Sunday, August 20, 2017

Nokia 8: Just a flagship phone that bypasses substance for gimmicks?


The Nokia comeback journey continues, with Finnish company HMD Global unveiling the Nokia 8 flagship Android phone. This, without doubt and while reserving no rights to disagree later, is an attempt to compete with the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy S8, Google’s current Pixel phones and perhaps even the upcoming Pixel 2 phones and eventually the Apple iPhones as well. Priced at $700 (around Rs45,000), the Nokia 8 will roll out in some countries in September, with the India launch expected in the later months of this year.

A quick look at the Nokia 8’s basic specs reveal that it runs the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB RAM and will have 64GB internal storage as well as a microSD card slot that will support up to 256GB more storage space. While there is nothing to worry about on the processor front—since that is the most powerful chip that Nokia could have used at the moment—there might be some doubts about the RAM and storage space. For flagship phones and even the latest crop of more affordable flagship killer phones such as the OnePlus 5 and the Honor 8 Pro, 6GB RAM is becoming a standard spec which allows for better multi-tasking and more future-proofing. The 64GB storage space isn’t flagship-level specification, where 128GB and 256GB storage options are now slowly becoming common. Yes, we might be nit-picking, but the question is—will you buy the Nokia 8 for the here and now only, or are you looking at specifications that are future proof for your data and app requirements 24 months down the line, perhaps?

The 5.3-inch (2,560×1,440 resolution) IPS display is spot on in terms of size, and should appeal to the demographic of users who find 5.5-inch display phones a tad too big. There is a Gorilla Glass 5 layer on it too, which adds some amount of durability to it. At a time when Samsung and LG (and perhaps even Apple, with the next iPhone) are switching to the more visually appealing taller (or wider, if you hold the phones sideways) displays, Nokia has remained tethered to the more conventional.

The Nokia 8 has a 3,090mAh battery, and utilizes Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 fast charging technology.

HMD Global has preloaded the phone with an almost un-customized Android 7.1.1 (Nougat) operating system, and will get the Android O update in the near future too. HMD Global seems committed towards rolling out the security updates for the Nokia 8, and claims that any security updates that Google rolls out (barring the ones that modify the software that works with the modem in the phone) will be released on the same day as updates.

In terms of design, the Nokia 8 has an all-aluminium chassis, with no room for the potentially more fragile glass backs that are popular with some Android flagship phones. It is 7.9mm at its thickest point, and has a contoured shape that makes it feel even slimmer around the sides. It is splash-proof too, with the IP54 rating—however, this is a step down from the IP68 ratings that the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the LG G6 offer at the moment.

However, the Nokia 8’s party piece would perhaps be the Carl Zeiss cameras. There are two 13-megapixel cameras at the back (one is colour, one is monochrome), with optical image stabilization (OIS), have a 1.12um pixel size and f2.0 aperture. The front camera is also 13 megapixels, with similar pixel size and aperture. The company believes that the Nokia 8 will entice consumers with what is now known as the “bothie”. Essentially, it is supposed to be the evolution of the selfie, and will use both rear and front-facing cameras at the same time to shoot video or photos simultaneously. These can also be shared for live streaming directly on platforms such as Facebook or YouTube. Well, you don’t need to be standing next to someone anymore to take a selfie with the Nokia 8, but how much money would you bet on the idea of some neat third-party app offering this feature in your existing Android phone soon enough?

For audio recording, the Nokia 8 gets to utilize the 360-degree OZO technology used in Nokia’s high-end OZO 360 camera—there are three microphones in the 8, and they each pull 360-degree sound which is then joined together with a 4K video recording using complex algorithms. Whether consumers will genuinely be able to utilize this feature remains up for debate, but maybe the demographic who often claim that a smartphone can become their primary photography and video recording device may find this good enough—if the camera can take good enough photos, that is.

HMD Global has packed in a full-length copper cooling pipe with a graphite shield to dissipate system heat across the full body of the phone. It is designed to pull the heat away from the Snapdragon 835 chip, with the hope that it’ll be able to perform better for longer, even under heavy workloads. It is a bit perplexing though, because no phone running the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip (this includes the OnePlus 5, Sony Xperia XZ Premium and the HTC U11) has ever suffered from over-heating issues even when really stressed with the latest games, extensive camera use and intense multi-tasking. Could this be the complex algorithms of Nokia’s camera and the bothie gimmicks that require this counter measure?

The next wave of smart apps is upon us


Erica may not go down in banking history as path breaking despite some astonishing capabilities. Unveiled in October 2016, Erica is Bank of America’s financial assistant—a chatbot that keeps track of your spending habits and credit scores, suggests neat ways to reduce debt and improve savings, and even directs you to watch educational videos. Soon, Erica will team up with Zelle—a peer-to-peer mobile money transfer service. Along with Zelle, Erica will be able to pay parking tickets, utility bills, send a cash gift to the significant other, pay tuition fees or buy a cup of coffee—using natural language interaction.

Like Erica, there are scores of intelligent and autonomous applications turning up everywhere; and that’s why, despite being among the ‘pioneers’, Erica may not stand out in the long run.

These developments indicate that the next wave of smart applications is already upon us. Smart applications are ‘contextually aware’, use natural language as the interface, plough through mountains of data to arrive at answers and solutions, work with a high degree of accuracy and can do all this in real time. These applications are built with a cloud-first, mobile-first and voice-first approach—which they combine with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), analytics, deep learning, machine learning, natural language processing (NLP) and cognitive computing. Ultimately, using concepts such as containers and next generation integration technologies, they will be able to reshape and self-govern themselves.

With tremendous resources at their disposal, smart applications will be able to analyse networks and sniff suspicious activity, identify phony transactions, flag market manipulation, detect opportunities for improvements in customer interactions, recognize and predict snafus in production and sense impending disruptions in supply chains. In the next few years, smart applications will, quite literally, transform how we talk to banks, factories, warehouses, governments and businesses—and how these entities respond to us.

Every business can add ‘smart’ to its applications. Till now, creating smart applications that were intelligent, autonomous and aware was not easy. It required large budgets, access to vast amounts of data, sophisticated models and algorithms and a team of trained data scientists. But with the availability of cloud infrastructure, the growth in the internet of things (IoT), wider adoption of open source platforms and the pervasiveness of application programming interfaces (APIs)/micro-services—coupled with more affordable data extraction and analytical and predictive technologies—this is changing.

Infusing applications with intelligence and making them smart hinges around four imperatives—the building blocks of a smart application strategy:

Smart interactions

When gestures, touch, body movement, speech, and vision are used naturally to interact with applications, the intuitive experience makes manipulating and controlling processes simpler. Such unmediated interactions, often enhanced by AI and virtual reality (VR), need to be captured accurately so that they can be translated into action. For e.g., in the case of a conversation with a doctor, a smart application can capture details of the interaction to automatically schedule hospital appointments, and alert care givers, payers and patient monitoring systems to future needs.

Smart processes

Smart processes improve the accuracy and agility of business operations by taking advantage of adaptive business process management (BPM), cognitive process automation (CPA), robotic process automation (RPA), machine vision and autonomics to extract and process data and continuously improve via self-learning systems. They can be applied to make sales forecasts in retail, indicate the presence of minerals in mining operations and manage inventory in manufacturing, among other uses. For e.g., insurance customers can be on-boarded by uploading scanned digital documents and then using CPA and RPA to complete all back-end processes.

Smart platforms

Smart platforms help to rethink ‘systems’ as ‘platforms’—the underlying purpose being to provide differentiated business capability and a richer customer experience on these platforms. For example, a manufacturing execution system (MES) can take advantage of APIs and micro-services to enable increased reach, build new revenue streams and provide faster service management. Take the case of the customer of a print service provider who uses printers in multiple locations and who may have moved many of the machines from their original locations. A smart platform will not only let technicians log onto a web app and locate where a faulty printer is located (using sensors installed on the printers) but also allow them to acquire operational data, analyse the fault and automatically dispatch the nearest service technician to fix the printer.

Smart security

We have been witnessing a rise in the number of threats and vulnerabilities from unchartered corners in the last few years. The advent of IoT and smart applications or a connected ecosystem has pushed the boundaries within which security threats can be detected, responded to or prevented. Today, apps are no longer confined to one location or one data centre. They are everywhere—on mobiles, desktops, wearables, autonomous drones and self-driving cars. This calls for security to be built into apps at multiple levels. Smart security is a holistic security approach that only not protects the ‘applications’ in question but also guards the whole organization ‘perimeter’ including—but not limited to—users, data and infrastructure. Smart or new age security takes advantage of the power of cognitive computing and machine learning to pre-empt attacks that were unheard of and undetected in the past.

From a user experience point of view, smart security focuses on ensuring that end users are not inconvenienced by authentication and validation processes even while maintaining extreme security. For example, in the case of a bank account, user security can be based on a number of variables ranging from the transaction value, user behaviour, user location, network and the device being used. Depending on the indicators from each variable, the level of authentication required can be systematically raised—from a secure passcode to matching a fingerprint or voice sample and even prompting the user to capture and upload a selfie for authentication.

Combine smart interactions, processes, platforms and security, and we have applications with intelligence embedded in them. They interact seamlessly with users. They are intuitive and, therefore, help accomplish tasks more efficiently. They take advantage of data from internal and external sources, thereby improving decision making. They also improve customer satisfaction and drive growth. And let’s face it—they are cooler than anything we have used in the past.

Should blockchains replace CEOs?


Uber, as it turned out, is a great business model run by a flawed chief executive. Travis Kalanick built the world’s most valuable private company ever and achieved world domination in a relatively short while, only to be fired by his board in June. Ronald (Ron) Johnson, who shone at Apple Inc. as its retail head for over a decade (he created and opened the first Apple stores), made several bad judgements later as the CEO of J. C. Penney Co. Inc., and was summarily dismissed. Closer home, B. Ramalinga Raju used his company’s money and nearly drove his company, Satyam Computer Services Ltd (now Tech Mahindra Ltd), to the ground.

CEOs have vast, untrammelled powers in today’s organizations, endowed as they are with near-sycophantic employees and pliable boards. The way organization structures are made, everything gets eventually centralized at the top, and the CEO becomes a single point of trust and confidence for the entire organization. Many times, he or she also becomes the single point of failure. Trust and culture, in today’s organizations, flow downwards. And if the CEO is corrupt in some way, he corrupts the culture and the reputation of the entire company.

What if there was another way of structuring organizations?

This is where we come to the blockchain. By now, most of the readers would be familiar with the concept of a blockchain—a decentralized database shared among a network of computers, all of which must approve an exchange before it can be recorded. While the technology is best known as underpinning crypto-currencies like bitcoin and ether, blockchain is a lot more. It is a peer-to-peer network which can be used to exchange digital assets without friction (there is no central ledger and transactions between people can happen nearly instantly without any intermediary), execute smart contracts (contracts and documents can be stored electronically, and be executed algorithmically), and store digital records (for electronic identity).

Blockchain has given rise to a very interesting construct—the Digitally Autonomous Organization (DAO). It is an organization acting as a single entity, whose by-laws are written entirely in code. It controls about $100 million in crowd-funded assets, sits on an Ethereum blockchain and is given its authority by code and smart contracts. The people who have crowd-funded it get DAO tokens, which can be used to vote on governance issues and other decisions like which projects the $100 million DAO will fund. People can apply for businesses they would like to build on the DAO, with proposals and smart contract code; the code will execute payments as long as the project is accepted, and milestones met. While this concept is still in its infancy, and a little abstract to understand, it is perhaps the future of how a new organizational structure could emerge—and bring about the digital democratization of business.

An interesting start-up which enables something like this is Colony which builds ‘colonies’ or companies, “except instead of being managed by fallible individuals, it harnesses the wisdom of the crowd to make sure that the right things get done by the right people, at the right time”. It is a fascinating concept, where as you contribute to the organization you build your reputation (akin to DAO points), and use your reputation to get a disproportionate voice in decision making, much like the boss gets in today’s organizations, though he gets it based on his position rather than reputation. So in colonies, “decisions are made democratically; everybody has a voice. The greater your expertise, the more influence you have”.

You might not think so, but this is not entirely balderdash., Arca and Precision Nutrition are among the 500-odd companies which follow the alternative organizational structure called Holacracy. The similarity that a Holacratic organization has with the DAO is eerie: a concept that brings some structure and discipline to a peer-to-peer workplace. A Holacracy “completely replaces the conventional management hierarchy with a tested, customizable self-management practice that empowers people throughout an organization to make meaningful decisions and drive change”.

Job descriptions, where one person has narrowly defined jobs, get replaced by job roles, and a person can do more than one of them simultaneously. Delegated authority is replaced by distributed authority—think of a central ledger being replaced by a distributed one.

Changes are handled through big, one-time reorganisations in the traditional company; in Holacracy, the organizational structure is regularly updated via small iterations, much like agile, distributed software. As a Yammer co-founder put it: “Most start-ups believe in iteration of their products. Now they need to apply the same thinking to their organizations.”

Blockchain is not as much a technology as a philosophy. The internet solved the big problems of distribution, information and communication for us; blockchain takes that further to solve even bigger problems of trust and disintermediation. It has started disrupting banks and financial institutions—tomorrow it might disrupt organization structures and philosophies.

GlobalLinker is Jet Airways’ next step in its digital journey


What does the country’s Mumbai-based full-service carrier, Jet Airways (India) Ltd, hope to achieve by launching an online marketplace for small and medium enterprises (SMEs)?

The move, at first glance, does not reveal any explicit synergy with the airline’s main business. But it appears to be a key part of its digital strategy: to get more small businessmen to fly Jet Airways and collect more data from passengers to glean insights that will boost the airline’s business.

Three years ago, Jet Airways invested in developing a digital platform exclusively for SMEs. Called GlobalLinker, it allowed SMEs to create their online profile to showcase their businesses, products and services and network online with other SMEs. The online platform currently counts about 50,000 SMEs as members, according to Belson Coutinho, vice-president of marketing, e-commerce and innovations at Jet Airways.

The online marketplace is simply the “next step”, he said in a recent interview. Coutinho explained that “the idea is to help SMEs make this GlobalLinker platform a one-shop stop”. On its part, Jet Airways gets to showcase its own products and services on the GlobalLinker platform which, in turn, gives it “business from SME executives who plan to fly Jet Airways.” In addition, the airline gets access to a lot of data from the platform that will give it more insights about customers.

“This vertical (online sales) is contributing significantly to our direct digital revenue,” Coutinho said, adding that digital accounts for about “20% of our total revenue”. “If you combine the digital revenue from the OTAs (online travel agencies), it will comprise about 45-50% of the total revenue,” Coutinho added.

Jet Airways’s annual revenue, at Rs21,552.35 crore in the year ended 31 March 2017, was up 1.82% from Rs21,167.33 crore a year ago. Net profit was Rs390.43 crore, down 66.7% from Rs1,173.56 crore.

Internet-enabled ecosystems

Coutinho insists that digital is “anything and everything that transforms a consumer journey using technology”. He expects the marketplace, which has been contracted to Mumbai-based information technology (IT) firm DigiVation Digital Solutions Pvt. Ltd, to go live by this year end.

“Companies today are investing in internet-enabled ecosystems to bring the elements of the ecosystem together. We have seen this in e-commerce as well as consumer products,” said Sreedhar Prasad, partner, management consulting, KPMG India. “This (the online marketplace) is an interesting move in the airlines space where the sellers come together in an ecosystem. This would help in getting a far wider and deeper control of this ticketing ecosystem as well as possibility of upselling of other services.”

The marketplace is just one aspect of Jet Airways’ digital journey that “began almost 12 years ago,” according to Coutinho. In Jet Airways, “consumer touchpoints” including, the airline’s mobile app, e-commerce (which includes booking, payments), self-service kiosks, and the social media space—are managed by the e-commerce and digital teams. Digital communication, on the other hand, includes the airline’s strategy around search marketing, search engine optimisation (SEO), re-targeting and campaign management, according to Coutinho.

Jet Airways’ digital strategy comprises two parts. One is the “pure play digital marketing piece” that includes “communication and an engagement-led strategy.” For this, Jet Airways relies largely on channels such as Google, Facebook and other social media platforms. The other part of the strategy involves “using real digital technologies to enhance consumer experience across every touchpoint in the journey”.

For instance, if you have done your booking on Jet Airways using your Aadhaar number, you can simply swipe your finger at Bengaluru airport, and “it does your fingerprinting and validates your identity and gets you entry. It flashes your picture—at the entry, boarding gate,” Coutinho said. Similar is the case in Hyderabad.

Tapping social media

For search engine marketing, Jet Airways uses Google and Facebook. The airlines also uses makes good use of videos. “We thought video would be the best for millennials, and our investment to produce that content has been very successful (18-24 year olds). We have stayed away from Snapchat because I don’t believe it is going to help our objective as a brand. But Instagram is definitely helping us. We also use Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter (to respond to complaints, etc.),” Coutinho said, adding that the “basics of our digital strategy remain unchanged: Listen, Engage and Respond”.

Jet Airways “uses a sophisticated listening tool called Lithium (from Lithium Technologies Inc.) to get insights and generate responses with the help of machine learning”, Coutinho said. A machine learning system, an artificial intelligence tool, does not need explicit programming and can teach itself from mountains of data.

Also, every wing in Jet Airways is represented by a ‘social media champion’ who is not a full-time person but “knows how to handle the sensitivities around social media”, according to Coutinho. For instance, if there is a sandstorm or bandh that is delaying the take-off or landing of a flight, it gives the social media person the right insight and helps him or her to respond almost in real time.

Understanding consumer behaviour

Jet Airways also makes efficient use of its core frequent flyer customer relationship management (CRM) database. “We look at transactional data to understand consumer behaviour and based on this, we build segments and personas,” Coutinho said. For instance, if the user behaviour suggests family travel, Jet Airways “offers products and deals based on this segment”. “For e.g., I can inform such consumers that if they buy excess baggage space online, it is cheaper than if they do that at the airport. For a person who travels overseas often, I can offer insurance,” Countinho explains.

To be sure, there are airlines like American Airlines, for instance, that give travellers a digital alert if their bags don’t arrive at the same destination at the same time, according to a 3 August report in Los Angeles Times. Delta Air Lines has a luggage tracking system at the major domestic airports served by it. A conveyor belt fitted with radio frequency identification (RFID) scanners is programmed to stop if a bag is headed for the wrong plane, the report explained.

Southwest Airlines uses a speech analytics tool that allows customer service representatives to understand the nuances of every recorded customer interaction. It also works with US space agency Nasa and uses machine learning algorithms to identify patterns that can improve airline safety.

“We have seen the coming of age of airline social media. However, the misleading ads about cheap fares, the apathetic look at the booking counter, the poor service within the plane itself, and the lack of integration of offline to online are still challenges that the airline industry needs to go through,” said Kapil Gupta, CEO of digital agency Efluencr.

Gupta believes “reputation management” will be key to success of the airlines industry. Since airlines “are a part of the experiences that people have–like somebody visiting home after years”, they need to “move their social media strategy into more micro targeting and very specialized messaging versus generic promotions”, Gupta says.

Power digital with sensible technology policies


In the seven decades since it won independence, India has undoubtedly carved out a place for itself as a software services powerhouse and a global low-cost provider of satellite launch services, having put more than a hundred satellites into space.

As the country now implements its ‘Digital India’, ‘Re-skilling India’ and ‘Make in India’ programmes, it is easy to be lulled into believing that India is well on its way to becoming a digital powerhouse.

Why not, you may ask.

India today can boast of 500 million feature phones, nearly 350 million smartphones and 425 million Internet users—a majority of whom surf the Net on their mobiles. In terms of broadband infrastructure, India has approved the second phase of its ambitious project, BharatNet.

The country has successful e-governance services across sectors such as healthcare, education and banking. It also has a robust Electronic System Design and Manufacturing (ESDM) sector, and a Smart Cities Mission—all part of the Rs1.3 trillion Digital India programme. Moreover, India has seen a steady rise in digital payments and fourth-generation (4G) mobile services—prerequisites to becoming a digital force to reckon with.

Yet, there remain quite a few challenges that India needs to address and overcome.

Indians, for one, can boast about digital technologies such as mobile wallets, mobile peer-to-peer payments, bitcoins and blockchain, payment banks and architectures such as the unified payments interface (UPI) and the recently-launched Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) app. Yet, India does not have a comprehensive policy on data protection or online security—the Indian Information Technology Act (2008) will not suffice. Moreover, India desperately needs a Privacy Act, what with the unique identity number, Aadhaar, becoming mandatory for every conceivable service.

Second, as India strives to achieve inclusive growth, policymakers want technologies to benefit all citizens but also simultaneously help in creating jobs.

The boom in smartphones, for instance, may provide an avenue for additional job creation. A 21 November 2016 report by Counterpoint Research and the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore says that mobile manufacturing companies are likely to create more than 150,000 jobs by 2020 and more than a million indirect jobs as part of the ‘Make in India’ programme.

Moreover, if India does succeed in setting up semiconductor fabs, it may not only help in reducing the country’s dependence on electronic imports—that may surpass its oil import bill by 2030—but also help in creating jobs. The National Electronics Policy calls for $100 billion investments in this sector, which will result in 28 million jobs. But between 2000 and 2014-15, India has had only $1.53 billion flowing into this sector, despite allowing 100% foreign direct investment (FDI).

But technology can make workers redundant, too—automation being a case in point.

Consider the example of driverless cars. Infosys Ltd’s ‘driverless’ cart was developed at the Indian information technology (IT) services provider’s Mysuru centre in southern India. “… Who says we can’t build transformative technologies,” Infosys chief executive officer Vishal Sikka tweeted on 14 July.

Hardly a month later, on 8 August, minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari ruled out the possibility of ever having driverless cars on Indian roads. The ostensible reason: the government will not “promote any technology or policy that will make people jobless”. According to Gadkari, India has a shortage of 2.2 million drivers, and driving skills can provide employment to around five million people.

To be sure, labour unions in developed countries like the US, too, are urging a slowdown as lawmakers fast-track legislation to allow self-driving vehicles on the road. Driverless cars and tracks hold out the promise of ending traffic jams and accidents, a majority of which occur due to human error and fatigue when driving for long periods of time. Proponents also tout benefits like improved mobility for seniors and the disabled, but commercial drivers could find themselves unemployed.

The International Transport Forum (ITF) at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has coined the terms “TaxiBots” for self-driving cars that can be shared simultaneously by several passengers, and “AutoVots” for those that pick up and drop off single passengers sequentially. In a recent report (, it points out that TaxiBots can replace eight out of 10 cars in a mid-sized European city. Shared self-driving car fleets can directly compete with urban taxis and public transport services. To be sure, while some drivers may lose their jobs, consumers would get access to reasonably priced transport options.

It’s another matter that driverless cars may find Indian roads too chaotic. Regardless, if one were to go by Gadkari’s logic, we should have never allowed smart robots and collaborative robots (cobots) on shopfloors in India.

There is no stopping automation. Period. Companies will continue to use artificial intelligence (AI) software bots and AI-powered robots to maintain their global competitive edge. Besides, if you want to export ‘Made in India’ products successfully, you will need a cost advantage that only automation can provide. However, India alone will account for around 23% of jobs that will be lost to automation globally by 2021, according to research by human resources (HR) solutions firm PeopleStrong.

Will our policymakers, then, only adopt technologies that create jobs and shun those whose impact we do not fully understand as yet? If such was the case, we would have missed the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and would still be living in the Smokestack era.

Rather, India should focus on entrepreneurship, which it is doing with its focus on start-ups. It should simultaneously overhaul educational institutions that routinely churn out unemployable graduates and engineers. It should encourage online education and set an example by recruiting people who have acquired online certification or done relevant online courses from reputed local and foreign institutes (Coursera, Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and so on).

Some workers would need re-skilling to be re-absorbed in the workforce. For instance, those losing their jobs to self-driving cars can be trained to supervise the control and command centres with all the money that governments save from building additional parking lots. Moreover, many more jobs can be created if the little over 50 million small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) get access to funding and the right technologies that will help them cater to local and export markets.

Technology advancements in AI, 3D printing, augmented reality, virtual reality, genomics, and robots, to name a few, are rapidly changing the world we live in. Burying our heads in the sand will only set us back. In the words of American writer Stewart Brand: “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

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