Imagining the Newsroom of Tomorrow: ProfNet v2.0

Postits

I just got through reading Chuck Peter's post on how the nature of a "story" is changing, against the tidal wave of blog "posts" and Twitter "tweets".

I think that services like ProfNet and Peter Shankman's brilliant Help A Reporter Out (HARO) show us how the dynamics of tomorrow’s newsroom might look.

The challenge, in a world where we will all be challenged to find ways to do more with less, will be to work with librarians and technologists in a way that is harmonious with their existing responsibilities.

Unfortunately, the dynamics of email don’t do that. For example, no librarian wants to sift through another hour’s worth of email, no matter how excited they might be at being part of the local news ecosystem.

I think Twitter shows us a different dynamic: we are able to participate in a plethora of conversations simultaneously; we choose the memes we feel we can make a contribution in; and most importantly, we don’t feel obligated to backtrack and read all of the tweets we might have missed while we were doing other things, like living our lives.

Two years ago I began working with one of McDonald’s marketing agencies on a mobile “group reply” service: instead of calling or emailing lots of people, make a request either through SMS or by making a phone call, which triggers an SMS to a pre-defined list of people, and specify how many responses you want to get back.

“I’m doing a special report on how restaurants are coping with the downturn,” you ask. “I need 5 bloggers to write 250 words on this by 5pm today along with a 450px wide photo.”
The request goes to the dozens of bloggers who are “friends and family”. The system collects the first 5 responses who can make the deadline, and lets you know that your request is completed along with a list of who responded.

The guys that responded get instructions on what to do next. The 6th and 7th responses, etc., are notified that the project is filled and to move along. The job is automatically published as RSS so one could build an eventstream by reporter, by beat, by newspaper, etc.

If you think I’m full of salami, that’s okay. But, if you think there’s something there, I want to hear from you. I’ve entered this in the Knight Ridder News Challenge Garage, and I’d love to get your feedback.

http://garage.newschallenge.org/projects/help-blogger-out

Introducing Swype: How We'll All Be Typing in a Few Years

SwypeImagine being able to type 50 words a minute using your iPhone. I'm watching a demo on UStream.tv of the technology -- basically you drag your finger across the stream and Swype figures out what you wanted to type. 

The inventor, Cliff Kushler has done it again - he previously developed the same T9 technology that many people use to compose text messages today. Over the years he has put together a patent portfolio whose breadth and completeness compares favorably to MPEG-LA, the secret behind the iTunes empire. 

For example, to type the word "exclusive", you would start on the letter 'e' and drag down the keyboard to 'x' then right to 'c' then all the way right to "l" and so on. Even though you are dragging over all sorts of letters, Swype interprets your gestures and evaluates all combinations of the letters you've touched to produce the word you wanted to type. Swype estimates that most people can reach 40wpm after only two days' use.

This is the kind of technology that Apple Computer, Microsoft Surface and other companies need to usher in the next generation of applications. While iPhone sales have been robust, even a 70wpm typer like myself finds it incredibly tough to use Apple's haptic technology to compose a simple email.

After all, the personal computer only took off after the keyboard started to feel like a real typewriter. This level of comfort brought word processing and later, desktop publishing to the masses. For the iPhone (and hopefully later this month, the so-called "iPad" internet notebook computer) to reach the next level, it must be quick and easy to enter text. Of many technologies I've seen recently, only Swype satisfies those conditions.

The applications don't stop there. An outdoor advertising company like Clear Channel or JC Decaux could include Swype technology in its ads as a kind of "virtual keyboard" that would let passers-by answer questions or enter their email address. Of course, there are hygiene issues, but there are clever ways of handling even the most rabid germophobes.

Hey - haptics already gives us faucets that turn on automagically -- why couldn't Swype give us a virtual keyboard that lets us gesture to specify the water temperature?

If you manufacture tablet computers or haptic devices, I encourage you to consider including Swype on your device. It might be the one app that gives your hardware the "wow" factor you've been looking for.

The Browser Wars Continue: Introducing Google Chrome

Googlechromescreenshot

Today is going to mark the introduction of a brand-new browser -- not from Microsoft or Mozilla but in a surprise move, from Google. Blogoscoped has images of the new browser, named Google Chrome, here.

Google used a comic book approach to describe why they felt it was necessary to launch a new browser. This approach made it easier to digest otherwise complicated concepts. The PR-friendly answer to "why create a new browser" is that thanks to worldwide usage of Google's search engines and tools, Google could see how people's enjoyment of the internet was being stifled by old-fashioned browsers that were built primarily to read HTML web pages. Google chose to use open source principles to create a browser from the ground up based on what people do today: watching and uploading videos, chatting with each other, or playing games.

Yet as I read through Google's explanation, it appears that Google will launch an enormous initiative in order to court developer interest in Google Chrome for the desktop and Google Android for the mobile. Google will treat the web browser as an operating system on which other programs, widgets and applets can run.

Similar to the functionality of Gmail and Google Docs, Apple promises to help people keep all of their information in synch via Mobile Me. Based on what I saw of Mobile Me, I predicted that Apple will use the iPhone/iTunes ecosystem to create a new browser-based netbook operating system platform which will run on new netbook computers as reported by NPR and others.

I've argued that Apple will drop the prices of its hardware in order to build up its developer base for its Safari platform. Google Android/Chrome will be directly competitive with Apple's iPhone platform by offering web developers an integrated environment where one can build apps for traditional computers and mobile phones at the same time. Google's Virtual Machine approach addresses memory leak issues that many users of the iPhone are only now starting to encounter after downloading multiple applications.

I believe it is only a matter of time before Google attempts to make Google Chrome the default operating system for a new generation of sub-$500 notebook computers that will never be touched by Microsoft Windows but instead will run Gmail, Google Docs and so much more.

Interestingly, Google Chrome imitated Apple in choosing WebKit, not Mozilla, as the foundation for its browser. It wouldn't surprise me to see Google bidding against Apple for stewardship of WebKit's community and associated intellectual property, much as former Red Hat CTO Marc Ewing was able to commercialize his company's open source community. 

Microsoft Surface + Sheraton: Implications for Hotels and Social Media

Surface Almost fourteen months after the initial announcement, the Starwood hotel unit Sheraton has finally announced the launch of Microsoft's Surface product at five Sheraton hotels: the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers, Sheraton Boston Hotel, Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, Sheraton Seattle Hotel & Towers, and the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in San Francisco.

Surface acts as a sophisticated kiosk: it's placed in common areas, to  encourage collaboration and exploration. Surface uses haptic technology to let guests control the interface using gestures. The Surface unit comes pre-programmed with a virtual concierge that suggests places to go as well as a  Sony-branded music experience featuring selected Sony BMG artists.

Much has changed in the last fourteen months. The iPhone has gone through two versions, and I'm betting that a $499-$599 Apple netbook will come out by October 2008, essentially providing the same Surface experience but with a larger base of applications and better portability.

Whatever Microsoft has spent on Surface to date pales in comparison to the $200 million Rearden Commerce has spent trying to put together a similar web-based product. The challenge that both services will face won't be developing fun marketing, but rather keeping information up-to-date: how would guests feel if Surface directed them to a restaurant that closed down months ago?

I tried to search for Palomino in Denver, which shut down on January 20, 2008. Eight months later, only Microsoft and Yahoo appear to be on top of such matters, as Google and Citysearch both fail to convey that small but important fact.

Let's hope that Sheraton's collaboration with Microsoft yields better results for the consumer.

Here's the promotional video for Sheraton's launch of Surface:

Video: Microsoft Surface at Sheraton Hotel & Resorts

Cool New Tools: Balsamiq, Friendfeed and Lijit

Mockup_2_3 If you're one of those companies that are looking at updating your website or blog, you should check out Balsamiq, Friendfeed and Lijit.

After reading the "Future of Blogging" from ReadWriteWeb, I was pretty inspired to try something different. In the past, it would take days or longer to put anything together. 

But this time, it only took me about 10 minutes to put together a wireframe (above right) using Balsamiq, and from there a little over an hour to get the domain name, and collect all the widgets necessary to build the DNC Blogger page.

Long ago, I learned I could save a lot of time by working with the client to develop wireframes -- basically storyboards for web sites. Balsamiq is the first web tool to really simplify the construction of wireframes.

Julia_allison_blog The goal with the page was to provide "eventstreaming" -- highlight the breaking news and storylines as reported by the 54 or so "official" bloggers of the Democratic National Committee Convention to be held here in Denver at the end of the month. After looking at ReadWriteWeb's analysis of the design of Julia Allison (left) and Alan Cheslow, I decided to roll with Alan's approach.

Friendfeed provides a "river" of the latest posts in a single feed. Next to it is our version of the blogroll -- rather than providing just the names of the blogs, why not give them a bit of color and the last five or so posts? I think that RSS feeds often depersonalize blogs and rob them of the idiosyncracies that make each blog so memorable.

I included the blog search widget from Lijit.com. I think all political blogs should use these guys. I asked Lijit's bizdev guy Micah Baldwin (MEE-hah BALD-win) to create a custom version of the search for DNC blogs. This search was different in that it provided two levels of search:

  1. Search the blog itself. This is the search people are used to. 
  2. Search the blog and all blogs in its blogroll. This is what I think is really interesting -- it returns search results based on the blog and its "kindred spirits", as defined by the preferences of the blog editors.

The Lijit widget provides a search term cloud that lets you see the most frequently searched terms.

Plus, if you discovered the blog by using Google to search for a specific term, Lijit remembers that and suggests blog posts that contain that same search term.

Lastly, I put in a feed that contains the last 15 or so Twitter "tweets" that relate to Denver and the DNC. Twitter is like CB radio -- you can tune in to specific channels and get a never-ending narrative about what people are doing. For the DNC, Twitter will let us provide a backchannel much like a mobile phone tour guide: people will be able to find out what's going on, ask questions, and as a result, make smarter decisions about where to go and what to do.

Inside the iPad: Why a $100 Apple Laptop Is Probably Inevitable

MotopodAlmost three years ago I guessed, correctly, that Apple would follow its amazingly successful iPod with a phone.

It's been a habit of mine -- since I wrote software for the first company to make a portable Mac years ago, I've not only bought into their big hits, but also their big misses like the Motorola Marco (the first wireless Newton) and Apple interactive TV (in 1991 they gave me one of their very first universal remotes).

Today, I'm quite certain that come September, Apple will come full circle with a mobile device that acts like an inexpensive laptop, which I'm dubbing the iPad. Given their recent investor conference call, I'm optimistic that Apple will sell the iPad within spitting distance of the first iPhone's price point  ($499), with the following hardware specs:

  • Powered by the SFF (Small Form Factor) version of the Centrino 2.
  • Use Apple's increasingly useful multi-touch technology to power a virtual keyboard that you can "feel" when you touch-type, even though you're really using a solid slab of glass.
  • Support wireless standards like Bluetooth and a more robust version of WiFi that works at distances of up to 1 kilometer (compared to 100 feet today).
  • Have a moderate battery life (normally 2-3 hours, but about 90 minutes when using multimedia).
  • Include USB and the multi-use connector launched with the MacBook Air.

On the software side, this iPad is likely to:

  • Use a new version of OS X that will not work with older PowerPC users (the last PowerMac G5 was released in October 2005). Today you can expect to pay $129 for the latest Apple operating system. I'm betting the price of the next revision to the OS will be around $69, less for education.
  • Include the Safari browser and provide a full suite of web-based Office-software (word processing, spreadsheet, presentations, and email).
  • Use only a few watts of power, compared to 100 watts or more with today's machines.
  • Use MobileMe (Apple's flavor of cloud computing) to quickly share data with existing computers, iPhones and other iPads. MobileMe's launch with the iPhone 2.0 was a trojan horse designed to facilitate iPad adoption.
  • Play new music, video and apps purchased from iTunes (since the iPad won't come with a DVD slot).
  • Use iTunes to purchase and subscribe to digital versions of books and other print products, putting the iPad into competition with the Amazon Kindle.
  • Eliminate the Carbon API (which until now has been critical for legacy Apple apps) and instead use the Cocoa platform (the old NeXT object-oriented platform).
  • Support the authoring of full iPhone and iPad applications...making the iPad the cheapest software development platform yet.

So what does this mean?

First, with iPhones at $199 and iPods for as little as $49, I'd argue Apple has clearly abandoned their premium pricing strategy. When asked if Apple has changed its philosophy on margin and volume, Peter Oppenheimer had this to say:

"...We're delivering state-of-the-art products at price points that our competitors can't match, which has resulted in market share gains in each of our products. We plan to continue this strategy and to deliver great value to our customers while making a reasonable margin but not a margin so high as to leave an umbrella for our competitors."

Today, so-called netbooks are reportedly being sold for as little as $240. I don't believe Apple will try to match this price. But given the steep drop-off in Apple's projected gross margin to 30%, I believe a revolutionary pricing model is in the works. I believe Apple learned how to obsolete their own products with the iPod, and replicated the experience/cost curve with the iPhone. Now they have captured lightning in a bottle twice in a row, they have the confidence to price incredibly aggressively and are now asking Wall Street to buy into this vision. I believe Apple will price the iPad at $499, "...(riding) the cost curves down with value engineering and volume manufacturing, leaving us far ahead of our competitors."

Next, computers at this price point will transform the lives of people everywhere. We're going to see incredible computational capabilities come into new markets like hospitality and retail. I'm guessing we'll soon see educational iPad pricing for around $250. It wouldn't surprise me to see a sub-$100 version available within 3-5 years to rural communities in out-of-the-way places like India and Africa. Apple has already filed patents on the kind of solar cell technology needed to fully power such devices.

Lastly, Steve Jobs has learned the importance of locking in a huge developer community.Today, the iPhone software developer kit ("SDK") is free, but in order to write an iPhone app, you must use an Apple computer. I believe Apple wants to make software development as affordable as possible for as many people as possible. To do that, they are reducing the costs of the SDK, the operating system, the hardware, everything. 

To summarize, the iPad "razor" may only cost $499, but 25 million app downloads show a tremendous untapped market for razorblades, to the tune of 30% gross margins.

By making a huge strategic bet on inexpensive computing just as global demand for a better life really starts to kick in, it wouldn't surprise me if Apple managed to build a worldwide developer community just as fanatical as its iPhone user base.

Related Link: Apple F3Q08 Earnings Call Transcript and above quotes from the transcript (in italics) courtesy of Seeking Alpha

Oct 10 Update: Based on this link, it appears that this unit will actually be priced at $800. Not quite "spitting distance" from $499, but still, a remarkable price departure.

Debunking the Long Tail: Separating Reality from Wishful Thinking

LongtailFor years, we've believed that the Internet would allow obscure films like The Peanut Butter Solution to find their audience, no matter where the fans lived or what language they spoke.

It's been the inspiration for countless Internet companies.

But what if we've been looking at it the wrong way?

Erick Schonfeld over at TechCrunch writes an interesting review of a Harvard Business School article whose basic premise is that just because the Internet makes it possible to offer more goods does not mean that consumers will start buying in significant numbers.

Erick dissects the HBR article and argues that while demand is being pushed down the tail, simply aggregating non-blockbuster items is no guarantee of success. (If you haven't already, I urge you to read it as well as Long Tail author Chris Anderson's comments before continuing.) Erick acknowledges that the  market has changed, but concludes,

"...but to say there is no money in the Long Tail is nonsense. It is just more finely distributed and harder to find. True, there are not many businesses that have figured out how to collect it. Google is one with AdSense and search ads. Each search ad is insignificant in and of itself, but all of those obscure terms add up to billions of dollars."

What is amazing is that people take the Long Tail as gospel without really considering what it means. As an example, one of the conclusions of the Wikipedia entry for the Long Tail is that it has changed the proverbial "80-20" rule into the "72-28" rule. It doesn't mean that the Long Tail has somehow marginalized blockbusters: instead it describes how much product discovery efficiency has increased.

Likewise, this definition does mean

  • "...Important profits from the long tail will be largely be made (by) those able to aggregate niche products" - Consumers want variety, and a hyperefficient market as Zappos.com proves, retailers are able to make greater margins from less popular products

However, it does not mean:

  • "...Everything is going to be a hit at some time...the next Brit Spears or Kanye is out there in the (Long Tail)...if they can only get 1) monies and 2) traction." - I got two words: Heaven's Gate. They spent $5 million marketing it and it only made $3.4 million in the US. Sometimes, you really can't polish a turd and make people believe it's an apple.

Given some of the recent court rulings won by luxury goods companies like Louis Vuitton against both eBay and Google, it appears the Long Tail is working harder for fraudulent knockoffs than the original couture brands. The New York Times reports that Tiffany & Company argues that 83% of the products sold on eBay are fraudulent. (And I mainstain that the luxury goods companies should get into social networking, if only to publish an API that lets third parties know who is and who isn't an authorized dealer. But I digress.)

So let's consider a couple of other real world experiments.

In the early 90s a major cable company that I worked for ran a pair of trials at the same time: a dozen hit movies scheduled at convenient times, and a much larger library of films that included both hits and films that were popular with smaller groups. The trial using the much larger library had a lot of initial interest, but usage dropped off after a short period of time. On the other hand, the hit movie channel had moderate interest at first but traffic grew over time. Our conclusion was simple: the hits drive the revenue.

That example is 15 years old, and Chris Anderson rightly points out that heavy DVD renters are more likely to venture into the Long Tail. But there is another example that is much more current and possibly much more persuasive.

Early insiders at both AOL and Prodigy tell the same story, at different times: early adopters did a lot of exploration at first, but after time, they would spend more time online at fewer sites. If the Long Tail applied, wouldn't smaller websites be seeing strong growth in both new site launches and recurring traffic? When Techcrunch suggests that people are benefitting from the "billions of dollars" generated by AdSense, and then I read that VC Fred Wilson's popular blog is only making $500 a year, it makes me wonder.

At the same time, the average search query is growing in both number of terms and complexity. Does it mean that people are getting better at finding niche sites? Or does it mean that people are simply getting better at sampling new experiences? I somehow doubt that most people that visit a new site go on to become a frequent visitor at that site, even with the assistance of RSS, social bookmarking and widgets.

The Long Tail is a way to describe how web services and other innovations make it easier to find and buy things. I'm not sure that it helps stores like The Gap find a better way than outlet stores to get rid of unsold inventory, nor does it help a music label improve its ability to find the next hot act. But for people interested in other models that describe how technology influences our relationships with brands, I'd encourage you to explore Dunbar's number. Marketers know there is a limit to how many brands can possibly have top-of-mind awareness; Dunbar's number gives you insights into why McDonalds makes more money by featuring only 8 items or why the average Facebook user only has 164 friends.

Reliving the 70s: The Loews Regency Park Reinvents the TV Dinner

Friedchicken

Talk about history repeating itself.

Salmon Classic TV shows like I Dream of Jeannie are popular on Hulu.com. My friend Sandy went from a straight cut to the Farrah Fawcett wave. Twitter is doing its best to repeat the rapid rise (and unfortunately, the rapid decline as well) of the CB radio craze. And now, the Loews Regency Park in New York City rejuvenates the TV dinner concept: introducing Park Avenue Fried Chicken (above), Wasabi Crusted North Atlantic Wild Salmon (right, top), and the Slow Braised Pot Roast (braised in Pinot Noir, below right).

Jeff Davis over at the wonderful foodie blog Foodfete (go ahead, check it out) appreciates what Chef Andrew Rubin is trying to do...and loves the warm, fuzzy feeling it gives him.

The trays are porcelain, not aluminum or plastic. The fried chicken is free range and the macaroni and cheese is cheddar asiago with a Parmesan crust.

While not designed for a low-fat diet, the good news is that this food may be good for you in other ways. Some research suggests eating certain foods can help reduce stress (and no, this research did not come from Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat).

As Sewell Chan blogs over at the NY Times Citydesk,

"...research out of Cornell University suggests that females tend to prefer snack-related comfort foods (candy and chocolate) while males prefer more meal-related comfort foods (pasta or casseroles). The researchers speculate that the gender differences may relate to upbringing. Men may have been conditioned to prefer hot or labor-intensive meals (conjuring up memories of their mothers taking care of them) while women seek convenient comfort foods (a form of self-indulgence)."

As scientists figure out how changes in brain chemistry make us happy, we also are witnessing people who take a more active interest in understanding how their food is produced. I think it's only going to be a matter of time (months, even) before these two trends collide: maybe not TV dinners from your local farmers' market, but certainly using comforting iconography (the old dairy box the milkman would use to deliver milk to your door, or the brown bag lunch) to market locally grown produce.

Hiring The Best: Research Shows the Value of Sarcasm

Dannymeyer_2Katherine P. Rankin may have simply wanted to research where sarcasm lived in the brain as part of her ongoing research into dementia. Along the way, she may have discovered an insight which may lead hospitality professionals everywhere to rethink their hiring practices.

What she found is that the ability to perceive sarcasm requires a nifty mental trick that lies at the heart of social relations: figuring out what others are thinking.

It turns out that sarcasm lives in the right side of the brain. (It lives in the right hemisphere, along with the ability to appreciate puns and jokes, appreciation for fine food and wine, love of travel, as well as empathy and listening skills.)    

Why is this important?

Let's turn to Danny Meyer, who as I've mentioned before, knows something about customer service -- he's the founder and co-owner of eleven classic New York establishments. All of these venues have outstanding customer service: Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern, Cafe 2, Terrace 5, and Hudson Yards Catering. He's also one of the early investors in a little company called OpenTable.

In his book "Setting The Table", he's got a term called the "51 percent solution". He argues that the way people relate to each other is just slightly more important than the technical performance. It's the same reason a flawless four- or five-star restaurant can actually attract far fewer loyal fans than a two- or three-star place with soul. Meyer adds:

"...The human beings who animate our restaurants have far more impact on whether we succeed than any of the food ingredients we use, the decor of our dining rooms, the bottles of wine in our cellars, or even the locations of the restaurants. Because hospitality is a dialogue, I have always placed the highest premium on hiring the best possible staff to engage our guests."

If the customer feels like the wait staff has done something for them (i.e., listened and take action as a result), they have a strong emotional experience and are likely to come back or perhaps tell their friends.

If the customer feels like the wait staff has done something to them (i.e., didn't listen and did something else instead of what they wanted), they are going to have a stronger emotional experience and are more likely to share the negative experience with their friends.

A restaurant can do a hundred things right -- but if the wait staff can't understand the signals the customer is sending, and therefore doesn't react, the whole experience is ruined. By testing for sarcasm, you're also testing for the ability to provide excellent customer service.

Before you go out and hire the most sarcastic people, there is one caveat: as Cornell notes in a recent report, "Questioning Conventional Wisdom: Is a Happy Employee a Good Employee, or Do Other Attitudes Matter More?", the most important factor is whether employees understand what's important in their job. Sarcastic employees are simply better at listening and identifying needs. They still need guidance in developing the improvisational skills that are at the core of delivering an excellent customer experience.

Link: The New York Times has a terrific article -- as well as a video used in a scientific study on sarcasm. (registration may be required)

Can I Borrow You For A Moment? The New Cognitive Surplus

Istock_000003622473smallI've had a lot of conversations recently about crowdsourcing - using web tools to engage the public (or other large groups) to solve problems. Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester Research provides an example of how crowdsourcing helped improve a conference session by turning a boring panel into a more lively one:

"...Questions made the panel: Love hearing viewpoints from people with boots on the ground."

Now, Clay Shirky provides a completely different context for crowdsourcing: with all of the free time we are no longer spending on television, and instead spending with Facebook and other social applications, can we find a way to solve some of the really big problems? He asks:

"...Let's say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing.  The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year.  That's about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation."

When he says "Wikipedia projects", he means things like Vasco Furtado, a Wiki Map for crime in Brazil. If there's an assault, if there's a burglary, if there's a mugging, a robbery, a rape, a murder, you can go and put a push-pin on a Google Map, and you can characterize the assault, and you start to see a map of where these crimes are occurring. While that might not mean a lot to someone that may never visit Brazil, in some of my previous posts I've noted how similar local projects led to a fifty percent drop in crime.

Think of it: just a change of 1% in your TV watching habits can lead to a hundred projects, just like these. Clay notes the last time there was a similar change in how we spend our leisure time as significant as this, it gave rise to gin and sitcoms. Read the post for yourself, or Dave Morin over at Facebook posted a video of Clay's talk.

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