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Apple’s baffling obsession with a slimmer iPhone


Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

The iPhone is too thin. It’s hard to hold, its camera bump is unseemly, and its battery is too small to last all that long. Yet it seems like Apple still believes that the iPhone needs to lose some weight every time it receives an even-year upgrade.

Reports claimed in November that Apple wants to get rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack from the next iPhone. There are several reasons why that would be a bad idea, including the fact that Bluetooth headphones aren’t nearly as popular as their wired forebears, but the most important is its effect on battery life.

My iPhone 6 doesn’t last more than a full day on a charge. I don’t often use it for anything particularly taxing: I read things I’ve saved to Instapaper, browse the Web with Safari, stream albums via Apple Music, and listen to podcasts with Pocket Casts. I almost never watch videos or play any games.

I would prefer a thicker iPhone with a larger battery. Not only would it solve the problem of the iPhone being hard to hold — I’ve flipped my iPhone 6 out of my grasp too many times to count — but it would also help me get more use out of the device. Then I’d be able to watch videos or play games without any concerns.

I’m not the only one who would prefer a thicker iPhone. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s tech columnist, Christopher Mims:

[E]ven as displays become sharper and microchips faster, we are stuck charging our phones every chance we get.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a simple enough solution. It requires a company brave enough to persuade users that one of the things we’ve come to expect from phones and other gadgets—that every year, they become thinner and lighter—is a trend that has outlived its usefulness.

The weird thing is that Apple knows iPhone battery life isn’t great. I know this because the company introduced a battery case that makes the iPhone look like an Apple-made Droid Incredible while offering extended battery life. That’s right: Apple is asking its customers to cover the iPhone’s design with a battery case that makes the device look like an HTC phone from 2010.

Apple’s battery case also makes it hard to use many headphones, according to Mashable’s Christina Warren. The case makes it hard for the cranium speakers to fit into the headphone jack — which might explain why Apple wants to get rid of the damned thing. (Because clearly people want a battery case more than they want to listen to music without disturbing others.) Warren writes:

The one real downside of the Smart Battery Case is the headphone jack. It’s impossible to get a lot of headphones inside the case. If you have Apple EarPods, they’ll work just fine — but if you are using other headphones — including Apple owned Beats headphones — you’ll need a headphone extender.

The device seems to work well. It extended the battery life of Fortune writer Jason Cipriani’s iPhone from 14 hours to 31.5 hours. That’s not bad! It’s not as good as some other battery cases, but given its ability to charge at the same time as the iPhone it’s clothing and its brand, it’ll probably sell well.

That’s unfortunate. The iPhone needs to stop getting thinner. It should probably keep its headphone port, unless Apple’s going to dramatically improve the quality of the earbuds bundled with its products, at least for now. What it doesn’t need to do is create another revenue stream for Apple by all-but-requiring people to buy a $99 battery case to fix a problem that shouldn’t exist.

Let people use their gadgets during the holidays


Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

The holidays are a wonderful time when people from all over the country join each other in honoring childhood traditions. Turkeys are cooked, presents are wrapped, and egg nog starts to line the shelves of supermarkets. Having these small celebrations of being alive during the bleakest months of the year — who likes being cold, wet, and forced to spend most of their day in the dark? — offers some respite from this most trying of seasons.

There is a problem, though, and that’s managing phones.

It wasn’t that long ago when people didn’t have to worry about their relatives using phones during the holidays. When I was a child, the most we thought about phones was when we had to go through the obligatory phone tree to make sure we talked to all of our family members. Nobody had a cellphone, let alone a smartphone, and even if they had they couldn’t have used ‘em without somebody screeching about the sanctity of the holiday gathering.

Things have changed. All of us are older — though few of us are wiser — and smartphones are all but ubiquitous. Everyone from my aunts and uncles to my younger brothers has at least one device they can use during the holiday, and many also have a game console or tablet or e-reader. We’re living in a different world, and that means people must now compete with hand-held technological marvels.

Common courtesy dictates that a smartphone shouldn’t be used at the dinner table. That makes sense at specific times: When someone is observing some kind of religious rite; when the turkey is getting cold because a cousin won’t stop Snapchatting her teenybopper friends; and when someone is engaged in direct conversation with a person trying to text with the phone under the table.

Those are about it. Any other time it shouldn’t matter if someone is using their smartphone at the table. Who cares if the weirdo uncle who wouldn’t talk to anyone either way is reading “Game of Thrones” fan-fiction? And if the socially awkward kid prefers to check Reddit over trying to connect with his bro-ish cousin, why not let him? Phones could also help family members fact-check each others’ claims during discussions about politics.

Some people will read that paragraph and gasp. Others will wonder why I’m bothering to argue for a position most people who fall under the “millennial” umbrella will support. That’s the problem: There are still misconceptions about how people use devices, especially if they dare to use them during the holidays, even though there’s no excuse for anyone, regardless of age, not to know why someone might use a phone at the table.

I remember being told it was rude to play a video game when family was over even if it was perfectly okay to read a book. I also heard that using a computer — or, now, a smartphone — is considered anti-social. Neither complaint makes sense; a book allows a person to ignore their family just as much as a game does, and someone using a device to chat with friends isn’t anti-social. Assuming either is the case is a bizarre anachronism.

One of the joys of the holidays is getting to see people you might not otherwise see throughout the year. But that doesn’t mean every waking moment has to be spent with those people, nor that everyone at a holiday dinner is worth spending time with. In those cases many people would probably be much happier if they had a moment to do whatever they wanted to do, even if that seems to take their attention away from the holidays themselves.

People like different things. Some people are exhausted by conversation and need a while to recharge. Others are shy, don’t like their families, or just want to be entertained while other people are doing their things. (Let’s not even get started on how people are okay with a television being used to watch a football game but aren’t okay with any other type of gadget being used.) Those people shouldn’t be denied use of their phones.

Put another way: Not everyone who uses a phone during the holidays is an asshole. And not taking the time to understand why someone might be using their phone or other device belies an antiquated idea of what it means for a bunch of people to be gathered in the same house. As long as someone isn’t affecting you with whatever they’re doing, just leave ‘em alone and enjoy the day.

I love the new Apple TV for one reason: Its remote

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

I ordered the new Apple TV as soon as I could. Some might think this makes me a fanboy willing to purchase anything with Apple’s bite-marked fruit logo on its chassis. Others will remember that I’ve been looking to replace the PS4 my wife and I have been using as a media center for a while. Still others — and I’m sure this is the largest group of all — couldn’t care less about my purchasing decisions.

That’s fair! I’m just a 23-year-old dude with opinions and the desire to tap on a keyboard for a living. And the Web is awash in mostly favorable impressions on the Apple TV, whether it’s because of the App Store, the improved speed, or this iteration of the device’s ability to play games. There’s just one thing I want to highlight: Its remote.

Anyone who’s used the old Apple TV remote knows how bad it was. I kvetched about that damned thing with a few hundred words over at Pando when the New York Times first reported this update. And that was after I wrote the following, long before the new Apple TV was revealed, in a post describing how smartphones and tablets make good remotes:

Hell hath no fury like an Apple TV owner forced to use the set-top box’s standard remote. The metallic sliver and its click wheel of misery are perhaps the most frustrating remote controls to ever torment a living room. It’s much easier to use the software version of the remote, which allows iPhone and iPad owners to control their televisions without invoking the wrath of ancient and terrible gods every time they have to search for ‘Breaking Bad’ on iTunes.

The PS4’s controller was in some ways worse than the old Apple TV remote. It’s easy to accidentally press a button on that controller, and because it doesn’t turn off when a video is playing, its battery dies constantly. It’s fine to play games with (it’s certainly much better than the controllers that shipped with older PlayStation models) but it was easily the most frustrating remove I’ve used.

All of which makes me appreciate the new Apple TV’s remote even more. It has just enough buttons — play, menu, home, Siri, and a volume rocker — to be useful but not clunky. The touchpad feels good, it offers a satisfying click when it’s pressed, and it often works pretty much as expected. Given all the problems I’ve had, that’s no faint praise.

I’m not going to say the remote’s perfect, though. It seems like I constantly pick it up the wrong way, making my attempts to get back to the homescreen pointless until I flip it over. (Though I’m fully prepared to admit that this is probably my fault and nothing Apple can change.) I also forget where the buttons are placed, so if I’m not looking at it, I’ll often hit “Siri” instead of “back.”

The remote isn’t great for games, either. I seem to be alone in thinking that — always the black sheep, etc. — but I’ve been frustrated playing both “Crossy Road” and “Alto’s Adventure.” I won’t use the Apple TV as a gaming device very often, since I have the PS4 and didn’t buy a controller for the Apple TV, but it’s still frustrating.

Then we get into the smallest of my complaints: I have yet to use an Apple TV app that displayed a menu when I pressed the “Menu” button. (Sure, it shows the “top menu,” but that’s not at all what “menu” means in most software.) I’m not sure what else Apple could do to change this, since a back button would look too much like a rewind button, but I suspect it will confuse people besides me.

But all of those are minor complaints. Otherwise this is the best remote I’ve ever used. There aren’t a lot of options, but there don’t need to be. I don’t accidentally press buttons. And I don’t lose it every two seconds, like I did with the old remote. This simple change would be enough to convince me to buy the new Apple TV on its own.

The week I realized I don’t really own my iPhone, or anything on it

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

Earlier this week, I argued over at Gigaom that Apple’s ability to censor Apple News based on a user’s location brings highlights the fleeting nature of digital content. But censoring Apple News doesn’t only say something about owning digital media — it also says something about the concept of ownership as it relates to hardware products.

First, a recap. Someone reported last week that he was unable to access Apple News once his iPhone connected to a wireless carrier in mainland China. The app wouldn’t load new stories, nor would it allow him to read the stories he had saved from when he used the service back in Hong Kong. Apple, in other words, is censoring its News application.

Here’s what I wrote about that at Gigaom:

People tend to get upset when something is taken from their devices, whether it’s Apple News censoring a free service or Amazon pulling “1984” from Kindles. These actions serve as reminders that regardless of what we think about digital media, be it an online article or an e-book, we don’t really “own” anything. It can all be taken away at a moment’s notice — and there’s nothing we can do about it. […] When companies demonstrate their willingness to pull those digital products, either because they’re afraid of losing access to their second-most valuable market or because the item shouldn’t have been listed in its marketplace to begin with, those fears rise to the forefront. Apple just reminded the world how fleeting digital content can be, especially when it’s distributed via third parties.

This censorship also shows just how little control we have over our devices. Besides putting an iPhone into airplane mode, there’s little anyone can do to stop the device from blocking access to News once it receives a signal from a Chinese wireless carrier. If we can’t control the devices we carry around in our pockets, do we really own them?

I don’t think so. Apple can change things at a whim, and there’s nothing we can do about it. That doesn’t sound anything like the concept of ownership I was taught — it sounds more like we’re borrowing from the company with the understanding that it can change its mind at any time. So if we don’t own the digital content, and we don’t really own the devices used to access it, what are we left with?

Nothing but holes in our wallets. And the sad thing is, we know this. We know that tech companies can pull items from their stores, or block access to some applications, when they want. Yet we continue to pay for these devices and the digital media to which they provide temporary access. You’ve gotta admit, that’s not a bad deal on Apple’s end.

A while back I was struggling to decide how I should buy books: Through Amazon’s Kindle store, Apple’s iBookstore, or via brick-and-mortar retailers. I’ve flip-flopped on the issue: E-books are convenient, but comprehension is better with physical books. E-books can be read in the dark, but might affect my sleep. You get the picture.

I still haven’t decided on this issue. (I’m notoriously indecisive, and will probably continue to waffle until the matter is taken out of my cold, dead hands.) But realizing just how fleeting this concept of ownership has become, as it related both to digital media and the devices I thought I owned, has weighed things in favor of physical books.

At least with those I don’t have to worry about a company remotely censoring the content it thinks a government won’t want me to read.

Microsoft turns the page with its Surface Book


Microsoft has a habit of introducing new products before the market is ready for them. It developed some of the first tablets, but they fizzled out before the iPad came along. It popularized the concept of having an interactive home screen on smartphones with Windows Phone, but that platform is so unpopular it led Nokia out of the mobile game. And, of course, it created a work-ready laptop that was all-but-forgotten in the wake of Apple’s new iPad Pro.

The company has done the opposite with its weirdly-named hybrid device, the Surface Book. Instead of trailblazing and ruing it when other companies step in with a refined product that consumers love, Microsoft is entering a well-established category. A tablet that’s also a laptop isn’t new — it’s actually one of the things manufacturers have made for years in an attempt to woo potential customers. This time, Microsoft is the one doing all the refinements.

Hybrid products can be a hard sell. Like many devices that try to do more than one thing often fail at both. Laptops aren’t meant to be tablets, and tablets aren’t meant to be laptops. Microsoft’s Surface Book might be able to change that by melding the product categories without compromise. It’s got a powerful GPU in its keyboard, which is said to have better travel than the Surface Pro 4’s. It’s got RAM out the wazoo and claims to have 12 hours of battery life.

People who have used the Surface Book, albeit briefly, liked it. (As someone who lives in the middle of nowhere and writes primarily for a website that hasn’t officially relaunched, I’m not invited to attend events like this.) That could change when people have enough time to write proper reviews of the device — how many products seem great until you actually have to use them for anything? — but for now the device’s hype train is full steam ahead.

This is a product of firsts for Microsoft. Its first laptop. Its first hybrid product with a real keyboard instead of the fuzzy covers it sells with Surface tablets. And its first refinement on an existing category — Windows being an obvious exception — instead of a new device that seems doomed to being forgotten when Apple releases one.

I’m not going to say that this changes things for Microsoft. The company has a long way to go before it can match Apple or even Google in terms of hardware, and that weakness affects its primary business of selling software. But if the Surface Book delivers on its promises and truly makes the case for a convertible device that tries to be most things to most people, that turnaround could start.

It’s sure to be an uphill battle. Apple has its customers locked down — most of the people who buy its products will continue to do so until the company ceases operations. And the popularity of mobile platforms like Android or iOS will make it difficult for people who want to stay within a specific ecosystem to even consider the Surface Book. Windows is still a force to be reckoned with, but if the last few years are any indication that won’t be enough.

I always hate reading something that ends with “We’ll see.” It makes me feel cheated, like watching a television show that only ever ends in cliffhangers (you know who you are, “Lost”) or reading a book with the last page missing. Why bring us on an emotional journey, or bother making an argument, if it’s going to have some milquetoast ending? Of course, you probably see where I’m going with this.

So I won’t end with “We’ll see.” I’ll end by saying that the Surface Book is the first Microsoft product that feels exciting, and like it won’t be shown up in a year or two, in a while. I’m excited about it, and I suspect many of the people who learn about the product will be too. Now it’s up to Microsoft to not fuck the entire thing up.

Google’s sickly-sweet Nexus products

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

Google announced some new products earlier this week. They’re a lot like their predecessors: cheaper than most other devices; built around the Android operating system; and just attractive enough to make people consider buying one of them instead of a competitive product from Apple. But I doubt that will be enough to make them popular.

Let’s start with the smartphones. They’re called the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P. They’re cheaper than most smartphones — they start at $379 and $499 — and are meant to compete with the iPhone 6S and the iPhone 6S Plus, respectively. (More details about the devices’ processors, displays, and initial comparisons to other products can be found here.)

Others have already questioned why Google continues to make Nexus smartphones. It can’t be making a lot of money by selling them, and the Verge reports that manufacturers aren’t pleased when they’re asked to help create them. The devices are just novelties that appeal to zealot consumers who want to experience Android as Sundar Pichai intended.

Which isn’t to say that the phones don’t look nice. I envy them, and they’re cheap enough that I might buy one under the auspice of needing it to report on various platforms. Blame this on Apple’s tick-tock product cycle, which made the new iPhones look exactly like the old iPhones but with a new “bros’ gold” finish, but the Nexus phones look great.

I know what to expect once I start using them, though. I’ll be excited for a while, and I’ll enjoy the hardware. Then I’ll get to the software and switch back to iPhone. Either I won’t be able to find apps that I use every day, or I’ll find inferior versions of the apps that frustrate me whenever I have to use them to get any of my work done.

That’s the real problem with Nexus. It’s supposed to be a look at what Android can do, and based on past experience using various Nexus devices, that just isn’t compelling. The ecosystem is too fragmented: Developers have to support too many devices and too many different versions of Android, all with the promise of making less money than they would have if they focused strictly on iOS products.

People have been saying that for years. Android supporters get upset about it — “Things are getting better! No, really this time!” — but that remains the case. Nexus is supposed to be a saccharine treat Google offers its most fanatic Android users; instead the program is more like a salt-shaker used to make open wounds hurt even worse.

Then there’s the fact that there’s little exclusive to Nexus products. Google makes its content services (Play Movies, Books, etc.) available on competitive platforms. Just about the only thing Android smartphones can do that iPhones can’t is provide easy access to Google Now — and for people who like their privacy, that isn’t a benefit.

All of which means buying a Nexus smartphone is limiting, because it means you won’t be able to use apps or services that are exclusive to the iPhone, without offering much in return. Hell, most people won’t even perceive the devices as being cheaper than most smartphones — which they are — because they have to pay the full cost upfront instead of subsidizing it with a contract or paying in installments.

Many of those complaints are more pronounced on the new Pixel C, an Android tablet with an optional keyboard. The product seems great, but anyone who’s used both an iPad and an Android tablet can tell you that the software is even worse than it is between smartphone platforms. Most people will either purchase an iPad or a cheaper device.

It isn’t hard to lust after Google’s new hardware. But just like the desserts after which the company names new versions of Android, these devices often start out sweet before making someone feel sick. The only difference is that a smartphone is a much longer commitment — and has more profound effects on someone’s life— than a pastry.

Apple doesn’t trap customers with its content, it does so with new interaction tools

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

On Tuesday, I published a eulogy for Oyster, the subscription book startup that took on Amazon. I praised the company’s vision, noted my fondness for its service, and explained why I would miss its mobile app. I also took the time to explain why I’m not turning to Apple’s online bookstore, iBooks: fear that I’ll eventually want to purchase a smartphone, tablet, or laptop not designed in Cupertino.

Now I’m thinking it might be smarter to just cave to Apple’s offering instead of supporting Amazon. Not because I don’t have the same reservations about Apple’s work culture that I do of Amazon’s — both can be quite stressful, according to countless reports — but because I’m already tied to Apple. I use its music service. I rent movies and purchase television shows through iTunes. I’ve even found some things to like about the company’s News app, which feels a little bit like an unfinished product.

The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey Fowler refers to this as Apple’s happy trap. “Buying an iPhone is really about getting a golden ticket to Apple Land, where all the tools to run a modern life come included,” he wrote in a recent column. “Your chats funnel through iMessage, vacation photos get preserved in iCloud and you shop for games, music and movies from iTunes.” Trying to switch to a competitive product, whether it runs Windows Phone or Android or whatever, would be difficult.

But I think I could get by. I’ve already switched music services a few times, and while it’s annoying trying to remember exactly what I’d added to my collection on Spotify or Rdio or Apple Music, it’s not all that strenuous. I tend to buy physical copies of movies, so I can’t watch them through any of my Apple products anyway. Books would just be another thing I’d have to move from one ecosystem to another. And that’s only if I decide that I’m going to read any of those books for a second time.

I’m more worried about Apple changing the fundamental ways in which we interact with our products. Just think about “Force click” or “3D Touch” or whatever other names the company gives to the technologies that allow people to use varying degrees of force to control their devices. Here’s what the Verge’s Thomas Ricker said about his experience in his aptly-named First Click column:

With the new MacBook I Force click images and files to see larger previews. I Force click words to get definitions and synonyms. I Force click to quickly rename files or to fast forward and rewind videos with pressure-sensitive control. And I especially enjoy Force clicking links to get a preview of a web page without opening a new tab. It’s pretty magical, really, when you consider the whole thing is accomplished with electromechanical vibrations. Which reminds me: where’s the Apple Magic Forcepad?

Each time I sit down at my iMac I find myself trying to Force click on the Magic Trackpad. Same goes with the Logitech Touchpad T650 I use for my Windows 10 machine. Same goes for the touchpad on my wife’s laptop. I can’t stop Force clicking things.

That’s more concerning to me than the idea that my content won’t be available if I switch devices. What good are streaming services if you can’t bounce between them without some degree of ease? Books, music, and videos can be streamed from anywhere, re-purchased, or otherwise viewed without incurring too much of a hassle. Re-learning how to interact with smartphones, however…

It reminds me of trying to drive a new car. Sure, the basic concepts are the same; it’s not like Ford opts to have people steer with joysticks instead of a wheel. But small things like the location of the windshield-wiper’s toggle, the shifter, or other tools used all the time are often in unfamiliar spots. Whenever I have to deal with this sort of thing I end up being frustrated that there isn’t a universal standard, and worry far more about dying because I can’t turn on the goddamn windshield wipers.

I probably wouldn’t die if I got used to 3D Touch on my iPhone only to switch to Android years later. (Never say never.) But it would make the device feel even more foreign than it otherwise would, and when a device used as often as a smartphone doesn’t behave the way you’d expect, a minor irritant can become a deal-breaker. Who wants to feel like they have to re-learn how to use a smartphone?

All of which is to say that I agree with Fowler. It feels inevitable that most iPhone owners will upgrade to new iPhones, at least partly because they’ve already invested in Apple’s ecosystem. But I think the frustration Ricker describes will have a much more profound effect on consumers. Apple doesn’t have to convince people to buy its devices because they’ll lose all their content otherwise; it just has to make their devices work a little bit differently (and, it would argue, better) than others.

Mobile is consuming the world. Could it help destroy the planet, too?

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

Image Credit: Gilbert Garcia for Celltoo

I can’t wait for a sequel to “Wall-E,” the Pixar film in which a robot is tasked with making Earth inhabitable long after humans abandoned the planet in favor of a spaceship. The film was just the right amount of cute, smart, and reflective of modern society without being too patronizing.

There is one thing I would like to see changed, however: How about having the titular robot pick up tons and tons of discarded smartphones in addition to the mishmash of metals he already works with? That would be a better reflection of what could happen now that mobile devices are so popular.

Consider this report from Agence France-Presse. It claims that a record amount of electronic waste was discarded in 2014, with 41.8 million tonnes of the stuff being tossed. While most of that comes from heavy appliances (fridges, washing machines, etc.) a fair portion comes from phones.

What’s particularly damning is that many of these devices have valuable components — including 300 tonnes of gold — that could have been recycled. Instead, they will have to be mined again, often by people who are paid little or nothing to do the back-breaking labor required to get the materials.

Wall-E would be disappointed.

This problem is only going to continue to get worse. More people are using smartphones than ever before, and despite slowed growth in established markets like the United States, the numbers are only going to continue rising. And as more smartphones are bought, more will inevitably be thrown away.

There are many signs phones will continue to grow in popularity. Apple says the iPhone 6s got more pre-orders than the iPhone 6 that arrived last year. More companies are making cheap-but-good devices to reach emerging markets. Google is hoping to get everyone a phone with Android One.

All this makes it easy to believe Andreessen Horowitz analyst Benedict Evans when he says that 80 percent of the world’s adult population will own smartphones by 2020. These trends will end with the Earth being covered in slabs of glass and aluminum and plastic and god-knows-what-else.

This might not be as much of a problem if more people would fix their devices instead of demanding new ones. Hell, even as far back as 2010 people were swapping out mobile devices instead of paying to have a broken component fixed. Even if they sent in the old device to get the replacement, that’s still a lot of unnecessary effort and wasted resources.

Of course, that’s probably the twist you expected from a blog hosted by a company devoted to repairing electronics. But one of the things that excites me most about this blog is the editorial independence; I’m not required to write anything, nor do I have to pimp the brand. (Notice that I haven’t mentioned the name of the company in this piece.)

I’m not writing this for any reason other than to wonder at how the growing smartphone market could affect the Earth. Don’t consider recycling or repairing a device instead of throwing it away because of the company hosting this blog. Do it so the robot tasked with saving the planet doesn’t have to pluck shards of broken glass out of his tracks.

Here’s to you, Wall-E.

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