumer will follow instructions to replace the appropriatehard drive, which is in a cartridge with a single connector for powerand data.

Hardware failures will be dealt with by the consumer who either bringsthe Appliance into a shop or who gets a replacement Appliance viaovernight delivery. Failures are divided into "both disks" (veryunlikely) versus "not both disks". If it is both disks that have failedthe consumer will have to restore a fresh new Appliance from a USBbackup drive. In the usual case, however, the consumer will pull thedisk cartridges from the old Appliance and plug them into the new one,plug the phone in, and go back to whatever he or she was doing.

(Video) Using an Android phone as your home computer

Making Money

One of the great things about this business is that the carriers don'timagine that they can innovate by themselves. If you take a great ideato IBM or Microsoft their first reaction is "that sounds promising;we'll build it." The mobile phone companies such as Verizon andT-Mobile see themselves as helpless to do anything other than buyoff-the-shelf hardware and software and plug it all together.

Because nearly every Appliance will generate a $200-600 per yearDSL or cable modem revenue stream for the carrier, the carriers couldafford to subsidize the purchase of Appliances much as they currentlysubsidize the purchase of mobile phones.

The company that produces the hardware spec and the software for theAppliance should be able to make money from carriers when consumersinitially purchase the Appliance and from selling services such asInternet backup to Appliance owners.

As an acquisition the company behind the Appliance should be interestingto any firm unhappy about the fact that personal computing is frozen inthe 1980s from a user interface point of view and that most of theprofits go to one company (Microsoft). A handset maker would be alogical acquirer as would any company with a sophisticated engineeringcapability that has been reduced to making commodity PCs to runWindows (e.g., HP). An online services company such as Yahoo or Googlemight acquire the Appliance's creator in order to get a deeper footholdin subscription-based services. Finally, Microsoft itself might buy thecompany, if only to kill it with neglect, as they did with WebTV.

A mobile phone carrier would not be a logical acquirer because it wouldbe too difficult for them to sell to other carriers and becausecontinuing to improve the software and hardware would be beyond theircorporate capabilities.

Objection: Why not just plug the phone into a PC?

Why is this different from plugging the phone into a PC? Mostconsumers already own a USB-equipped Windows XP machine of some sort.Why not supply software that runs on top of their existing PC andperforms the functions described above?

From an engineer's point of view, the Appliance is just a PC withbuilt-in cable and DSL modems and a cartridge system for connectingdisk drives. From a consumer's point of view, however, runningsoftware on top of an existing PC does not get them out of sysadminand upgrade hell. The existing PC might not have mirrored diskdrives. The existing PC might be infected with a virus. The existingPC might be running an older version of XP.

The deeper problems with using an existing or standard PC include thefollowing:

  • A standard PC offers multiple ways to do any given task, thuscreating confusion (e.g., email can be sent from Outlook Express,Outlook, clicking right on a document, using a Web-based mail systemsuch as Gmail or Hotmail)
  • A standard PC needs to be told who are the users and what are theirprivileges.
  • A standard PC needs to be told how to get to an Internet connectionand it needs to be plugged into the Internet connection properly.
  • A standard PC always has the potential for someone to come along andinstall performance-hogging software or otherwise compromise the systemwith configuration changes.
  • A standardly configured home PC running standard programs cannothave all of its software updated remotely and without the owner'sintervention.

Objection: Early adopters won't like it; late adopters won't trust it

Various attempts at doing simpler computing have foundered and one ofthe reasons may be that people who are willing to be early adopters oftechnology only want the greatest possible function. For example, inthe mid-1990s various companies, including Oracle, decided that theworld wanted a simple machine ("network computer") that only functionedas a Web browser. Applications would be provided from centralizedservers. Consumers rejected this approach to computing and kept buyingstandard Windows PCs.

Why might the Appliance succeed where the network computer failed? Amobile phone in 2005 is a vastly more powerful device than a mobilephone in the 1990s. Web-based services are much more useful andpervasive than they were in the 1990s. Network computers were sold bynew and unfamiliar companies. The Appliance will be sold by theconsumer's existing mobile telephony provider, a company with whom he orshe already has a relationship and from whom he or she already buys anew $200-400 device every two years (though much of this cost is hiddenvia the carrier's subsidy). The Appliance might also be subsidized bythe carrier. Most importantly, the Appliance does not try to pusheverything back out onto the network. The Appliance stores a consumer'smusic library on a local hard disk, for example.

A deeper problem that is hinted at by the failure of the networkcomputer is that the Appliance is a new technology and therefore must bydefinition be sold to early adopters. Early adopters are technophileswith the most tolerance for complexity and the most demand forfunction. An early adopter, for example, might object to the Appliancebecause it doesn't have a state-of-the-art video card. A typicalconsumer might not even know that a computer device has a videocard or that there are differences among cards. However, the typicalconsumer, a "late adopter", might be wary of being the first among hisacquaintances to buy a new type of device. The late adopters have beenexposed to PCs for 30 years and think of PCs as a safe purchase even ifthey don't actually know how to use them.

Probably the best way to push through this problem is to make theAppliances free or very low cost with a service agreement, the same waythat carriers have managed to sell hundreds of thousands of expensivesmart phones.

(Video) Tomorrow's World: Home Computer Terminal 20 September 1967 - BBC

Text and photos (if any) copyright 2005 Philip

Reader's Comments

It's about to arrive (7 years after the article):

"Ubuntu for Android: Penguins peck at Nokia's core problem...Your smartphone runs Android when it’s a phone but when you plug into a monitor or dock, Ubuntu kicks in. Plug in a keyboard and you’ve got Ubuntu – with the phone serving as your desktop computer."

You could say this article was very successful in predicting the features of the 2007 iPhone (and later Android phones), which does things like 'play a DVD movie on the big screen', stream music and the like.

-- Michael Bluett, February 22, 2012

someone at Microsoft must have read this article; now in 2015 they want to sell windows phone devices that can double as a desktop;

is this done with the focus on corporations/enterprise markets? i guess that this will not make more sales for Microsoft, as most corporations are already using windows for the desktop.

-- Michael Moser, April 30, 2015

(Video) 7 Ways to Control an Android Device From PC

To say that MS is now implementing this misses (IMHO) the point of this piece.

As I read it, Phil is asking for a simpler UI for users; basically he's asking for iOS. THAT is the important thing. Sharing a CPU and RAM is a pointless, idiotic, distraction. CPU and RAM is cheap and getting cheaper; there is utterly no need to drive your 27" screen using the CPU (and all its thermal constraints) built into a phone.

What MS is offering is the exact opposite of what Phil wants --- you can keep your old Windows, with all its problems and complexity and, hey, we'll add a whole NEW LEVEL of complexity to that...

So how would one implement Phil's vision? Step one would be a dramatically simpler,more secure OS. This is essentially what we have today in something like iOS. If ALL you care about is the vision, then we're done. But if you feel that an additional important part of the vision is large screens and keyboards, then what you want is seamless interaction between these. That is harder, but, again, not for the reason the Continuum fans think. There are two difficulties.

The first is wanting to retain the value in the existing OS while getting rid of what makes it difficult to use. Apple has mad substantial progress along these lines, for example with security measures that are not too disruptive, but it's not clear how far they can go. Much of the pain in using a PC comes from crappy hardware, and the consequent more or less random bugs that result; and it's not clear how far Apple can go in fixing that. (Though they certainly can do a LOT better than they do today.) So what does Apple do? You could imagine, for example, solutions somewhat like OSX Server. What I mean by this is that something like iOS (OSX UI elements, but iOS policy elements) is the base OS, but OSX is (like OSX Server) an optional install, maybe installed in a separate VM? The hope then is that the amount of life that has to take place in the OSX VM grows ever smaller, the security value of the OSX VM likewise grows ever smaller, and the iOS hypervisor is in control of the hardware and can cope better with its faults and stupidities. [My guess is that when the long-awaited ARM-based Mac arrives, it will provide a solution somewhat like this. I would expect the OSX Blue Box(a VM) to stay around forever, though the x86 JIT that accompanies it will probably have a limited lifespan.]

The second issue is that one wants a seamless compute experience between one's phone, tablet, and PC; but this is not best achieved by plugging the phone into a dock --- that's an idiotic solution. The goal is not to share physical hardware; it's to ensure that data of all forms is shared seamlessly across a personal eco-system. Apple has laid the foundation for that with iCloud. The next would be to seamlessly move "state" from one device to another ("I was composing that letter/reading that web page/listening to that song on device A, now I want to continue on device B") and Continuity (not Continuum --- that's MS) solves that problem.

Essentially an iPhone + iMac gives the valuable part of Phil's vision today (minus the simplified OS running on the Mac) but it's achieved by wireless network connections, not by something as 20th century as plugging an iPhone into a dedicated slot in a docking station.

-- Maynard Handley, December 23, 2015

Add a comment | Add a link


Is a smartphone a computer explain your answer? ›

Yes, smartphones and tablets are indeed considered computers. A computer is really any device that accepts input from a user, performs calculations on that input, and provides an output to the user.

Which mobile phone can be used as a computer? ›

Powering mobility

With its 7.6-inch internal display and support for Samsung DeX, Galaxy Z Fold3 is a fitting example of how mobile devices can deliver a PC-like experience. Galaxy Z Fold3 comes with 12GB of RAM and 256GB or 512GB of storage.

Why is a phone better than a computer? ›

The primary advantage of a Smartphone is the availability of apps for almost all types of tasks you want to perform. Combined with the calling facility it makes it much easier to use your Smartphone for activities like booking a cab, or ordering food, which your laptop would make it cumbersome.

How can I use my mobile as a computer? ›

If you connect your phone to a big screen it'll show a more desktop. Looking keyword and mouse

What is smartphone personal computer? ›

A smartphone is a portable computer device that combines mobile telephone and computing functions into one unit.

Can a cell phone replace a computer? ›

Some things are easier to do on a laptop, like editing photos and video, run more advanced programs, code, build new websites, etc. For that matter, we can conclude that smartphones can replace computers to some extent, but not entirely.

Can a phone replace a laptop? ›

In many ways, no. Laptops are still hugely helpful, depending on your job, hobbies, and more. However, your smartphone can now perform many of the functions that were once unique to laptops and computers with the increasingly advanced technology they use.

How can I turn my Android phone into a computer? ›

How to turn your Android Smartphone into Windows 10 PC Desktop ...

What is difference between mobile and computer? ›

A major difference between a desktop and mobile device lies in a data plan vs. the need to have a constant wifi connection. Mobile devices have the advantage of being able to tap into a cellular network to stay connected to the web, while a desktop most of the time only has a WiFi connection to take advantage of.

How is a phone better than a laptop? ›

But if we compare cheap notebooks with expensive smartphones, of course, smartphone performance is better in this case. Phone processors get more powerful every year. Many flagship phones even have liquid cooling now. And almost all smartphones now come with 8-core CPUs, while most laptops still have 4-core processors.

Why phones are better than tablets? ›

A smartphone is excellent for making phone calls, texting friends and keeping up on social media. But if you want a device created for entertainment purposes, the tablet wins out. The larger form factor gives you a bigger screen to watch videos, and more powerful hardware provides a better platform for mobile games.

How can I use my phone as a mouse? ›

How to get started: Download the Remote Mouse app (available on both iOS and Android devices) Install Remote Mouse Server on your computer (available for both Mac and PC) Connect your mobile device and computer to the same Wi-Fi network and then you're all set!

What is mobile desktop? ›

The Mobile Desktop is a Windows desktop environment that behaves just like a regular computer. The difference is that what you see on the screen is happening on a server far away. Unlike a traditional PC, your desktop session is mobile, which means it is available from any computer, thin client, and even from home!

Can we use mobile as CPU? ›

If you have an Android smartphone, you can simply plug in an active USB hub, connect a keyboard, mouse and a display and you can use the smartphone as a regular desktop computer.

What is the difference between a smartphone and a computer? ›

Smartphones and tablets have less storage capacity than a computer, and their components cannot be modified like a desktop computer's can. Desktop and laptop computers can run more powerful software than a smartphone or tablet due to their size, components, and less restrictive power requirements.

Can a smartphone replace a computer? ›

In many ways, no. Laptops are still hugely helpful, depending on your job, hobbies, and more. However, your smartphone can now perform many of the functions that were once unique to laptops and computers with the increasingly advanced technology they use.

What type of device is computer? ›

A computer is an electronic device that manipulates information, or data. It has the ability to store, retrieve, and process data.

Is a television a computer? ›

A TV isn't a computer. It's a device that receives signals from a source, such as a satellite or a cable. Then, it displays those signals as pictures and sounds. Meanwhile, a computer mainly processes and stores data.


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