CyberTech Rambler

May 30, 2008

Was there a war?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 7:55 am

Patrick Durusau’s latest blog posting (PDF) is worth a read. I do not agree with his opinion that there was no standard war. However, his factual account of the events is accurate.

I quite simply cannot understand why Durusau bother to post this at all. Since he is the chair of an important committee, he would had been better off keeping his opinion to himself, if only for the sake of appearing impartial.

Was there a war? I think there is. A war requires two parties to have difference in opinion, and both parties maneuver aggressively. A declaration of war, although nice, is not a necessity. Did both side maneuver aggressively? Yes.

One other thing, unilateral declaration of ceasefire, like the one declared by Microsoft a long time ago, is only effective if one side has overwhelming advantage against the other. The fact that Microsoft is defending itself long after the declaration is a sign that the war is still raging.

It is, however, true that Microsoft did not started the war. They first ignored ODF. As PJ pointed out, Massachusetts forces it to rethink this strategy, and Microsoft came out fighting. OOXML passage through ECMA and ISO is a war. May be not the big crash of superpowers, but at least a guerilla war fought between a superpower and local, disorganized fractions such as this fly-by blog. Interestingly, most anti OOXML/proODF people do not see Microsoft supports for ODF in Microsoft Office’s next service pack, and its decision to rejoin the ODF committee at OASIS as them winning the war. Do I believe this is a turning point in the war? Not yet. It will depends on what is delivered in the service pack, and Microsoft behavour in the committee. However, it can potentially be a turning point. If it is, I don’t like it. I do not think either party should be the winner as winning implies someone has to lose. What I really want to see is the cliche “win-win” situation where everyone benefit from one single document format.

If I were Microsoft, I must admit I probably will not had acted differently. I cannot recall how many times I ignored things just to have it come back and bite me later. I had, in the past, engage in a bit of fighting.
Every time the result is clear, I did not win. Most of the time, I capitulated quickly as I do not have the resources like Microsoft. Nonetheless, I lose.

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Another appeal against ISO OOXML, this time Brazil

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 7:36 am

Brazil is the second country, after South Africa, to appeal. As the deadline for filing appeals is getting closer and closer, we might be seeing appeals coming out from the woodworks. Andy Updegrove promise us two more, and the situation will be clearer on Monday.

What I do regret is the second resignation of a member in national bodies over this OOXML affair. The first is of course the resignation of the chair of the mirror committee in Norway. Losing them is a bigger blow to standard setting community. One can say it is an expected fallout from the OOXML saga. I understand why they quit. However, I cannot help but think that if the standard bodies still continue unchanged, we lost valuable voices to counter any companies’ aggressive move in places where it matters most.

Another interesting issue is the Brazillian allegation that a company (Microsoft implied) argued that a vote should not be taken because of the lack of time to discuss the issue and that the delegate has no authority to vote. The irony on “lack of time” will not lost to most readers. It is interesting to note that Microsoft, if indeed is the company in question, did not just raise objections outright.

This is of course, stalling tactics and only to be expected. If successful, an appeal letter would not be filed in time.  Most of the time, people like this are always dealt with the way they should be dealt with: Tell them that they knew in advance that the meeting is convened in order to reach a decision, if they choose to send someone who did not have the authority to decide, it’s their fault. The advice to them is to vote “abstain” or “no” then file a complain to the relevant oversight committee for a fair hearing. The lack of time argument is moot because the person who came in cannot vote. At the very least one can argue that the complainer did not try it utmost to help, since by sending someone without authority to vote, they decided not to make use of all available time for deliberation.

We shall wait and see what happens. As far as I am concerned, there are several points in the appeals so far, such as “block voting” and non-P members voting in BRM, might not be good enough to cause an overturn of the decision. The Convener, Alex Brown, had done his homework on non-P member voting by securing ISO and IEC’s agreement before the BRM. The “block voting” is the best Brown can do given the time constrain on the BRM. Some procedural irregularities, such as not receiving the final text after a month from final approval, might be judged to be not severe enough to justify overturning the decision, especially if the appeal committee decides the amount of revision approved by the BRM can justify the delay.  Moreover, since we are not sure when the National Bodies actually received the final text, we cannot rule out postal delay.

The allegation that discussion about contradiction was not properly handled and the standard is not suitable for fast tracking, and that this saga damage the reputation of ISO are our best hope. It is difficult to counter at least the first two arguments, if not all.

I am not holding my breath that the appeals will be successful. The same political forces that are asserted by all parties in the whole process will be applied to the appeals. What I do hope is the appeals will result in clarifying what is acceptable for fast track. This, I hope, is one of the more significant benefit that comes out of this debacle.

May 29, 2008

“Microsoft is not bound by, nor grants any rights under, any third party licenses with respect to the Moonlight Implementation (e.g., any versions of the General Public License).”

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 12:13 pm

Groklaw has an article that says GPL developers cannot use Moonlight, backed by SFLC analysis. You are of course advised to consult your lawyers on what you can and cannot do for ALL third party licenses you plan to use, regardless of whether it is an open or close source license. For joe public like me. This will probably be the only legal analysis I need to stop me from using Moonlight. After all, I cannot afford a lawyer, let alone any lawsuit any company see fit to throw onto me.

What really interest me is of course the disclaimer in the Moonlight covenant, which I had used as the title. It is interesting. Remember that virtually as soon as GPL version 3 were published, Microsoft says it does not believe GPL v3 applies to the MS-Novell interoperability agreement but yet see fit to amend the agreement to include a language to such effect?

I think we might be seeing the start of a  trend, i.e., anything Microsoft associate with the MS-Novell interoperability agreement will carry such  “disclaimer”. It may be a “boilerplate” thing. At the minimum, Microsoft is taking a “defensive” position to allow it to at least make an argument in court later if someone tries to hold them to GPL v3.

Is it effective? In general you cannot disclaim your responsibility for anything you entered into by simply putting out a disclaimer. I am pretty sure some day, some time we will find out, but I do not know when. I for one have not enough money to find out for myself.

One other thing: As we know, the MS-Novell agreement is “grandfathered in” GPL v3. It was controversial. Now, we have a new dimension: How much is grandfathered in?? Moonlight is obviously a new thing. Most people, perhaps excluding lawyers, will agree it is something post “grandfathered in” cut-off date. It appears that MS, with implicit Novell’s agreement, is at least trying to create a defense by tying  the MS-Novell agreement with Moonlight in an effort to “back date” Moonlight Covenant. That’s interesting.

May 28, 2008

ECMA OOXML support in 2010 as well???

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 12:00 pm

Eric Lai of Computer World reports that Microsoft has no plan to support ECMA OOXML sooner than ISO OOXML. That came as a surprise. All I can speculate is that events at ISO overtake Microsoft ECMA OOXML work.

In a lot of way, ECMA OOXML is a different beast from ISO OOXML. If we call ISO OOXML version 1, then ECMA OOXML is version 0.5. As any software engineers know, the difference between 0.5 and 1.0 is always going to be greater than that between 1.0 and 2.0, since the stuff under development is less stable in early stage

I have strong doubts that we are ever going to see an implementation of ECMA OOXML. Normally, if someone pass a standard through ISO shortly after sending it through ECMA, we do expect that the ECMA version to lay dormant and unimplemented. Using my version analogy,  why work on version 0.9 when you already have version 1.0?

I hope you had noted that I use version 0.9 to describe ECMA standard instead of 0.5 with OOXML. That is deliberate and not a mistake. It signify that we are expecting little difference between the ECMA and ISO version but also acknowledge that there can be differences in real life.

So, to me, the problem is not that ECMA and ISO standard are different, but that ECMA OOXML is so much different from ISO OOXML. The changes is so huge that anyone working on ECMA OOXML will have wasted a significant amount of time doing so. Fine if you are Microsoft sitting on a pile of cash. Not good if you are cash strapped or do not have significant resources.

The difference between ISO OOXML and ECMA OOXML is precisely why fast track process as it is totally inappropriate for the task. In my opinion, Microsoft should be forced to implement ECMA OOXML even though it might not be used. They proposed the standard so they are duty bound to support it.

Licensing in virtualization world

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 11:43 am

I understand where Jon Brodkin comes from when he argues that virtualization of Windows does not means necessarily means reduced licensing fee. If any, I am on the receiving end. Recently, I wanted to run Windows in a virtual machine on my Mac at work. A year ago, I would had have to fork out for Windows Business edition which is a bombshell for an operating system I would rarely use. But I now have the choice of Windows Home Edition now. As I was in the European Union, the “N” Edition would had suited me better. The reason why I am still without a Window Virtual Machine? I cannot find an “N” edition that is cheaper than the non-“N” edition.

Why didn’t Microsoft allow virtualization of Windows Home Edition earlier? According to them, no demand from consumers. Not true, I wanted one and I am not alone. The truth is it is a business decision. Microsoft felt it had no need to compete in the market segment for which  Windows Home Edition is targeted at and has set the price to target maximum profit for itself. Nothing wrong here as it is simple economics at work.

However, where Windows face competition, i.e., in the Business world, Microsoft allowed virtualisation from day one. In fact, the virtualisation deal is fairly good: 4 virtual machines per license.

Moreover, compared to other companies, Microsoft’s licensing deals are normally better than its competition when there are competition. Before virtualization licensing, it is multicores licensing that is the problem. A lot of establish companies had chosen to license their software per-core, but Microsoft is one of the first few major companies to have licensing deal that has the same price for a reason number of cores (normally 4 or less).

If you ask me, as far as business is concern, Microsoft’s deal for virtualization is reasonable from day one. If you are going to use proprietary programs, you do expect to pay more if you have more machines, no matter what type of machine (virtual or physical) you use. From a software business viewpoint the fact that the software on virtual or a physical machine does not really make a different. After all, hardwares are customers’ problem. Having said that, I understand the fact that it is easier to create a lot of virtual machines on one piece of hardware and this will quickly escalate the cost of licensing and software vendors must take that into account in pricing.

Hence my advice to people needing virtualization: Shop around, keep the pressure up by fostering competition. With that, you will get a better price from ALL your suppliers

May 23, 2008

Suddenly, a flurry of OOXML-ODF related news

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 6:45 pm

The biggest news, pick up by news agencies and bloggers worldwide, is Microsoft’s Press Release about Microsoft Office supporting ODF 1.1 with SP2, scheduled for shipping in 2009. I will talk about this later. As Andy Updegrove highlighted, buried in the Press Release is that SP2 will NOT support ISO-blessed OOXML, but OOXML support is scheduled for the next version of Office. To me, this is the big news. One valuable lesson OOXML standardization through ISO teaches me is how Microsoft PR spins news. Hence, I am afraid all these lines about PDF/XPS/ODF support in SP2 are there to hide the fact that OOXML will not be supported in SP2

The delay in implementing OOXML in Microsoft Office means a few things to me. First and foremost, Microsoft did move a long way between ECMA OOXML and ISO OOXML, so long that they diverge significantly from Microsoft Office’s implementation of the XML format. We can see this in the difference between the two versions. To be able to claim ISO OOXML support Microsoft do have a lot of homework to do. It’s a pity that even this rather large concession still results in a lousily written standard. It is no secret that I think all these changes between ECMA and ISO OOXML to me should had been done in the earlier stage.

Second, the reason Microsoft hammer OOXML through ISO is politics. They know pushing their data format through ISO means a lot of changes. At some stage, perhaps from the beginning, they would had realized that they cannot deliver ISO OOXML in Microsoft products in the near term. The correct thing to do at that time will be to stop the process, works out all the problems then resubmit. After all, there is no technical need for ISO standard. HOWEVER, they STILL want their document standard to be an ISO Standard to be able to stall ODF adoption by government because it is a ISO standard. They just want to plant their fact to advance their business interest, never mind that it is detriment to the customers’ need.

Third, we are in the situation where the company with the WORST ISO OOXML support is Microsoft. We all know all those claim that so-and-so application supports OOXML normally means they use the toolkit supplied by Microsoft that can read/write to OOXML. However, there are instances where third party actually developed their own OOXML kit. These people are screwed again by Microsoft. Perhaps Microsoft don’t care because those who took the trouble are mainly their competitions such as OpenOffice.org/KOffice. Better if they wasted valuable resources on it since it means less time spent competing with Microsoft.

Fourth. We may in fact, never see a full implementation of ISO OOXML. Microsoft already said that it will support ODF 1.1, not ISO ODF (version 1.0). That is a correct technical decision, since ODF 1.1 is the norm today. Superimpose this tread of thinking on to OOXML and what do you get? Microsoft not implementing ISO OOXML, but a later, “enhanced” version which they dictate the development of. To critics who says this will not happen, let me remind you that ISO OOXML support is still an raincheck. We know that the earliest posible date is in two years time, i.e. 2010. Do you really believe that Microsoft Office format will stay stagnant at ISO OOXML for the two years??? I put my money on Microsoft Office in 2010 saving in the “updated” OOXML format, with the ability to save to ISO OOXML. When that comes true, every other office suite will still be in the same situation as they are today: forever playing catch up.

Lastly, to those who says OOXML is needed urgently, therefore we should sacrifice quality for speed, you just had egg on your face. The urgency is so strong that we can wait till 2010. Yeah!

By the time OOXML is supported in Microsoft Office, it is very likely that OpenDocument Formula committee would had came out with a specification for formulas. This made all the comments made by pro OOXML people that ODF lacks formula standard moot. After all, by the time we consume any ISO OOXML, we will have formula standard for ODF. Moreover, given the way it is developed, it is likely that the formula standard for ODF is be a better one from OOXML.

The other news is South Africa throwing a spanner in ISO OOXML by appealing (Updegrove coverage, OpenMalaysia blog with transcripts and links to the letters.) I am not sure whether the appeal is within the appeal period but it probably is. The appeal effectively state what we already know: The standard is too big, Fast Track process is abused here, some rules appear to not being adhere to and therefore need further scrutiny/clarification from people in charge of overseeing the process. Whether the appeal be successful is everyone’s guess. The important impact of the appeals is ISO can no longer dismiss the claims as from non-stakeholders and it can therefore ignore it

Let’s get some issues away before discussing ODF. Microsoft’s announcement of XPS (PDF competition) support in SP2 is only to be expected. XPS support was pulled at the very last minute before Office 2007 ship because Adobe filed an antitrust complain over it. Now that Office supports PDF the same way it supports XPS, it is only to be expected that both goes into SP2.

On Microsoft’s native support for ODF in SP2, assuming that it is not vaporware (which it still could be), will make Microsoft the second vendor (but first major vendor) with pledges to support read/write in both OOXML and ODF. [The first is of course Novell’s bastardized version of OpenOffice.org. It is so small and niche compared to OpenOffice.org that I at present do not consider it a major player] As I always said, I believe both ODF and OOXML camp, if they truely believe they can win the beauty pageant, they should let both formats fight it out on their applications and not put up artificial barrier, certainly not putting out an “import only” trap.

Here are some of my thoughts about other people’s comment on Microsoft Office ODF support:

  1. PJ : She is unhappy about it and devoted 95% of the blog post to criticizing it in the light of Microsoft’s Interoperability Initiatives. I think the post is a good starting point on what to watch out with this announcement but the negative tone she used was slightly uncalled for. She implied, when she about Doug Mahugh’s comment that “Not everything in Microsoft Office can be saved in ODF” is that Microsoft is insincere. If I were to make that point I would not take this as an example. With SP2, I do not expect everything in MS Office to be savable in ODF. Even if MS Office abandon OOXML today and move to ODF, it takes time to transition to full compliance. Of course I don’t expect Microsoft to abandon OOXML. The important point here is how MS Office handles the incompatibility. Do they use it to say simply that it is a different format and saving to it might cause some problem in a neutral way? Or do they compose a nasty messages about ODF? Let’s not forget that OpenOffice.org display a message warning you of the incompatibility if you save in doc format for a long time now. That message is of course, delivered in an informative and neutral way which makes it acceptable to me.
  2. A lot of commentators: Microsoft rejoin OASIS ODF committee to stall it. My take: Unlikely. Do that and I am sure that SUN and IBM will point it out immediately. It will be bad ethics and probably get Microsoft censored. Moreover, EC is watching

I like the following quote from Ditesh on OpenMalaysiaBlog about Microsoft’s new found openness:

“Microsoft’s Interoperability Initiative is geared to ensure that software (open source or otherwise) run well on Microsoft platforms. It is important to view this in its correct perspective: there has been very little effort from Microsoft to ensure its own software runs well on competing platforms.”

translation: You work, we talk. It will be too much to ask for Windows running on other platform since it is an operating system. However, other applications, such as MS Office can.

May 20, 2008

What is a year or a month?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 11:32 am

We all know about the Lotus calendar bug, which removed a day from 1900. It was a arguably good compromise to simplify date calculation in Lotus 123 back in the days where you literally have to count the bytes in your computation. Playing catch up, Microsoft emulated this. This decision, to me, was correct. What i have beef with is the perpetuation of this error into OOXML, which I believe is wrong since 1900 is no longer a year that most computers are unlikely to use and it is about time to correct this problem. The inclusion of this in OOXML led me to call it the Microsoft calendar instead of the Lotus calendar.

When David Wheeler first presented his argument on YEARFRAG problem in Excel. I was puzzled. First, while Wheeler is a supporter of ODF, he had never had a post dishing the dirt on OOXML. Why now? Second, why did OpenDocument committee withheld this information in the first place? I know people on OpenDocument committee does not like their counterparts in ECMA OOXML committee. Ethically, however, I think they should disclose this when OOXML was push through ISO, or “forever hold their tongue” (in criticizing OOXML, not revealing it.) And finally, why did we have some many different definitions of years?

All these questions were answered in Rob Weir’s post. David Wheeler is the chair on OpenDocument Formula committee and was tasked to do so. The question were indeed raised in OOXML passage through ISO. Given this two pieces of information, it is my opinion that Wheeler was waiting for the final OOXML specification in the hope that this is clarified, and do his final testing before revealing this in public. (This is something an ethical person should do and I salute him for doing so). There goes my conspiracy theory ;-(

As for the last question, why so many different definitions of years? I did exercise my little grey cells and though it must be something to do with simplifying date calculation in the days where computers were not even dream off yet. Weir confirmed this. Since like the “Microsoft Calendar”, it is not grounded in Astronomy observation, one can define it however one like. Most were probably adopted before international commerce is as busy and commonplace as it was today. That is why we have so many standards.

The mere existence of artificial month/year calculation is a revelation to me. A good one, as it improve my understanding of how things work, not diminish it.

I am actually surprised that the OOXML camp did not raise this as part of the reason why the “Microsoft Calendar” is not the only modification to the calendaring system because there are other systems, such as these in use, when the net was buzzing that Microsoft cheat us of a day. That would had been an interesting discussion point to say the least. It would, to me at least, lessen the charge that Microsoft is developing its own calendaring system.

Perhaps it was only to be expected. The two main pro OOXML bloggers that are worth tracking, Brian Jones and Jason Mathusow, went incredibly silent soon after the OOXML became ISO standard. This confirms to me that those blogs are “professional PR machines”. Although it is valuable as an information source in the debate, the bloggers themselves are simply doing it because it is their job, not because they are passionate in the topic. I am not stupid to believe that the number of postings on blogs dedicated to OOXML/ODF debate will not slow to a trickle post OOXML passage through ISO, especially since we see hive of activities on all OOXML/ODF blogs closer to important dates than other time during the year, but complete silent? Not even a post saying some nobody-knows-who company adopting OOXML? Look at the other side, OpenMalaysia blog, Weir’s blog, Sutor’s blog, Wheeler’s blog and Groklaw still have news about OOXML/ODF, and Alex Brown had started blogging about OOXML/ODF now (As convener of OOXML BRM, he is ethically bound to silent until the process is completed.) Who has the passion?

Hopefully the critic on this problem will breath some life into Jones’s and Matusow’s blog.

May 12, 2008

Catch 22??

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 11:58 am

Blender guys had just confirmed that they were approached by Microsoft on file format issues. Specifically, Microsoft asked about which Microsoft file formats Blenders users use frequently and which file formats they have problems with. Understandably, the open source community at large are wary about it. PJ kinda dismiss it but this is what I would expect from her.

To me, the most important information I extract from the snippet of email from Microsoft is that (1)they claim it is part of their “open standard” effort and (2)while they ask for information, they did not offer any help at all. The two is significant partly because Microsoft’s definition of  “open standard” completely subvert the meaning of “open”, as PJ pointed out. The “no commercial use” fall significantly short not only for open source software, but for competitors as well. Moreover, there is no promise of help or not to use the information you provide against you, i.e., making sure that you, the competitor, will have to forever be in Microsoft’s mercy. This is important since we do not want the information to be a one-way street. Giving them the information might be seen as agreeing with them about their “openness” definition.

The previous paragraph outline a strong case not to give Microsoft the information they want. So where is the catch-22? If you don’t provide the information, proprietary software vendors, including Microsoft but NOT limited to it, will call you a hypocrite when one discuss about “openness”, nevermind the fact that their definition of openness is skewed badly against you. That piece of information is going to be conveniently forgotten by their huge PR machine. The second,  it is a weapon that Microsoft can use against you in the next antitrust case. They will go to the authority and say “we tried but the other party is simply not interested”. Here’s the catch: the authority might buy the argument and don’t come back to ask you about it. This is perhaps more worrying aspect, since open source are generally more dependent on authorities to right any wrongs

My move? Do nothing extraordinary simply because it is Microsoft, i.e., give them what they want, no more, no less. They want to know which file format is used most, give them them, but only offer to tell them how. They want to know which is suboptimal, tell they which one but only give them an offer to tell they why. If they are genuine, they will come back to you and ask the questions how and why. In essence, make sure it is a dialog is not a monolog from you to them. There is no way for me to tell where the dialog is going, it can be confirming that the evil empire is really doing evil thing, or it has changed. Why I would go for a dialog? I need to decide my next move, i.e., collaborate or withdrawal. With a dialog my decision will be based on evidence rather than bias. This evidence gathering is also important since it is something an independent adjudicator (antitrust authority) can use to evaluate the situation, if need be.

May 10, 2008

The empire strikes back

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 4:41 pm

I meant in a good way. As expected, Microsoft realise that existing licensing is too expensive for emerging cheap laptops. [I wouldn’t call it ultra-low-cost PC. To me, it is a PC. It is on the cheaper than the [current] cheapest end, but a PC nonetheless] Its effort is to reduce the licensing price for computers it segmented out as the cheapest end.

If you look at it from a software business viewpoint, it is a correct move, i.e., identified a new market (cheaper than cheapest), segment the market correctly by making sure that it does not cannabolise existing market, and target the market with the “correct” product. For someone who play with software, that sounds like unnecessary work. A better way is to give your OEM people the full software and let them pick-and-mix, then, since we are talking about non-free software, charge them according to what they want.

Here are a few interesting points: First, confirmation that Windows XP will not die. That is because Microsoft need it to compete for platforms that Vista is simply too big. Second, Bill Gates’ last major project, Windows Vista, did not deliver on certain segments of the software market. He should had foresee it. Therefore, Vista is a partial flop. Third, don’t go out and buy for EeePC yet, or you will pay a premium of GBP50 over for the  operating system (Windows). Wait a while longer you will might find a flourishing market for similar laptops, driving price down for you. Microsoft just confirmed that a market for these type of products is possible.

Now, to anyone who claim FOSS software does not innovate, how about creating an extension of  the cheap end of the market? The fact that Asus did not need to ask anyone permission to use Linux (and OpenOffice.org), and that the software can run on cheapest (and most expensive) hardware, and the ability to customize Linux certainly help Asus to pionerr the market.

For that amount of money, I WILL appeal

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 1:48 am

Heise Online is running a story (in German) saying that Microsoft will appeal the European Commission fine imposed on it.

I know the amount is small for a company like Microsoft, but in absolute term it is huge, I will be appealing if I were Microsoft.

Should the appeal be allowed and the fine reduced? Let’s not forget there are two fines: One for the offense and another for not following the remedy the EC told Microsoft to do. For both counts, morally speaking, since Microsoft fought tooth and nail and lost, it should not.

However, there is another dimension to it. This is a referendum of whether EC oversteps its authority by imposing a bigger than reasonable fine on Microsoft. When the judgement come through, we might have the answer. However, while it is possible, it is unlikely to be a clear cut case. We are extremely likely to look at the history of how appeals affects fine imposed by EC in the past and make our own informed decision.

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