RIM can still win

Written by Matthew JC Powell Friday, 15 April 2011 00:34

I had a hands-on play with a PlayBook yesterday — RIM's answer to the iPad, a BlackBerry tablet. It was a pre-production unit with not-yet-final software, so hardly the stuff of a review, but there was some interesting stuff there. Most interestingly, it gave me an insight into how RIM could still come out on top in the smartphone race.

Most observers, particularly Jim Dalrymple of The Loop, don't rate RIM's chances of success very highly. Seven months after announcing the PlayBook the company hasn't shipped a single one, despite announcing several enhancements coming in future versions, and that has to give one pause. Odd statements from the company's two CEOs in various interviews have only added to the impression that RIM doesn't really have a coherent strategy for the tablet market.

(By the way: two CEOs? What the heck is up with that? The C stands for "Chief" you know — you can really only have one of them. Look it up.)

A week short of the product's debut in the North American market (Australian release has not yet been announced nor even estimated — think months not weeks) the company got some pre-release units into the hands of journalists, and I was lucky enough to be among them.

Spec-wise, it's not bad. The screen looks nice, bright and clear. It takes decent photos and videos (though it crashed when I tried to take 1080p video — pre-release remember) and the processor feels snappy enough. Switching between applications was smooth, video played well, even a Flash web site that has been the undoing of many a mobile Flash implementation I've tried before gave it no issues.

I like the screen, actually. It's a capacitative touch screen, just like on the iPad (though it's rather smaller of course). It sometimes lost track of whether I was trying to swipe or pinch on a photo (pre-release remember) but RIM has rather cleverly made the entire screen, right to the edge, sensitive. That means certain functions like quitting apps can be achieved by simply swiping out of the display area. I have to admit I liked that bit better than the iPad, whose bezel is numb.

The device can run apps written for BlackBerry, or HTML5, or Flash, or (in future) Java and Android, so developers will have many opportunities to fill in its blanks. Like, for example, there's no native email client, contact manager or calendar. There are, however, a number of cool games available, and the media player —

Woah. Hang on, big fella, back up a bit there. No native email?

Let me tell you something about BlackBerry. before there were iPhones or Android or Treos or anything anyone called a "smartphone" BlackBerry was doing mobile email. Really, really well. In all the amazing advances that have happened over the past four years in smartphones, no-one has yet surpassed — come close to, even — the capability of BlackBerry for mobile email. It's what a BlackBerry does better than anything else, and it's what RIM does better than anyone else in the industry.

It's what's known in the business as a "core competency".

A decade ago, when a BlackBerry was a pug-ugly lump of plastic with a tiny little screen, it was a huge success. One of the hottest gadgets on the market — not because it was beautiful, but because it gave people what they wanted: truly mobile messaging. You could sync it to your desktop computer, but you didn't have to. Apple talks about the "post-PC era" as if it's just started, but RIM's been there for years.

So when you buy a PlayBook — a BlackBerry tablet — you might not be blamed for expecting that it would be able to do mobile email. You would, however, be wrong.

To do email or manage your contacts and calendars, you connect the PlayBook via a secure Bluetooth connection to your existing BlackBerry smartphone. The PlayBook affords you a larger screen upon which to do these things, using an app called "BlackBerry Bridge". Your email, contacts and other sensitive info is all cached on the PlayBook temporarily while you're using it, but as soon as you break the connection with your BlackBerry — your other BlackBerry, I should say — it all vanishes.

RIM touts this as an enterprise security feature. You lose your PlayBook, you don't lose your sensitive information. Except of course whatever sensitive information you've got in word processing documents and spreadsheets, which the PlayBook can do on its own, but no-one will be able to see your upcoming appointments. And if your PlayBook is in the same briefcase as your BlackBerry when you leave it in a taxi, well, it doesn't help.

This restricts the market somewhat for the PlayBook. It might sell quite well to enterprises that want to deploy tablets to their employees who already use BlackBerry. It may even find some friends among individuals who use BlackBerries and want a tablet that integrates. RIM hasn't made huge strides in the consumer space of course, but those it has got now have another product they can buy.

And that's about it. The PlayBook does some nice stuff, but it doesn't do it so much better than a Samsung Galaxy Tab or an iPad that you'd buy the PlayBook instead and do without email. And it's not such a brilliant thing that you'd buy a new smartphone just to go with it. Not on the basis of yesterday's demo at least. The final production version may be a thing of beauty such as to make the angels weep. Hard to say.

As it stands, the PlayBook may bring in some revenue for RIM for its existing customers, but I can't see any way that it's going to expand RIM's reach.

Except ...

If BlackBerry Bridge can be written for the PlayBook, why couldn't it be written for Android or iOS? Is there any reason why iPad users couldn't link to BlackBerry smartphones and use the most mature and fully-functional mobile email system that exists instead of the somewhat amusing excuse for an email client currently in use on the Apple tablet? An iPad is good enough that if it could link to BlackBerry email, people might buy BlackBerries to do just that.

But let's go further. Blackberry is, at heart, a service. The hardware has always been secondary — glorified pagers really, that only started to look like phones around 2006 or so. And for all of the PlayBook's niftiness it's pretty clear that making the best multimedia experience on a smartphone or tablet is not RIM's core competency.

What if RIM went the whole hog and made BlackBerry email available to owners of iPads or iPhones or Android devices or even Windows Phone? If I had the option to pay $30 a month for BlackBerry email on my iPad you'd be hard-pressed to stop me. I'd abandon Apple's mobile mail "solution" faster than you can say "eleven benevolent elephants".

(OK, there might be some problems getting it through the App Store approval process, but other platforms aren't so tightly controlled and you never know when Apple might be reasoned with.)

I'm not suggesting that RIM abandon hardware altogether. Of course not. There's some money to be made there, certainly. But just as Amazon sells its own Kindle hardware and also Kindle reader apps for any platform going, hardware doesn't have to be the be-all and end-all and there's money to be made in services.

BlackBerry email is the best. It just is, and everyone else is quite some time behind that level of maturity. RIM's hardware isn't the best, and doesn't really look like becoming the best soon. The promised compatibility with Android suggests pretty strongly that RIM doesn't see the BlackBerry platform itself attracting much developer support, so why be an also-ran hardware maker? Why not be the gold-standard provider of email and let the customers choose the device?

That way, however the Android/Apple/Windows/Symbian war comes out, RIM wins.

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What's Apple's iPad 2 game?

Written by Alex Kidman Friday, 25 March 2011 11:08

Earlier this week, I rather gloomily predicted that with the iPad 2 enjoying robust sales in the US, coupled with the fact that we still didn't have anything resembling launch prices to speak of, that we might be staring down the barrel of a delay to the on-sale date.

It's true — sort of — that I was wrong about that. Why, according to the press release that Apple put out very late on Tuesday night, iPad 2 would be available to order online Friday at 1am, and then to buy at retail stores from 5pm. Which is a little odd and quirky, but then this is Apple we're talking about.

I could say that I waited up until 1am to order an iPad 2, but that would be something called a "lie". I actually slept in until the hearty hour of 4am instead. At 4am, I checked my Twitter feed, only to read a bunch of rather angry tweets. Checking the Apple Store, I quickly saw why. iPad 2 was indeed available to pre-order, but by pre-order, Apple actually meant "When we ship it to you in 2-3 weeks".

A quick ethical disclaimer: I had to get up at 4am anyway as a Canon conference I'm attending had a event scheduled to start at 5am. I didn't get up at 4am for the purpose of iPad 2 price checking. Just so you know.

The thought did strike me that it was 4am, and perhaps sales had been very brisk indeed, but checking with MacTheMag's esteemed hairy editor, this wasn't the case. By his clock (and rapidly page-refreshing hand), iPad 2 "sales" had started at 12:45am. So somebody jumped the gun a little — but, moreover, there was always a 2-3 week wait to deal with. He did look especially thrilled later in the day when he got the shipping notice for his iPad 2 Smart Cover, which (fingers crossed) should arrive several weeks before the actual hardware. I expect he'll be able to make it into a little hat or something in the meantime.

Fashionable headwear aside, why would Apple do that kind of scheduling? Why would you schedule online sales for 1am Australian time, and then retail sales for 5pm later that same day?

Does it benefit consumers? No, not really. Anyone who stayed up late will undoubtedly be disappointed that they weren't able to order something for delivery today. It was reasonable for consumers to assume that the early ordering time was to ensure that couriers might be able to start shipping things today; not so much that Apple might have an extra three weeks of interest on their money and they be left waiting. If Apple knew it wouldn't have stock to even begin to satisfy customer demand, then why not start pre-ordering either days before, or even at the same 5pm "on sale" time?

Moving on to the actual retail sales launch, which is yet to happen as I write this, the 5pm retail sales time isn't that convenient for most consumers either. Especially as it appears that Apple isn't planning to open stores late to cover those folks already out in queues. Perhaps that's to cover for the actual stock numbers on hand, which may sell out quickly.

So what's it all for?

In a word, hype. If it's clear to everybody waking up on the Friday morning that the only way to get the iPad 2 is to go and start queuing right now, then the queues will be bigger. Bigger queues equals more hype, equals larger eventual iPad 2 sales. It also means that any competing tablet products get fewer column inches or TV spots.

It also strikes my (admittedly cynical) little mind that it's a great way to manage iPad 2 shortages. When the original iPad launched, we were promised one date only to see it whisked away due to larger than anticipated US sales. This time around, I suspect Apple were keen not to repeat that experience, although the fact that we had to wait until near the last minute just for pricing details suggests that not everything was nailed down all that early in the piece.

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Sandy Bridge MacBook Pro: Holy freaking wow

Written by Matthew JC Powell Wednesday, 16 March 2011 23:31

When Intel launched its line of Core i5 and Core i7 processors based on its “Sandy Bridge” spec earlier this year, a number of computer manufacturers were in attendance. They were there to show off the systems they were ready to start shipping based on the new chips. Some of them looked very impressive indeed. None of them were from Cupertino.

This wasn’t really anything new. Aside from the original MacBook Air, which featured a CPU specifically designed for Apple’s requirements, the Mac-maker has rarely been at the vanguard of builders shipping Intel CPUs. In a way, this is smart — it means that when Apple’s machines get released they’ve got the spotlight to themselves, rather than sharing it with AlienWare and whoever else, and it allows a bit of anticipation to build up in the market.

A few weeks ago Apple crossed the Sandy Bridge … erm … bridge, and released its first machines based on the new processors. My learned colleague Alex Kidman has written a full review here for your edification.

Alex’s review compared the machines, as most reviews have, with contemporaries — machines one might be tempted to buy nowadays. In Alex’s case he found the performance competitive with an iMac whose processor bore a faster clock speed. Not bad, in anyone's book.

For me, though — and probably for many others out there — the question isn’t really “how does this compare with a different machine I could buy now” so much as “will this really make enough of a difference to justify replacing the machine I’m already using”. Parting with money is never easy, and the present economic climate doesn’t make it easier. For most of the history of the personal computer, improvements in performance have been of the order of a few percentage points here and there — the computer you bought in 2007 isn’t that much slower than the one you could buy in 2010, so if it was still doing its job you may as well save your money.

My present computer is a late-2008 MacBook Pro. The first of the “Unibody” MacBook Pros with the larger multi-touch trackpads that debuted on the MacBook Air. Prior to that I had been getting by with a PowerBook G4 I bought in 2001. Up until the release of Leopard, it had been running quite satisfactorily for my needs, thanks, and the upgrades in between had been evolutionary rather than revolutionary — not enough to make me part with my hard-earned.

Seven years is a long time to get out of a computer. I didn’t expect to wait until 2015 before buying another. But I did expect that upgrades between now and then would be incremental.

At the Sandy Bridge launch, though, Intel claimed that performance on certain processes could be as much as three times faster than computers based on the old Core 2 Duo architecture. Three times. That’s huge. That’s maybe enough to spend money for.

Hey, you know what? My late-2008 MacBook Pro has a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor in it. Maybe I should test that claim.

So Apple loaned me a 2.0GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro to do just that.

First impressions. Externally, it is virtually indistinguishable from my ’08. It has the single-piece base rather than the split-base for removing the battery, and looks a tad less “lived in” but externally the changes are slight. The ’08 has an ExpressCard slot where the ’11 has an SD Card slot, and the ’11 swaps the Mini DisplayPort for Thunderbolt (not that you’d know just by looking). Basically, as far as looks are concerned, this is just as pretty as its predecessor.

I ran a bunch of tests, comparing the two, but I’m just going to tell you about one of them.

I took a 35MB TIFF image (a photo of my eldest daughter) and I applied a 100 percent radial blur at highest quality using Adobe Photoshop CS5. This isn’t the sort of thing you actually ever have to do unless you like turning pictures of your kids into modern art. But it’s a good test of performance because it’s extremely processor-intensive and always — always — takes time. Let’s face it, if the jump in speed from one machine to another can’t be tested with a stopwatch, it’s not that big a deal.

Back in the day the old radial-blur test could practically be measured with a calendar. Setting it going and heading out to make a sandwich was certainly an option, even if you’d run out of mustard and needed to head out to the shop and get some more and they didn’t keep it where they used to keep it so you had to look around a bit and maybe ask someone and they didn't have the brand you like so you had to pick another one and compare prices. You’d still get back in time to see the blur chug to its conclusion.

Nowadays, not so much.

The test on my ’08 was finished in 2:09. Two minutes and nine seconds. That’s swift. Not at all unimpressive. Surely Sandy Bridge wouldn’t beat that by much, especially given the sheer volume of data that needs to be shuffled about to apply such a filter?

Guess again. 25 seconds flat. OK, maybe not “flat” but I don’t want to worry about decimal points when the speed of my thumb is a factor. Then again, when I run this test on future machines, maybe I do have to worry about fractions of seconds. Long story short, holy freaking wow.

In case you haven’t finished the mental arithmetic in the time it took to read that paragraph, that’s a smidge over five times as fast as the ’08 on the same task. Well, I sure blew Intel’s “three times faster” claim out of the water, eh?

As well as actually being faster, though, the Sandy Bridge machine feels faster. That may sound odd, but I’m sure many of you would know the feeling of having handed over money for a new computer, only to get it home and find that it kind of feels about the same as the old one. Takes as long to start up, applications take as long to launch, windows don’t open all that much faster. The ’11 MacBook Pro doesn’t feel like that.

You know that “instant wake” thing that Apple’s been talking about since the PowerBook G4? Where you open your sleeping laptop and it only takes a few seconds, more or less, to get you back to where you’d left off? With this machine, that actually feels instant. Like, the time taken to open the lid is enough for it to wake completely and be ready to go.

A level head. I am, of course, not completely without criticisms of the beast. It’s heavy. It gets hot. It’s more expensive than I’d like. There’s diddly-squat you can plug into Thunderbolt, and won’t be anything for months. I really don’t care for the glossy screen (though the high-definition version of the screen is now available with an anti-glare option, so thumbs up). It’s also unclear how well, if at all, it exploits some of the niftier features of Sandy Bridge (keep an ear out for the imminent return of MacThePodcast, wherein I’ll be grilling an Intel bod about exactly that).

There’s also the iPad. My iPad has basically become my main mobile-computing device, and most of what I do with my MacBook Pro I do by VNCing to it using iTeleport. When I actually physically use my MacBook Pro I do so in my office, at my desk. it might as well be a desktop computer.

If I were in the market for a new MacBook Pro I would have no hesitation in buying the Core i7. If you’re in the market for a new MacBook Pro I have no hesitation in commending it to you. My question is: am I in the market for one? Has the iPad changed my computing ways to the point where I might contemplate, for the first time in over a decade, purchasing a desktop Mac?

I’m inclined to wait until there are Sandy Bridge-based iMacs before I make up my mind — which may, of course, indicate that I’ve already decided.

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The App Store and the Death of the Suite

Written by Matthew JC Powell Tuesday, 08 March 2011 10:14

Looking forward to the next edition of iLife? Can't wait to wallow in the goodness of new versions of iMovie, GarageBand and iPhoto while lamenting that there are still no real changes to iDVD? You're not alone. You are, however, out of luck.

There will never be another iLife. It goes up to 11 — and no further.

Don't worry though, it's not a bad thing. In the end you'll thank Apple for simplifying things this way. It's just like Chariots of Fire.

The first album I ever bought with my own money was the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. Like many folks back in 1981 I was rather taken with the main theme song (which, by the way, is called Titles, not just "The Theme From Chariots of Fire" as people seem to think). As the track was not available as a single I saved up my $6 (Canadian) and bought the whole album. That's how things worked back then — you bought whole albums even if only one or two tracks were even vaguely listenable.

As it happens, much of what's on that album is not particularly great. Not awful, but not as catchy as Titles. One track on it, Abraham's Theme I think, literally nauseates me when I hear it, but that's because of personal associations I'd rather not share. The short story is that I have, for many years, skipped that song if and when I listened to the album.

When it came time to add Chariots of Fire to my iTunes library, I elected not to transfer my old vinyl to digital format. Instead, I went to the iTunes Store and bought it. Well, I bought one track. You know which one.

That's what iTunes has done to the music industry. Artists no longer get paid for fair-to-middling work they slap onto an album alongside better stuff. For the most part, anyhow. Now that people can choose to buy only the few tracks that actually inspire them to part with money, that's what they do. It's a good thing for us — challenging for musicians, especially lazy ones, but good for us.

Which brings me to iWeb. iWeb, the WYSIWYG web-page-authoring application that has been included with iLife for some years now, has not been updated seriously through several updates of the suite. Indeed what updates there have been lately have generally made it less functional as Apple redefines its intentions for iTools/.Mac/MobileMe/whateveritisnextweek. And yet, every time Apple updates iPhoto or GarageBand, we buy a new copy of iWeb. It's the Abraham's Theme of iLife. Meanwhile new whizz-bang features of iPhoto don't find their way into our eager hands until Apple's happy with the "make your own fake trailers" feature of iMovie.

You see the problem.

Enter the App Store.

For the first time you can buy GarageBand on its own. You can buy iPhoto on its own. You can buy iMovie on its own. You can't buy iWeb. Most likely, you never will. You read it here first.

There hasn't yet been a major update to any of those applications since the launch of the App Store, but I would be (if I were a gambling man) willing to bet that their upgrade cycles no longer synchronise from now on. When there's something cool to add to iMovie you won't have to wait for a GarageBand update to see it.

Apple is no longer going to ask you to buy stuff you don't want to get stuff you do. This is known as a "good thing". But does it mean the end of iLife? Absolutely it does. Unless Apple wants to spend all the money involved in burning DVDs, boxing them and distributing them worldwide so that it can sell a boxed suite and somehow do so at a competitive price to the download, there is zero advantage in another version of iLife. (Hint: Apple doesn't want to do that stuff.)

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that this applies as well to the iWork suite. iWork has always felt a little bit incomplete, lacking as it does a database application like that found in the old AppleWorks suite. FileMaker's Bento more or less fills the bill but the issues preventing Apple adding Bento to iWork are more complex than I care to explore.

Of course Bento integrates with iLife and iWork as if it were part of the suite. The only reason it isn't part of the suite is because it isn't in the box. Obvious solution: get rid of the box.

Apple isn't the only company out there selling software suites, of course. Microsoft, for example, is charging enough for Office that it's still worthwhile selling that on discs. What's more, it's a terrific way to shift PowerPoint licences into the market. The number of people who have paid for PowerPoint is vastly larger than the number of people who want it, simply because it comes with Word.

Will Office stop? Eventually, but not soon. Just as "album only" holdouts have gradually become rarer and rarer on the iTunes Store, eventually the market will shift to the point where Microsoft has to start selling its applications as individual products. The more people can get software — proper software, not just little utilities and games — by download, the less they'll look for software on shelves in shops.

Which leads me to Adobe, the elephant in the suite shop. Adobe's suites don't contain one or two extra bits and bobs along with the main applications. They include dozens. Both Adobe and Macromedia had long been snowballing their suites — acquiring smaller companies' applications and rolling them in for a bigger "value proposition" — even before Adobe rolled over Macromedia. The attitude seems to be that it's better to have an application and not need it than to need it and not have it.

The result of this is a number of different suites with slightly different, often overlapping, sets of applications. Adobe designs the suites based on what it believes its customers want, but if none of them quite fit you you're welcome to purchase the Master Collection — thousands of dollars worth of literally dozens of applications big and small. Of course Adobe could have a larger number of subset suites to more finely match different customers' desires, but the complexity of doing so in terms of managing different SKUs in the retail channel (don't even start me on upgrade paths) is bewildering.

It would obviously be far more complicated for Adobe to split everything up and sell only individual apps, with all their various interdependencies and integrations. But the option to "build-your-own" Creative Suite must be as attractive to Adobe as it is to Adobe's customers.

Some of the smaller "value proposition" applications would sell fewer copies, to be sure. But that's what happens to filler tracks. Think of Abraham's Theme.

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Five reasons to get excited about the iPad (and five reasons not to)

Written by Alex Kidman Saturday, 05 March 2011 23:20

OK, so the owl was a bit off base. Bloody owl.

As predicted, Apple announced the successor to the iPad a few days ago — the not-so-excitingly-named iPad 2. The specifications for the device are, by now, rather widely known, but are there real reasons to get excited about it?

Five reasons to get excited

Faster performance This has to be the key selling point of the iPad 2. The original iPad has its moments of lag, and the promise of the dual-core A5 processor is that it’ll reduce that lag significantly. The extent to which that’s true remains to be seen, but the promise is there.

Inbuilt cameras for FaceTime and video The single most widely-tipped feature did make it into the final unit, and it does add some flexibility to what you can do with the iPad, including large screen video chat via FaceTime. It’ll be interesting to see if Apple approves a Skype update to include video calling.

iMovie The companion to the camera? iMovie for iPad. At least from the videos Apple’s provided this looks slick, but it’ll be interesting to see how well it handles complex video encodes, and whether it’ll allow you to import video from other sources.

Thinner, lighter If you thought the original iPad was too heavy for long term use, it isn’t any more. It’s also somewhat thinner for easier holding.

Smart Covers Apple’s original iPad case was a "love it or loathe it" proposition with a propensity to scuff and a difficult to remove body. The new iPad Smart Covers couldn’t be easier to remove, and the ability to work as a multi-capable stand is a big plus. A slight concern here is that it's not doing that much to protect the back of your iPad 2 from scratches.

Five reasons for apathy

It’s not actually smaller Yes, it’s thinner and lighter, but the same basic dimensions are still in play. There was plenty of criticism of Apple’s decision not to opt for a 7-inch iPad model based around the fact that a 10-inch screen is still a fair chunk of metal and glass to hold in your hands. Or, in other words, if you found it hard to hold for a long period of time, it’s still going to be a tricky-but-not-impossible proposition.

No change in screen resolution Here Apple’s starting to be outclassed by the competition. Undoubtedly, bringing Retina Display-like resolution to the iPad would be an expensive proposition, but this is still last year’s technology. Equally, there’s no stated change in the way that the iPad handles its resolution-doubling for older iPhone/iPod Touch applications.

Apple’s Upgrade Mania writ clear Apple wants you to upgrade each and every year, and in most cases it’s provided good reasons to do so with new features tied into the hardware. The iPad 2 (and more specifically iOS 4.3) indicate that it's willing to do this with software as well. The Hotspot feature that lets you tether an iPad 2 to your iPhone? It’s iPhone 4 only, despite the fact that WiFi Hotspot has been one of the killer applications for jailbroken iPhone 3/3GS owners for years now. The hardware’s clearly capable — but Apple doesn’t want you to have it.

Upgrade path for existing iPad owners not that compelling If you don’t own an iPad currently but you’re interested, you’d be mad to rush out and buy anything but the cheapest (original version) iPad today — even Apple’s discounted it down to $449, although entertainingly a refurbished model from Apple’s online store still costs $539. But if you’re an existing iPad owner, you’ve already got access to the vast majority of what the iPad 2 can offer, cameras notwithstanding. US pricing is in line with the previous models, which strongly suggests we’ll see the sequel for around the same price we saw the original, and your existing iPad is still less than a year old.

A 10-inch camera is a big camera The inclusion of dual cameras is nice, but the practical reality might be a little less compelling. Taking a FaceTime call on the train will involve everyone else on the train being able to see your call in high definition. Shooting a video of your kids in the park will involve holding up a large screen in order to shoot. Compared to even shooting video with an iPhone, this seems like a bulky solution that promises more than a few dropped iPads.

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