Apps is the new Web: sowing the seeds for Web 3.0

[With the phenomenal success of mobile apps, the world of content is migrating from web 2.0 to apps as the new format for creating, packaging, discovering, paying and interacting with information. Andreas Constantinou analyses how apps are the evolution of Web 2.0 and where this phenomenon will lead us next]

VisionMobile - Apps is the new web

Billions of downloads. That’s how the success of software platforms is measured today. And while downloads is not a currency (it does not necessarily translate into revenues), it does create plenty of free buzz for software platforms. This is the world of apps.

But what is an app really? It’s not just a bunch of code and a fancy UI. Apps are the new channel for delivering services and experiences in mobile devices, taking over from the old world of web pages, texting, ringtones, wallpapers, MMS, Mobile TV – and some would argue voice, too. What’s interesting all these technologies were agreed over 1,000s of meetings and years of standardisation work taking place across (mostly) network operators in the 80s and 90s. In the case of apps, none of this had to be ‘standardised’, just adopted by a critical mass of software developers and in turn a critical mass of users. Today the billions of downloads are indeed that success metric of de-facto standards like iOS, Android, Blackberry, Symbian and Java – even if the vast majority of downloads take place on a small fraction (5%) of the devices sold.

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Despite the fragmented nature of the app economy, we ‘re reaching a milestone at the end of 2010: more than 500,000 mobile apps will become available for Apple, Android, BlackBerry, Java ME, BREW, Symbian and Windows Phone devices in total.

The number is only a fraction of the big picture; what apps have accomplished is an unprecedented speed of innovation and a diversity of use cases. Think about it; traditional mobile services cater mostly to communication needs. Apps cater to the entire spectrum of consumer needs: entertainment, travel, health, food, sports, finance, education.

Network operators have for years been trying to increase service ARPU, i.e. revenues stemming not from voice, texting or data traffic (which are consistently declining due to regulation and competition), but revenues stemming from additional services. Operators (aka carriers) have taken a technology centric-view which is that new revenue can come from the introduction of new technology – MMS, Mobile TV and 3G. Instead apps have taken the view that new revenue can come from addressing new consumer needs. And that’s how apps have allowed mobile to tap into a far more segments of the user spending pie.

Apps as the Web 3.0
Such is the allure of apps that every brand and every service provider is looking to create their own apps, whether as part of their brand identity, as a lead generator, a traffic driver or even a direct revenue source. Soon every enterprise will want their own set of apps, essentially creating a more intelligent mobile intranet, for example with apps for guiding you to your next meeting, for inventory tracking or on-the-spot videoconferencing. We can easily imagine a world where there will be an app for every brand, every service provider and every corporate intranet.

Apps have grown out of the roots of the web; in a sense an evolution of Web 2.0, adding not only new forms of interaction, but also new forms of discovery, monetisation and deeper user context, as summarised in the next table.

Apps Web
Discovery app store text results or URL
User context location, contacts explicit info only
Access mode online/offline online
Monetisation micropayments ads
UI design focus tailored experience compatibility
Interaction model touch, sensors, keys mouse, keys
Usability focus get things done explore
Economy download economy attention economy

Some aspects are worth highlighting:

Discovery is critical to the take-up of mobile apps. Webpages are discovered through Google search or a memorable address. The results you get back from Google take a lot of second-guessing as there is no information semantics describing a webpage or its relationship to other pages. On the contrary apps are published with semantic information as part of the submission process; genre, description, price and screenshots, while downloads, ratings and recommendations are added in-life. This makes discovering apps much more straightforward and intuitive.

User context. Apps have access to location and contacts (subject to certification/approval in some cases) whereas web pages only have access to explicitly provided user info.

Monetisation should also not be underestimated. The freemium business model and the ubiquity of freely available news on the internet arose from the lack of effective micro-payment mechanisms; it is too cumbersome to take out a credit card and pay 10 cents for reading a newspaper online and no payment provider has managed to simplify this (although Paypal and Google Checkout are trying). On the contrary, many app stores have included micro-payments (pay per download) from day one.

Apps are now going beyond mobile. Not only to tablets (see iPad and the tablets coming with Android 3.0) but also to the web (Chrome Web Store), the desktop (Mac App Store) and the billions of connected devices out there from TVs to cars.

Apps are also changing the rules of the game for Google. The search giant rose due to three factors: the open (crawlable) web, the lack of information semantics (necessitating a pagerank-type taxonomy) and the lack of a micro-payments (thereby increasing the demand for ads).

Now the world of apps is coming to threaten the foundations of Google’s success: the web is becoming segregated into walled information gardens (exemplified by Facebook and Apple’s App Store), apps carry information semantics (thereby greatly reducing the search space), and micro-payments are the primary revenue model for apps (thereby decreasing the need for ads as a monetisation medium).

Google is of course preparing for the world where apps become a mainstream means of accessing the world’s information by launching is own walled gardens (Orkut and Buzz), its own app store (Android Market and Chrome Web Store) and now integrating a payments technology (NFC) within Android handsets.

So where are we going next?

The web as the new app
Not to be left behind, web technologies (HTML, JavaScript and CSS) are being driven forward by the world’s web benefactors. Google actively invests in ‘web development’ with the aim to advance the state and adoption of web technologies so that it can supplant the otherwise proprietary technologies (Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM and its own Android) which today power the world of apps. This is part of Google’s strategy to level the playing field where it doesn’t compete directly and Chrome is a big part of Google’s web development efforts, incl. WebKit and v8.

HTML5 standardisation (and initiatives like Webinos) are trying to make the web a primary app platform with offline access plus access into contacts and other user information. In parallel the WebKit engine is being consistently adopted in mobile handsets by just about every manufacturer with over 350M deployments up to the end of June 2010.

More than anything, web technologies are being adopted by mobile platform vendors looking to renew their platform and developer strategy. In order to be competitive, a platform today needs to have three elements:
– mature technology and tools
– hype/buzz
– an active developer community

While you can buy technology, buzz and developer communities are very expensive to build. Like a deus ex machina, web technologies come out of the box hype-ready and with an established developer community. As a result, Nokia, Palm (now HP) and RIM all chose web technologies in WRT, WebOS and WebWorks respectively, as the technology basis of their platform. I believe players who need to refresh their platforms (like Qualcomm’s BREW MP, Samsung and LG) would opt for web technologies.

Web technologies also allow mobile platform providers to tap into new developer segments (designers, scripters, back-end developers, CMS developers and more). More importantly, web technologies reduce the development costs for cross-domain development across mobile, tablets, desktop, car, and consumer electronics from toys to TVs.

Once web technologies are consistently adopted in 3-5 years we should see web move from today’s lowest common denominator to powering the next-generation of apps across connected devices, from toys to TVs and from web pages to apps – and the browsing (exploratory, lowest-common-denominator) experience moving to resemble an app (getting things done, immersive) experience. Perhaps this is the Web 3.0 we ‘ve all be waiting for.

The question is: are apps a ‘blip’ on the radar before the web takes over again? No – apps represent the evolution of creating, packaging, discovering, paying and interacting with information – and while today’s apps are based on mostly proprietary technologies (Apple, Android, BlackBerry, BREW, Symbian, Windows Phone) tomorrow’s apps will be mostly based on web technologies. As to the open web vs closed web silos debate (analysed eloquently by Wired magazine) history teaches us that closed silos are faster at innovating that the open web – and that the web governance will oscillate between the yin and yang for the years to come.

– Andreas
You should follow me on Twitter @andreascon

BlackBerry: A Dual Personality Disorder?

[RIM is torn between two very different market segments: Enterprise mobile messaging and text-addicted consumers. Amidst troubling signs for RIM’s future, the company needs to reconcile its dual personality. VisionMobile Research Partner Michael Vakulenko explains why RIM needs to create separate product experiences for business users and consumers and analyses the possibilities.]

BlackBerry: A dual personality disorder?

It’s hardly news today that RIM is at the verge of losing its smartphone leadership. Analysts dog-pile on the company downgrading the stock amidst declining smartphone market shareincreasing subscriber acquisition costs, increasing competition from Apple and a slew of Android handsets from tens of OEMs.

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A lot has changed since RIM earned its success on providing mobile push-email to enterprises. Today RIM serves two distinct market segments: enterprise users and text-addicted consumers.

Contrary to common perception, enterprise market is no longer RIM’s largest market. Back in June 2009 the company reported in that 80% of the growth came from consumers. Today in fact more than half of BlackBerry active users are consumers. Who are these people?

BlackBerry was conceived as a messaging device with optimized user interface and physical keyboard being its primary advantages. These advantages found warm reception in the hands of text-addicted youth, who according to Nielsen are sending on average 3,339 texts (SMS) a month in the US.

SMS is not the only way to socialize using BlackBerry. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is a proprietary instant messaging application running on BlackBerry smartphones. BBM uses BlackBerry PIN programed in the device to identify BBM users. The application supports avatars, groups, photo sharing, voice notes and reading the PIN using bar code. Because of the device-specific BlackBerry PIN, BBM has strong viral effect. A person must have a BlackBerry device to participate in the social network formed around BBM. As of May 2010, BBM had about 22.5 million users, representing close to 50% penetration across a total subscription base of 46 million subscribers.

In countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, about 90% of BlackBerry owners use the BBM service – a figure which concerned government authorities, which weren’t able to intercept BBM communications. In the UK and France BBM is one of the main drivers for BlackBerry device sales. In Netherlands, Venezuela, Indonesia and Thailand users put the bar code of their BlackBerry PIN on their business cards, t-shirts or even swimwear.

A Personality Dilemma
Consumer success is great news for RIM. It is however increasingly difficult for RIM to maneuver between its established high-margin enterprise market, and the less familiar lower-margin consumer market. RIM will risk loosing both markets to competition, if it continues to serve them with the same brand and product portfolio. Enterprise users have very different and often conflicting expectations compared to the enthusiasts of message-based socializing:

– Cost is important factor for many text-addicts. Many of them are young or live in developing counties. A BlackBerry price tag in the pre-paid range has significant allure for this segment. For example, Carphone Warehouse sells BlackBerry Curve 8520 for £129.95 (more than $200) with a Pay-as-You-Go plan. On the enterprise side, the last thing that a high-flying executive wants is to use a smartphone associated with a cheapy, “smartphone-for-the-rest-of-us” brand (for example see this T-Mobile commercial)

– Many text-addicts buy BlackBerry because they don’t like touch screen. If they would, many of them would be buying iPhone or Android phones. Instead they prefer a device with physical keyboard and optimized for one-handed operation. On the enterprise side, touch screen is important to compete against high-end iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

– Text-addicts need texting, instant messaging and integration with popular social networks.  Enterprise users need emphasis on email, PDA functions, synchronization, MS Office compatibility and device management.

– Security is a big issue in the enterprise, while many consumers don’t know how to spell it – as demonstrated by the wide adoption of Facebook, despite privacy issues.

Is RIM putting its R&D cycles and money in the right places? No – RIM seems to be gravitating towards the convenient and familiar enterprise segment playing catchup with Apple. RIM acquired DataWiz, maker of MS Office compatibility software, in September 2010; Introduced high-end touch screen model, BlackBerry Torch, in August 2010; and recently announced PlayBook tablet squarely aimed at the enterprise market.
There is very little in the recent RIM product announcements to bolster confidence in the company’s historical smartphone leadership. New developments are mostly about catching up with Apple, without introducing anything significantly new and relevant for RIM’s devoted user base.

A Gordian Solution
Instead of chasing Apple, RIM shall build on its advantages and focus on unique needs of its devoted user base. The first step would be separating its product portfolio into enterprise and consumer product lines. This will free consumer products of unnecessary burden and complexity, while keeping enterprise products focused on productivity and security.

The second step would be enhancing the BlackBerry Product Experience (PX) by building up the social features of BBM on the consumer side and beefing up on the proven push-infrastructure, security and team collaboration features on the enterprise side.
Today, competition in the mobile industry shapes around Experience Ecosystems comprising of connected devices, applications, services and communities. New Product Experiences based on connected services should be the focus for RIM’s innovation. Here’s how RIM could create service-based product differentiation for future versions of BlackBerry devices.

Location-based games have proved to be very popular, especially with RIM’s consumer demographics. Foursquare, a company developing a smartphone check-in service, reached a valuation of $125M having just 1.8 Million users and 27 Employees.

Compare this with RIM who has over 20 Million users in their BBM network. Why can’t RIM build its own checkin service on top of BBM, exclusive to BlackBerry devices? Adding location context to BBM messaging will greatly enhance social interaction of the platform’s users. Moreover, check-in apps show strong advertising potential. With 20 Million BBM users RIM could create new revenue streams for itself and mobile operators.

Even compulsive texters use the phone once in a while, but for them voice call is often a part of a longer conversation taking place using multiple means of communication. RIM could integrate voice calling with BBM making voice part of a wider social context. Users would enjoy better communication experience, while operators would be happy to see users consuming more voice minutes.

Business users use their devices in rather different context from consumers. Many of them are mobile and depend on collaborating with their colleagues remotely. BlackBerry-based team collaboration could become a killer app and differentiator for such users. Real-time activity updates, multiparty discussions, wikis, collaborative task lists have all enjoyed success on the Internet as shown by Teambox, Yammer, 37 signals and long list of other Internet collaboration startups. Why not integrate information sharing tools and video calling into the operating system making BlackBerry indispensable not only for email, but for team collaboration?

The Clock is Ticking
In order to keep its position in the smartphone market RIM needs to create separate Product Experiences for consumer and business users, and focus on innovation in connected services.

RIM doesn’t have much time for experiments with the PlayBook tablet, or on internal debates about replacing the vintage BlackBerry OS with the more capable QNX OS. The mobile market continues to evolve rapidly: Apple is making steady progress in improving enterprise readiness of its products, prompting mass defections of enterprise users to more appealing iPhone and iPad devices. At the same time, Android is spreading into low-cost smartphones threatening to displace BBM with Internet-based alternatives.

What do you think RIM should do to keep its smartphone leadership position?

– Michael

[Michael Vakulenko is a Research Partner at VisionMobile. He has been working in the mobile industry for over 16 years starting his career in wireless in Qualcomm. Michael has experience across many aspects of mobile technologies including handset software, mobile services, network infrastructure and wireless system engineering. He can be reached at michael [/at/] visionmobile.com]

The MeeGo Progress Report: A+ or D-?

[Eight months after the announcement of the MeeGo  project by Intel and Nokia, guest author Dave Neary analyses the progress made to date in MeeGo Handset, and the project’s prospects for the future]

VisionMobile - The MeeGo progress report

The end of October saw the release of MeeGo 1.1, the second major milestone release of the platform since it burst onto the scenes in February 2010. The MeeGo project was born under the auspices of the Linux Foundation from a merging of Nokia’s Maemo platform, targeting smart phones, and Intel’s moblin platforms, aimed at netbooks.

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The merger grew from a core idea: pick the best of breed components from both stacks, collaborate on the integration and testing of shared components, and standardise a number of open source UX (User eXperience) profiles, on which vendors could build and deploy complete commercial grade stacks. The initial UX profiles announced were netbook, smartphone, IVI (In-Vehicle Interface) and media center/TV.

Nokia and Intel have both made a major commitment to the platform, but critics say that the relationship is little more than a marriage of convenience. After all, Intel is a silicon vendor, betting heavily on the Atom-based Moorestown platform, and Nokia is a handset designer, largely shipping ARM-based devices.

Growing pains

The project has had some teething problems. Troubled Nokia has changed CEO, and the founding father of the Maemo project, Ari Jaaksi, has been among a number of high level software executives to leave the company, leading some to ask whether Nokia might have a change of heart about the platform. The first MeeGo device for Nokia, originally expected at the end of 2010, will now appear in 2011, according to recent comments from new CEO Stephen Elop, as Nokia strive to ensure a good first impression for its first MeeGo device.

There are some early public signs of friction in the working relationship of the stakeholders in the project, also.

The adoption of Qt as the primary toolkit for both platform and applications has met with resistance from Intel engineers, who acquired Clutter in 2008 and integrated it heavily into the netbook user interface, plus partners like Novell who developed versions of GTK+ applications like the Evolution email client and Banshee music player specifically for the netbook form factor.

Long-awaited MeeGo compliance specifications have resulted in drawn out and sometimes acrimonious debate.  Trademark guidelines have been a sticking point for community ports of the MeeGo netbook UX to Linux when these ports do not include required core components.

Related to the technical governance of the project, there is some uncertainty around the release process, and the means and criteria which will be used when considering the inclusion of new components. And there are some signs that the “all open, all the time” message at the project launch has been tempered by the reality of building a commercial device.

The Promise of Openness

Many of these issues are to be expected when merging two projects into one and pairing two very different animals. Every open source project has its own culture, and Moblin and Maemo are no different. Relationship capital which participants built up in the contributing projects must now be rebuilt within a broader group.

MeeGo has had some early successes. MeeGo 1.0, which included the Netbook UX and an early prerelease of the smartphone UX, was delivered in July, complete with the source code of a number of components which had previously been proprietary. Novell MeeGo has been shipping on a number of netbooks since then. The MeeGo wiki lists dozens of MeeGo-compatible devices. The inaugural MeeGo Conference is set to take place in Dublin, from the 15th to the 17th of November, and has sold out with over 600 registered attendees to date.

And there is no denying that the companies involved in the project are committed to it. With the recent rumours that the Symbian Foundation may be shutting up shop, Nokia has few choices of platform left for upcoming high-end devices. Announcing their updated software strategy during their quarterly results call this month, the company confirmed that they are fully committed to MeeGo as the only platform for high end devices from now on.

Clearly, there is a future for the project. The question is, how will MeeGo Handset hold up against the competition from the platforms with the most momentum in the market – iOS and Android, or the recently released Windows Mobile 7. Will a newly reinvigorated WebOS (with Ari Jaaksi at the helm) challenge it for the mantle of the exciting new upstart? In short, is it any good? And will operators, handset manufacturers, application developers and users adopt it?

User experience

Since we do not yet have a MeeGo handset device available, it is very difficult to accurately judge the user experience at this time. It is possible to install MeeGo on the Nokia N900 and use it as a phone, using Nokia’s proprietary drivers to enable the hardware, but a lot of basic functionality is missing at present. In my tests, the camera, GPS, battery indicator, network signal strength indicator and WiFi did not work correctly. Features which do work can be slow, or have stability issues. Basic functionality like reading contact details off a SIM card, or unlocking the SIM card on boot, are still missing.

A MeeGo device getting to the market will undoubtedly have pristine hardware integration using 3rd party drivers, and a considerable amount of fit-and-finish which the basic MeeGo stack does not yet have.

The MeeGo handset user experience is still in transition. Maemo 5, the platform’s predecessor, was created using GTK+ and Clutter, while the MeeGo user interface has been built from the ground up using Qt. By all accounts, there are still a number of stability and quality issues with the stack, which we can expect to be addressed in a release shipping on a device.

At this time, the MeeGo Handset UX is not intended for anyone but developers. It is too early to be able to tell how the final product will compare to iOS or Android.

The Developer story

At the time of its announcement, one of the key advantages held up to developers was the potential to use a single toolkit, Qt, to build native applications which will be portable across Windows, Linux and Symbian. Nokia has been investing heavily in RAD tools like Qt Quick to allow developers to get up and running quickly. In addition, their as-yet unavailable Web Run Time promises to allow developers to easily integrate web applications.

The developer tools are in development, and do not yet compare favourably with the equivalent Android offering, which includes easy tools for building, testing and deploying applications using Eclipse. In addition, since the project is still in relatively early stages, there is a marked lack of entry-level documentation to help developers get started.

It is still unclear what software distribution channels or app stores will be available for application developers on a MeeGo device. Ovi Store will be available on Nokia devices for commercial applications, and there may be a community distribution channel made available for community-built applications, but what form this channel might take, and to what extent it will integrate with the MeeGo user experience is still unclear. Presumably other handset manufacturers, should MeeGo gain wider adoption, will provide their own application stores, further fragmenting the application developer story.

MeeGo certification ensures that it will be possible to build applications which work across all vendors, but at this point the jury is still out on how useful “MeeGo Compliant” will be to application developers. There is a possibility of considerable fragmentation among non-core APIs when MeeGo devices from several vendors are available.

From the point of view of tools, documentation and software distribution channels, MeeGo is undoubtedly behind its primary competitors – but for such a young project, this is to be expected. The success of the project among application developers and the free software community will depend to a large extent on the project’s ability to fill these gaps and provide developers with an excellent development experience.

For platform developers, the story is much more encouraging. The source code to the entire MeeGo stack is available, and anyone can download images built daily. Images built for ARM and Intel Atom can be installed and tested on a range of developer devices, including the Nokia N900, TI’s BeagleBoard or PandaBoard, or the Aava Mobile developer kit.

On the other hand, there has been a tendency of the platform architects to reduce the range of hardware and software supported by the basic MeeGo stack. There is limited support for non-Intel x86 chipsets, and support for only a subset of ARM chips. Kernel modules have been aggressively trimmed, sometimes arbitrarily, to disable functionality such as NFS.

Community and governance

MeeGo development is all happening in a public git repository, most discussions are on public mailing lists, and there are a large number of experienced free software developers among the community development team, which is ensuring that any communication or transparency problems are identified and addressed swiftly. In the mobile platform development world, it is fair to say that MeeGo is second to none in terms of its open development model.

This contrasts sharply with Android which is primarily developed behind closed doors by Google, and iOS which is a completely proprietary platform. If there is a key differentiator for MeeGo in the hand-held market, this is it. It remains to be seen whether the open development model will be a selling point which will tip the balance when manufacturers are choosing a platform for a device.

The MeeGo community is made up of members of the Maemo and Moblin communities, and in the case of Maemo, there have been a number of contributors who have decided not to contribute to the MeeGo project. The move to MeeGo represents the third major change in the project in two years (after the move to GTK+/Clutter in Maemo 5 and the announcement that Qt would be the only supported application toolkit) and has left some shell-shocked.

The Moblin community, on the other hand, did not develop a large platform developer community, partly since the project did not offer a distribution channel for application developers. It seems like all those who were productively contributing to moblin have followed the project move to MeeGo.

OEMs and operator support

One of the key differentiators between traditional handset manufacturers and the young guns (iOS and Android) which have taken the market by storm, is that both Android and iOS have concentrated on the user and application developer experience to the detriment of their relationship with OEMs and operators. It is widely argued that Apple’s iPhone has reduced the role of the operator to that of a bandwidth and infrastructure provider. In turn Google takes a take-it-or-leave-it approach with handset manufacturers; unless manufacturers comply with Android’s compatibility definitions (CTS and CDD), they can’t have access to the Android trademark, Android Market’s 100,000+ application, Google Maps and several other closed source applications.

Nokia has a more traditional approach of putting handset manufacturers and network operators ahead of developers. This shows through in many of the architecture decisions in MeeGo. The platform has been built with operator and OEM customisation and integration in mind from the start.

A primary concern for OEMs with MeeGo is the time required to integrate the platform into a specific device and ship to market. With the time to market for Android handsets dropping to 4-5 months from project to production, it will be very hard for MeeGo to compete, even with the MeeGo 1.2 release, due in the first half of 2011.

Still a long way to go

It does not feel fair at this point to compare MeeGo, a project which came into being 8 months ago, with iOS or Android, but this is the yardstick which will be used when the first MeeGo smartphone comes on the market. The project has come a long way since its inception, in particular in working towards an open and transparent development model. There is still some way to go but improvements have been happening daily.

However, to succeed as a platform, the application developer story and the user experience are vital. There is a lot of work to be done in these areas for MeeGo to gain serious traction outside of the small community of Finnish handset designers. Nokia still has a long way to go.

– Dave

[Dave Neary is the docmaster at maemo.org and a long-standing member of the GNOME Foundation. He has worked in the IT industry for more than 10 years, leading software projects and organising open source communities,  He’s passionate about technology, and free software in particular.]

[Infographic] The Mobile Developer Journey

The Mobile Developer Journey

A few months ago, VisionMobile published Developer Economics 2010 and Beyond, a research report that tracked the entire mobile developer journey, from app design and platform selection to market delivery and monetization. Now, we’re proud to present the entire Mobile Developer Journey on a single infographic.

The Mobile Developer Journey

Developer Economics 2010 and Beyond was created by VisionMobile and sponsored by Telefonica Developer Communities.

Did you miss the chance to participate in our research and have your say on app development? Well, you can express your views in our upcoming developer research, Developer Economics 2011, which is just a few months away. Pre-subscribe here

Feel free to copy the infographic and embed it in your website.

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