by Ray Valdes | October 15, 2014 | Comments Off
Having been heads-down in a number of projects for a long while, finally surfacing for air, I wanted to share with you some of what has transpired recently. This past week I was at Gartner Symposium in Orlando presenting on peer-to-peer digital currencies and meta-coin platforms.
One of the benefits of being at Gartner is getting the chance to do what are called “Maverick” projects. These are projects that seek a perspective that is unconventional, contrarian or new. Often an outsider’s view is needed when looking at well-established categories such as security, application development, supply chain, or data management. In the case of a new field such as metacoin platforms, almost all perspectives are new, by definition.
When I started digging into this 12 months ago, the topic of digital currency was completely new to me (and perhaps to many of you as well). Over the past few months, I’ve come up with some observations that I presented at Symposium and will covering in more detail in upcoming research notes.
Here are the highlights:
The Bitcoin system is a great start on enabling what some call “the Internet of Money”, but in my opinion, Bitcoin has some fundamental flaws which cannot fully be addressed by layering on top of it. Therefore it will likely fail to meet the expectations of those hoping it will engender a revolutionary transformation of digital commerce.
Nevertheless, there are many converging trend lines in digital world (the “sharing economy”, the social graph, evolving digital platforms, mobile adoption, etc) that mandate a programmable platform for distributed value exchange — a next-generation digital currency platform.
In my presentation I called this a “metacoin platform”, with an emphasis on platform. Some use the term “Bitcoin 2.0″, but that I think the future platform is going to be substantially different than Bitcoin 1.0.
There are many in the industry that also see the limitations of Bitcoin, and have been exploring different approaches. Some of these approaches are layers on top of Bitcoin (some use the metacoin term to refer to these layers), while other approaches are wholesale from-the-ground-up replacements for Bitcoin. Examples are Ethereum, Ripple, NXT, Counterparty, and Colored Coins. It is too early to pick a winner. Each system has its strengths and weaknesses.
But although the immediate future may not be clear, I think the eventual outcome is not in doubt: a platform for distributed value exchange that enables a range of use cases, including non-monetary exchanges of value.
In looking at the post-Bitcoin era, I introduced the following concepts and terms:
the Programmable Economy: the aggregate of solutions built on a digital currency platform that enables entities to incorporate full-strength programming constructs, including smart property, self-enforcing contracts and decentralized autonomous corporations.
the Value Graph: the data model that captures value-related interactions. It is akin to the Social Graph, but with a value dimension.
the notion of “markets as products”: the notion of designing markets in the way that one would design products, which is possible if you have a platform to build upon.
the “minimum viable market”: analogous to the minimum-viable product (MVP) concept, taking a lean and agile approach to market design and market cultivation.
“thinking outside the bucks”: to look at exchanges of value that are not directly tied to monetary transactions, but can have a beneficial effect on digital business.
These are exciting times. There is a wave of innovation going, with some very talented people chasing down some powerful ideas and new platform designs. I plan on sharing some of my observations on this wave in coming weeks and months. Stay tuned!
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by Ray Valdes | December 6, 2010 | 1 Comment
Today, Facebook released an update to the design of its profile-related pages. The company scored a huge PR coup in making the announcement via a segment on the Sunday evening 60 Minutes news show. The details have been covered elsewhere on the Web, but in a nutshell, the update includes:
- a top-level synopsis of user’s information across the top, right next to the profile photo, below which is a horizontal photo-stream of recent images
- gathering additional information in the Info section about interests and experiences (sports, books, films), presented in a more visual manner than before.
- an expanded Friends page that makes it a lot easier to navigate and browse lists of friends
- a new Friendship summary page for each of friend connection, presenting shared experiences, events attended, wall posts, comments, and shared Likes.
These changes are positive, and some of them address long-standing annoyances and shortcomings. By themselves, these improvements are not a game-changer, in terms of competitive dynamics with challengers such as Google. However, the changes demonstrate, yet again, that Facebook is able to iterate more rapidly, on more fronts, than competitors, and strengthen its position as the leading company in the Social Web.
Although there will likely be the usual volley of complaints whenever any change gets made to the Facebook user experience, I expect less complaints this time, because of the way Facebook is handling the rollout: through an opt-in mechanism, not a forced upgrade. Plus, there is a quick five-step tour to orient users who make the switch.
The initial feedback from users that I’ve seen is positive. The synopsis and photostream are a quick and easy way to get the gist of someone you might be meeting online for the first time. As an example, see the synopsis below my name next to the profile photo in the screenshot below:
The Friendship summary page is a big improvement over the previous mechanism — which in the past forced the user to navigate a potentially long list through an inconveniently small popup dialog box. The new Friendship summary is an expansive vista by comparison, and provides information that you might have forgotten about a relationship.
However, Facebook’s new profile design does encourage users to add new wine — for example, to populate the synopsis section with updated info. When seeing some gaps in my synopsis, I filled them with details, such as my hometown, that I had never bothered to add before. Also, the Info page elicits additional data from users that was not previously captured: experiences and more detailed preferences. This new information could help Facebook target ads better, and also perhaps enable new kinds of third-party applications built on the Facebook platform.
In updating my profile, I noticed more detailed questions about work and career — not just employment history but also projects (duration, and who with). Over time, if users fill in this information, this data could have a big impact on LinkedIn, and not in a good way. The folks over at LinkedIn should start losing sleep over this, but not tonight, because when I tried to add a project details, I got an error (see screenshot).
No worries. I’m assuming this will get fixed shortly, perhaps by the time you opt-in.
Facebook’s redesign shows that there is already a lot of good wine (worthwhile information) stored in an old skin, now revamped. The new design presents content in a clearer and more accessible fashion. I think most users will see the value. However, Facebook is not the only game in town in terms of presenting your profile information.
There are two browsers, Flock and RockMelt, that retrieve and present information from your social networks — not just Facebook, but also Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, etc. And if you’re in the mood to only view information from Facebook, in a visual style that is 180 degrees different from Facebook’s familiar subdued blue-on-white, then you might want to consider the Facedeck app:
This Silverlight Client for Facebook was originally built by Microsoft to demonstrate the power of its RIA technology, over a year ago. It languished a bit, but was recently handed off to Telerik, a vendor of user interface technology. I have been using it on and off since it was demonstrated, and found that it showed me information about friends that was normally buried with the standard Facebook UI.
For those who prefer a minimalist approach, check this out:
This is Facebook’s mobile web version, that can be accessed from any Web-enabled smartphone, (or desktop computer, for that matter). Just point your browser to http://touch.facebook.com.
I bring up these examples not necessarily because I’m convinced they are better, but to show the range of possible user experience designs. For any given design, your mileage will vary — users will have different preferences and requirements. For me, the Silverlight client is almost on target, but the type is too dark to read. As far as the mobile Web version, I often find myself using mobile versions of a site — not just from a smartphone, but from a desktop computer. I choose this because I can get my task done more quickly with a simple and straightforward user interface. Mobile versions of sites avoid the complexity and superfluous matter that burden standard Web sites. For my taste, mobile sites that work better than the full-size predecessors include the iCaltrain site (commuter train schedule), UsableNet’s version of the Amtrak Web site, and even Gartner’s own mobile version of our conference events site. But I digress.
Circling back to Facebook’s revamped Profile, I think they have moved the ball forward using their traditional strengths: a small team (in this case, about 10 engineers) working rapidly to provide a cohesive social experience that meets user needs while at the same time supporting Facebook’s monetization goals. In the past, a high-quality user experience proved decisive in Facebook’s battle with (and eventual triumph over) MySpace. Facebook has managed to sustain the quality of UX, despite piling on new features. Eventually, this mountain of features could creak under its own weight, as has happened in other cases where there are successful products that dominated a market by broadening their scope (Microsoft Word, for example). For the moment, Facebook continues to advance its cause.
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by Ray Valdes | November 15, 2010 | 2 Comments
Today’s launch is another round in the protracted conflict between Facebook and Google — following on earlier announcements about Facebook Groups and the deal with Bing.
Facebook Messages is a significant revamp of Facebook’s existing messaging facility. It is being rolled out over the next few months, and is likely to get used by users in communicating with each other inside Facebook, rather than across the Web. Users can optionally get an email address (email@example.com) that interoperates with the world outside Facebook, but the features are so limited that users who rely heavily on web-mail from Google, Yahoo or Microsoft are unlikely to switch. Users with lighter-weight requirements will find it fits in naturally with their social interactions on Facebook. I expect Facebook Messages to become an integral part of the average Facebook user’s experience, and to prove successful in meeting its initial project goals.
There was a rumor that, during development, Facebook staff called this a “Gmail killer”. If true, that says more about the intensely competitive culture at Facebook, than it does about the near-term outcome. At the launch, both CEO Mark Zuckerberg and project lead Andrew Bosworth downplayed the notion of killing Gmail, which is a good thing, because it won’t happen soon.
For the power user, Facebook Messages lacks important features such as tagging and a user-defined folder structure. Facebook Messages does have some positive aspects like the social prioritization of content, integration with SMS and chat, real-time presence — in a form that go beyond the current threshold set by Google Mail and Gtalk.
To some observers, the result seemed underwhelming, but then again, we are not the target audience — we being corporate users or power users of personal email. I have 30,000 messages in my Google inbox that I can search in a couple of seconds, and easily create filters, automated tags, and do forwarding — requirements that Facebook Messages will likely not satisfy anytime soon. Instead, the launch of Facebook Messages resembles that of the Apple iPad, which on the day of launch did not impress the pundits, but since then has proven to be a big success with the target market (which in the case of the iPad was not the power user or road warrior with high-function laptop).
The launch stands in contrast with Google Buzz — in which Google extended their email with a social dimension, and thus far has fallen short. Facebook is moving in the converse direction, by extending their social platform with more robust messaging.
Facebook Messages is replacing an existing system that today has 300 million users with 4 billion messages per day, built by an engineering team of only five developers. With this new release, they have tripled the development team size to 15 engineers. They will continue to invest and add to this steadily. With this release, they are not going for the body blow. Instead, Facebook’s approach consists of a rapid drumbeat of small blows aimed at Google and other competitors. No one else seems to be able to iterate as rapidly.
As I’ve stated in the past, the conflict between Facebook and Google is becoming the defining tension that shapes the modern Web — a Web in which Google owns the content-centric portion (the old generation), and Facebook is dominant in the social web (the new generation). All other competitive dynamics (Google vs Microsoft, for example) are secondary. Google can take a breath today, but needs to ramp up its game for the long haul.
Facebook Messages will have zero impact on corporate email, except maybe in the very long-term, because that is not part of the design goal or competitive strategy.
However there is a way in which Facebook mail will impact enterprise email: indirectly, through imitation by corporate email systems. Enterprise systems will adopt some of the features, such as social filtering of messages, chat integration and presence, in the way that enterprise collaboration suites have adopted Facebook-style social networking. These features will become checklist items, that every enterprise system includes. The features are likely to be used more than Facebook-style social profiles, which have had limited adoption, because the email features have a better fit with corporate culture.
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by Ray Valdes | October 13, 2010 | 1 Comment
Another week, another round, in the heating-up competition between Facebook and Google.
If you didn’t catch the news, today Microsoft and Facebook made a joint announcement in which Bing search engine will use social data from Facebook (data from “Likes” and “Instant Personalization”) to deliver improved search results to users.
Today’s announcement represents a worthwhile enhancement for Bing. Users will definitely see an improved search experience, especially in the 4% of searches that involve a person’s name. Also, other kinds of searches will be improved — for example, searching for a local restaurant (in a region where there are many choices), will highlight items that your friends have Liked.
Although these improvements are valuable for users and add polish to the innovation facet of Bing’s brand, this does not seem to be a game-changer in the search engine sector. I don’t think these improvements will fundamentally change the dynamics of competition between Bing and Google. I do think that Bing will gain some share (perhaps even 5%) — especially if it keeps following up with additional improvements. However, Google’s dominant position of 67% is a high bar to reach, in the short-term. Nevertheless, Bing is doing the right thing, one rung at a time.
The real importance of today’s announcement is that it highlights the growing strategic conflict between Facebook and Google. Today’s announcement follows last-week’s launch of Facebook Groups, which was a pre-emptive strike against an upcoming Google initiative in the social space. (For background, see my blog post last week about Facebook Groups. )
There is a large and growing fault line in the landscape of the modern Web. While Microsoft, Yahoo and Google duke it out in the search engine sector, there is a battle for the future of the Web, and it is not about search engines, but about the Social Web. The competition is between the new and the old, between Facebook as the early leader in the Social Web, and Google as the dominant player in the Content Web. Everyone else, such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter, plus many small startups in the social sector, will play a secondary role — and will start lining up on side or the other.
Although Facebook is strong in this new sector, it is still relatively small, in terms of resources and staff. The sector itself is small, in terms of revenues. Also, even though Google has made mistakes in the social arena in the past (Buzz, Wave, Orkut, Jaiku and Dodgeball), the company has tremendous resources that it can marshal for a new assault on this market territory. Google has made recent acquisitions, recruited new talent and repositioned existing management, for an initiative that, rumor has it, will be unveiled over the next few weeks or months.
Therefore, for Facebook to hold on to its leadership position in the face of the challenge from Google, it needs to make more alliances such as the one with Microsoft. I expect to see more such announcements and possible acquisitions over the coming months. One interesting question is: Which player has a large enough checkbook to buy Twitter, in light of this “Worlds in Collision” dynamic? Or, will Twitter continue to try to grow and stand up on its own, in the race to reach one billion active users?
While the major players do hypothetical calculations regarding this one large prize, there are smaller pieces to enlist and/or acquire, such as location-based services (Foursquare, Gowall, and Booyah), question/answer services (Quora, Hunch, StackExchange), social gaming (Zynga, Playdom, Crowdstar), virtual goods and mobile payments. It promises to be an interesting ride for all.
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by Ray Valdes | October 8, 2010 | 2 Comments
The engineering team at Facebook has been in “lockdown” mode for the past 60 days, and yesterday released the results of their labors. The launch event at Facebook offices in Palo Alto unveiled a whole bunch of enhancements: an improved version of Groups, plus a data-export facility for your social data, as well as a better user administration dashboard. These improvements follow in the wake of recent work in high-resolution photos and social gaming support.
I managed to squeeze in some time to attend the event yesterday, given short notice amidst many other existing commitments. Today, I’m gathering my thoughts, not just about yesterday’s announcement, but about the big picture — one which has to do with a “worlds in collision” dynamic between Facebook and Google.
First, a bit of history. A key reason behind Facebook’s success has been their unrelenting drive, sparked by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to evolve the site, in pursuit of a moving target: a highly refined but still evolving vision of the Social Web. The pursuit of this vision has not been smooth: mistakes have been made with regard to privacy, users have been regularly pushed to the edge of their comfort zone regarding modes of online interaction and information sharing, and the patience of developers has been regularly tested with regard to changes in rules of engagement (i.e., how apps can message users) and also tested by a shifting API that is only partially documented. Nevertheless, last month, Facebook’s growth trajectory passed the 500 million user milestone (active users, ones that log in on average at least every other day) — a trajectory that seemingly will continue indefinitely.
However, the spot on the top of the heap that is the Social Web is not a stable place, as staffers at former top-dog MySpace will attest. The latest threat to Facebook’s dominance comes from Google, which in past years has repeatedly tried and failed to get onboard the Social Web train (through past acquisitions such as Jaiku and Dodgeball, and internal projects such as Buzz and Wave). People at Google observe the macro-trend as the Web evolves from content-centric to people-centric, and have recently marshalled forces for a renewed assault on this new market territory. Google has acquired some companies, recruited outside talent, repositioned existing management, and, rumor has it, is set to unveil a major initiative in the Social Web.
Google fired a shot across the bow for Facebook 3 months ago, with the publication (on Slideshare.net) of a presentation by Paul Adams, a senior user-experience designer. This presentation got about 300,000 views, an achievement for a 224-slide deck on a specialized topic. The situation that Adams identified seems at first rather obvious: people don’t have a single group of friends — in the sense of a homogeneous mass. Instead, people have multiple independent groups of contacts at varying levels of affinity and intimacy: family, best friends, college chums, work colleagues, ex-spouses, sports clubs, etc. The one-line problem statement is self-evident, and this is something that has been known for a long time. However, the solution is quite elusive, and depends on careful analysis of the situation. Yesterday, I chatted briefly with Mark Zuckerberg about Adams’ work, and Zuckerberg did say that Adams presented a convincingly detailed and highly articulate statement of the problem. Zuckerberg also noted that Adams’ presentation did not offer any solution.
In case you are curious, here is a snippet of Adams’ analysis, showing how existing social networks like Facebook fall far short in meeting this basic requirement for an online “social utility”.
He calls out Facebook by name in this slide, in effect waving a red flag in front of cross-town rivals. The response, apparently, was to “lockdown” — to enter a mode where engineers are, um, strongly encouraged to work steadily and not leave the premises until the lockdown is lifted (in this case, 60 days).
At the launch event yesterday, there was no specific mention of Google or Adams’ work, but instead Zuckerberg talked about past efforts by Facebook at solving the problem of adding structure to the collection of friends. An early effort was Friends Lists, an oft-requested feature that Facebook introduced a while back but has seen little adoption (only 5% of users have created a list and usually stop at one or two lists). Zuckerberg also talked about the second step up in addressing this problem, the algorithmic approach, which Facebook software uses to prioritize and filter items on the news feed, and to show top contacts on the Chat list. Zuckerberg admitted that this was an imperfect process, and that when the software is wrong, it can sometimes be spectacularly wrong, such as showing your ex-spouse as your top contact. So the problem is long known, and solutions have been unsatisfying.
The solution Facebook unveiled, as a step beyond the manual solution and the algorithmic solution, is what they call the “social solution” — relying on a group of people to do a better job than one algorithm or a single individual working in isolation.
Unlike a Friends List, which is metadata (data about social data, i.e., one’s friends), a Facebook Group is crowdsourced by your friends. I call this approach “friend-sourcing”. (After I thought up this term, I was quite proud of myself, but then did a quick Google search and found that this is not new under the sun. Oh well, it is nevertheless apt.)
Groups avoids a limitation of Friends Lists, which are created by an individual and not visible to others. If Bob friends Alice, and Alice decides to put Bob in her private list of Annoying People (accompanied by reduced permission levels) that is obviously not something she wants Bob to see. And vice-versa, if Bob has a list called “Gals I Want to Date”, that is also something that the list’s creator does not want to share. The Friend List approach places the entire burden on the list creator, who works in isolation to create and manage social metadata. Facebook says only 5% of individuals bother, and users normally create only one or two such lists before feeling like it is too much work.
A Facebook Group (the new version, not the underpowered one that has been around for years), on other hand, is created by one person who identifies a collection of friends, and that work is visible to and shared by the others. Other people in that group benefit from that person’s effort, and can build on top of it. It is viral and, in Facebook’s approach, woven into the fabric of the Facebook social experience, meaning notifications appear in the News Feed, and one-to-one chat becomes Group chat.
The development project for Facebook Groups had at one time the codename “Tribes” — despite the California overtones, this term is quite accurate in describing the concept of what Adams calls groups that are bound with “strong ties”. The following slide by Adams has strong tribal overtones.
I think Facebook Groups is a well-conceived and innovative solution to a long-standing and very real problem. In the past, the workaround for this problem (one that I use, along with some of my friends), has been to use multiple Facebook accounts (one for family, one for professional contacts, etc). This is a cumbersome and inefficient attempt to establish firewalls around pools of social data. Groups seems quite natural, by contrast.
Facebook Groups has gotten off to a robust start. It went live yesterday and I’ve noted a burst of activity in various circles. By itself, it is not a game changer, but it definitely solidifies Facebook’s defense against a possible assault from Google or from other would-be players in the social arena (Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter). Likely there will be some privacy-related issues that surface around Groups, but these probably won’t be widespread. One example was raised by Jason Calacanis, who has many Facebook “friends”, one of whom joined Calacanis into a fake group with a name that many find offensive. This prank is mean but likely not typical. The solution is to defriend those people who play mean pranks on you.
The friend-sourcing approach to solving a design problem makes a lot of sense. It is a textbook example in how problems in social experience design can often have a socially-based solution. Facebook’s crowd-sourcing of language translation (a couple of years ago) is a precursor example.
How about you, how would you apply friend-sourcing? On a separate note, is there any issue that would compel your colleagues at work to enter a 60-day lockdown?
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by Ray Valdes | August 19, 2010 | 2 Comments
Facebook announced its long-awaited geolocation capability earlier today: Facebook Places. I’m writing this while heading home after spending the earlier part of the day in Palo Alto at Facebook headquarters. Before the announcement, traveling to Palo Alto, I was thinking about what one might expect. My view is that adding location to the Facebook experience is a move that the company had to make, for two reasons:
1. The tactical reason is that Facebook has been facing a potential competitive threat from a new wave of location-based social networks. Ventures such as Foursquare, Gowalla and Booyah have been experiencing rapid growth and gaining visibility, despite being niche players in the broad field of social platforms. One should not overstate the threat — because this trend is based in part on a novelty factor, a reliance on game-like dynamics (badges and stamps), one likely to wear off over time. Nevertheless, one can still draw a parallel with the earlier rise of Twitter and FriendFeed as remote-but-plausible threats to Facebook.
2. The strategic reason is that this is how the Web is evolving, regardless of what a crop of small competitors may or may not be doing — the Web is becoming mobile, and social platforms like Facebook need to move forward accordingly. Mobile is already a big part of the Facebook experience. More than one-quarter of Facebook’s 500 million users (half of whom log on every single day) access Facebook through a mobile device. Geolocation is built into mobile devices and there are many scenarios where the adding a layer of location data can be beneficial to people and those with whom they interact. So regardless of potential upstart rivals, Facebook had to move in this strategic direction. Of course, there are obvious risks around the issue of user privacy as well. Given the past firestorm of criticism around privacy earlier this year, I was curious how aggressive Facebook would be regarding user sharing of location information. In the past, Facebook pushed users to the edge of their comfort zone (and a few over that line). Overall, I think they did a good job. (More discussion on this further below).
Another area I was thinking about before the announcement has to do with how Facebook would respond to the competitive challenge from Foursquare et al. There are two possible responses:
1. Copy features. This was the approach Facebook used in response to the challenge posed by Twitter. In March 2009, Facebook changed the user interface and added features to highlight real-time status updates– an activity stream similar to that on Twitter.
2. Acquire and merge. This was the tack Facebook took in responding to the challenge from FriendFeed, by acquiring the company in August 2009. For today’s announcement, an acquisition seemed like a low probability, inconsistent with the event format. Also, past rumors were that Facebook had already tried to acquire FourSquare for $100M+ and been turned down.
Of these two possibilities (copy features vs buy the rival), I expected the former. The emulate-features scenario can be further refined into two possibilities: adding a basic feature set versus doing a closer, more detailed copy. The high-fidelity copy would require Facebook to build in elaborate game dynamics to the user experience — this is what FourSquare has used to incentivize users to take the step of checking into a location. Given Facebook’s historical preference for a plain and straightforward approach to user interface design (compared to the roccocco extravaganza that was MySpace UI), I expected the company would unveil a basic no-frills experience.
The announcement came down in line with my expectations: Facebook added the feature in a mostly straightforward manner, and did not announce any acquisition. Even so, there were some surprises.
Facebook did not just announce a feature, but also a platform — by adding geolocation to the Facebook API. They avoided stepping into the controversy similar to what happened when Twitter moved to acquire and publish its own client software (for iPhone, desktop and Blackberry platforms) after a long history of letting other companies fill that need. Twitter was criticized for stomping on its ecosystem. By contrast, with today’s announcement, Facebook did not try to crush emerging challengers in the location sector, but instead brought them up on stage. Execs from Foursquare, Gowalla and Booyah succinctly extolled the virtues of the Facebook platform, and how this validates the market segment, and what a good opportunity the platform provides. Although these expressions of goodwill were made through strained faces, the situation was a lot better than the hypothetical alternative. The reality is that Facebook has not boxed in rivals but instead given them an escape hatch. If they are able to keep up the pace in innovation, they can perhaps stay ahead of the Facebook juggernaut — and survive long enough to get acquired by Google or Microsoft.
I had a chance to speak with CEO Mark Zuckerberg after the announcement, and he confirmed that Facebook had no plans to add game dynamics to the location experience.
Regarding user privacy, Facebook has done a better-than-expected effort in giving users control over disclosure of location data, but there is still room for improvement. A good thing is that, by default, location data is “friends only”. Although you are allowed to tag friends as being at a location (similar to tagging friends in a photo), you have to first check-into the location yourself, and user can opt out of being tagged entirely. (This is a feature that is not available in photos but would be most welcome there too). The way that users specify settings can be confusing. The ACLU has a good discussion of design flaws in the privacy controls (see http://bit.ly/aclu-on-fb-places ).
Beyond dials and controls, there are edge cases that need to be addressed: What if a place changes ownership? What if there is a restaurant that users check into, that later becomes a strip club, without changing its name? (Your history of checkins would become a social liability.) What if someone creates a place that is actually my house, can I delete it if I did not create it? Facebook staff did not have specific answers to these questions, other than to say that all of this would have to be worked out, via appeal.
Although the privacy controls could use improvement, but I think that the broader issue will evolve and mutate over time, along with people’s behaviors and expectations. Earlier today, traveling to Palo Alto from San Francisco on Route 280, I had Gowalla running on my phone and could see spots listed on the map (the exclusive Hillsborough neighborhood) that were individual’s houses — people I did not know, who either misconfigured their settings or perhaps have a strong predilection for social sharing. If Facebook were to do this, the howls would resonate across the scenic hills of Route 280.
One issue left on the table has to do with advertising and monetization. At the moment, Facebook is focusing on user adoption now, monetization later. Clearly there is an opportunity for using location data to more precisely target audiences with advertising. This is something that Facebook does not need to do right now, and would benefit from taking the time to do it right.
Let’s get to the bottom line: Is Facebook Places something that will be a wild success, or will it spark a firestorm of privacy complaints, or will it quietly fail to catch on? (As happened to Google Latitude). I think that crossing the chasm from the early adopter segment of oversharers, over to the more reticent mainstream, is not something that will happen right away. The mainstream will absorb geotagging habits only by osmosis over time. Privacy concerns will always be with us, but I don’t think they will derail Facebook’s strong trajectory in the evolving social platform sector. What do you think?
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by Ray Valdes | May 21, 2010 | 1 Comment
Some quick thoughts at the end of two full days at the Google I/O conference. The event had many sold-out sessions populated by attendees that were listening intently to Google’s message about the future of the Web, mobile devices, digital television, and platforms in the cloud.
Some key themes:
- HTML5. Google played the HTML5 card, and played it well. There were announcements around open-source WebM video and audio, Web apps in the Chrome Web store, demos of compelling HTML5 apps like Sports Illustrated and Tweetdeck, plus sessions for developers on HTML5 coding. What’s ironic is that Apple lately has been using HTML5 to flay Adobe in the media (unfairly, in my opinion), putting forth a message that HTML5 is the future and Flash is the past. What Google has done is to step into the fray and to in effect, say to Apple “I’ll match your HTML5 card, and raise you one.” Google made space in the tent for Adobe, with onstage demos of Adobe’s HTML5 design tool and the Android beta of Flash 10.1. Apple may find that HTML5 becomes a competitive weapon that Google uses to shift Apple off-balance.
Dissing Apple. Wednesday’s keynote was a straightforward demonstration of HTML5 capabilities, without direct mention of Apple. By contrast, Thursday’s keynote began with a reference to the 1984 Big Brother commercial, and the implication that Apple has transmogrified into its opposite. This was followed by snarky digs every 10 minutes or so during the keynote. I am no fan of Apple’s policies (such as Section 3.3.1 of the Developer SDK agreement) and the recent shift by Apple to a control-oriented management style. Even so, the snark and swagger at the Thursday keynote seemed unnecessary to me. The in-your-face overtone seems un-Google-like. Perhaps it’s an indicator that Google has become more like a traditional company, adopting the aggressive style of Microsoft in its heyday.
Android gaining steam. The Android train is rolling down the track and gaining speed. Google stated that there were now 100,000 new-phone activations per day (doubling every four months), with 50,000 apps in the marketplace and 180,000 developers. There was a long exhibit case in the foyer — a wall of Android devices from many different vendors. Over the past year, I spent several months using an Android G2, and while I found a better-than-average user experience compared to many other smart-phones, it was still not an iPhone-class device. However, the latest generation of devices, such as the HTC EVO 4G and the Sony Ericsson Xperia 10, shown at the conference, have crossed over that line, into the world of compelling industrial design, with beautiful screen displays, responsive touch interface, fast processor, and refined user experience.
App Engine into the Enterprise. Google App Engine, in its initial incarnation, was hobbled by obstacles to adoption. Developers encountered undesirable constraints (such as 10-second time out for HTTP requests), unpredictable cost model, lack of data integration into enterprise systems, lack of compatibility with established enterprise technologies (Java, SQL), and lack of deployment options (such as private and hybrid cloud deployments). Over the past year, Google has been tweaking or removing these barriers, and this week announced further improvements under the banner “App Engine for Business”: ability to deploy to private clouds (from a partnership with VMWare), a more predictable pricing model, improved support for SQL, stronger SLAs, Google Storage (a large data-object offering similar to Amazon’s S3), and an enlightening demonstration of the developer productivity that is possible with VMWare Spring Roo (a server-side code generation tool) in conjunction with the Google GWT Ajax library. I’ve noticed App Engine finally getting some traction in the community of Web-centric independent developers, but little uptake in the enterprise sector. The changes announced this week could improve that situation signficantly.
Wave mostly in the Background. The shining star at last year’s Google I/O event was Google Wave, a totally unexpected demonstration of innovative thinking and strong technical prowess that brought the audience to its feet in a roaring ovation. How times have changed. Over the past year, users have discovered that Google Wave is difficult to use, slow performing, and more limited in usefulness compared to the skyhigh expectations set at last year’s keynote. This year, a chastened Wave team had a simple message: come back and give us another try, things have improved, really. In the meantime, Google Apps such as Gmail have incorporated some of the innovations first shown by the Wave team, and likely more are in the offing. Wave is seeking a second wind, which may happen as a result of opening up access to Wave for everyone, not just those on the invitation list.
Google TV is a Puzzle. But maybe it’s just me, because I am not a TV watcher. That is, I don’t schedule my week around a favorite show. I disconnected my cable television service and Tivo last year and have not missed it, with the exception of an occasional sports event (can be remedied by a visit to a local sports bar). When I need traditional television content, I find it on Hulu, YouTube, the Comedy Channel, Netflix, iTunes or other online sources. My style is more lean-forward rather than lean-back. However, at Thursday’s keynote, Google stated that TV watching is not declining, but increasing, to an average of 5 hours per day (which means someone somewhere must be watching 10 hours per day to cover my unused share). As an outsider to this aspect of pop culture, I can merely make the following observations: that the road to digital interactive television is littered with the carcasses of past attempts (WebTV, AppleTV, etc). Also, that I have seen this movie before, except with different cast of characters and different settings (in the category of enterprise software, identity management, etc). The familiar scene is when a big company in an industry sector marshals a half-dozen or more executives from other big companies onto a stage , and then they all say nice things about each other, and talk about a shared vision of a future that is supposed to happen next year or the year after. In my experience, this kind of movie often eventually ends with a whimper, not a bang. However, Google TV may be the exception to the rule. If anyone can pull this off, it would be Google. But significant challenges remain, and questions that will only be answered over time.
Facewho? Last month, Facebook’s F8 developer event presented an ambitious initiative to paint the entire Web with social metadata generated by Facebook’s burgeoning population, enabled by the social platform and distributed social APIs. At the time, it seemed that Facebook (which is adding 50 million users per month and will reach the 500 million user milestone next month) was becoming a contender that could eventually unseat Google at the top of the hierarchy of Web companies. Since then, Facebook has run into a firestorm of user backlash (amplified by the media) regarding privacy issues. Perhaps this is why Google felt no need to diss Facebook in the way that they dissed Apple onstage. Google’s OpenSocial, which was a key message two years ago, was placed even further in the background than Google Wave at the conference. Despite Facebook’s current woes, the Web is clearly evolving to become the social Web in its entirety, and Google seems to have a gap in its corporate DNA regarding the social dimension. Past acquisitions of promising social properties such as Jaiku, Dodgeball, Orkut, and Latitude, have stagnated or failed. So despite current Facebook backlash, Google needs to keep an eye on this particular sphere.
So what are your thoughts about this week’s events? Did I miss anything?
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by Ray Valdes | April 21, 2010 | 4 Comments
I’m in San Francisco, where the Facebook F8 conference is about to begin, thinking about the Facebook platform and its developer ecosystem. In trying to assess the platform and its impact, I find it useful to compare it against another highly visible and popular platform, that of the iPhone OS (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad).
Obviously, these are very different platforms, with very different companies behind them and different business models. But from a developer perspective, there are attributes that both platforms share:
Both are new (relative to well-established platforms like Java and .NET). Facebook launched its platform in May 2007, while the iPhone SDK was introduced in March 2008.
Both allow developers to reach a large population of users and grow user-base quickly
Both offer opportunities to monetize with much less friction than older platforms
The common appeal to developers is supported by the observation that there are developers who switch from one to other (I have seen the search for greener pastures go in either direction).
One area where the platforms differ is that the iPhone platform seems to enjoy more positive aura than Facebook. A root cause is the compelling design and superb user experience of the device, which obviously has garnered a strongly loyal and growing population of users. The Facebook user experience, while more appealing than its competitors (MySpace, LinkedIn, etc.) does not seem to elicit as strong a feeling of loyalty as the iPhone platform. Also, Facebook has recently dampened the viral mechanisms that contributed to strong growth of apps in the Facebook ecosystem.
So there is a long-standing perception in the market that the iPhone App Store represents a gold-mine opportunity for developers. This perception is not only found in the developer community, but among the broader audience of consumers and also investors, contributing to a high stock-market valuation for the platform owner.
However, the gold-mine perception seems to me to have aspects that are more illusion than reality.
Consider the #1 selling app in the AppStore, Doodlejump. If you don’t know this game, it is a simple but very charming “platform jumper” game in which a cute alien creature has to jump from one floating platform to another. I highly recommend this game if you have small children that need a playtime distraction. Over the past year, this app has gotten between 3 to 4 million downloads, which Business Insider estimates at about $2.7M in revenue.
This is a great situation for the two-person family team that is behind this one app. But what does it tell us about the iPhone ecosystem, if the top-selling app can only sustain a two-person business, one that is working out of a modest-size apartment (i.e., without a real office)?
Yes, there are firms in the iPhone economy that have more than one title, a portfolio of small hits. But consider the #1 iPhone software publisher, Tapulous (another company that makes fun, compelling apps that I highly recommend). This well-known company does have a real office, but has a modest staff size of 20 employees. (My local pizza restaurant has more staff than that). The annual revenues of Tapulous are likely less than $35M.
And those are the success stories of the iPhone economy. Studies of the iPhone app ecosystem have shown a steep power-law distribution. Most apps get a small number of users, and are used only for a couple of days before being set aside.
Now consider the Facebook developer ecosystem. The #1 app development firm in the Facebook ecosystem is Zynga, with more than 1000 employees, $400 million in revenues, and dozens of open job reqs, and an estimated company valuation that may approach $3 billion, with the possibility of an IPO over the next year or two. And this is not the only example of a company with real possibilities for substantial monetization. The #3 player in that category was acquired by EA for $400M.
Given this perspective, things become more clear around the motivation behind Section 3.3.1 in the iPhone 4.0 beta developer agreement. This section draws a line in the sand, and forces developers to make a choice (to write code in the native language of the iPhone platform). This means that established game companies like Zynga have to either ignore the iPhone platform, or allocate resources to reimplement successful titles on iPhone, or leave a window open for competitors. What technology, you might ask, are all the successful companies in the Facebook ecosystem using on top of the Facebook APIs? The answer should not come as a surprise: Flash.
At this point in market evolution, the Facebook ecosystem can sustain multiple, real, venture-fundable, IPO-able businesses
The iPhone economy for third-party developers, by contrast, is roughly equivalent to a small chain of pizza restaurants, at this point in time.
The situation is obviously fluid. The iPhone platform has a 10-month timeline lag compared to Facebook. New releases of the iPhone SDK will continue to add capabilities that enable social connections (and the potential for viral growth). At the same time, Facebook seems to be going in the opposite direction of restricting viral-style communication in favor of a better user experience.
Among the trends and counter-trends, there is a plausible scenario in which iPhone developers realize that they are contributing significant value to the platform owner, without receiving sufficient benefit in return. If this were to happen, the competitive dynamics of the major mobile/social platforms could shift significantly.
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by Ray Valdes | February 10, 2010 | 56 Comments
Over the past week, I had a slew of press inquiries about the future of Flash, driven largely by the Apple iPad announcement — an event in which Flash was conspicuously absent. Of the top of my head, I put together some key points in the conversation, presented below.
As I mull these talking points over and discuss them with colleagues, some of these will likely end up in a research note, along with actionable advice. For now, here are some aspects of a multi-faceted situation.
- Plug-in based RIA is not only about Flash. Any discussion of Flash should also (depending on the level of detail) rope in discussion of Microsoft Silverlight and Java. Many of the issues that impact Flash also impact these other approaches. For example, none of these run on the iPhone or iPad today.
- HTML5 is the future of the Web, but that future could take a very long time. The HTML5 is large and complex, and current projections by the people working on the spec (Ian Hickson of Google and David Hyatt of Apple) are for all parts to be finished in the year 2022, some 18 years after the process began (in 2004).
- However, some Web sites are already using (a subset of) HTML5. You don’t have to wait until 2022 to use HTML5 or a working subset of it. For example, YouTube and Vimeo have already rolled out use of the video element in HTML5. Other web sites and applications are using Canvas and offline storage. There is a de-facto working subset of HTML5 that is already starting to appear, both on the “desktop Web” as well as the mobile Web.
- The working subset of HTML5 is nowhere near the power of Flash. There are many advanced effects that are only available in Flash or Silverlight or Java. For example, Google, which is driving HTML5, relies on Flash in Google Maps (for the Streetview) and in Gmail (for the multiple-file upload capability). There are tens of thousands of Flash games on the Web (at game portals like Pogo or as game apps within Facebook or Myspace) that would be difficult to do (in a performant way) with HTML5.
- However, a significant majority of Flash content on the Web does not need to be in Flash. Although there are tens of thousands of Flash-based games, there are millions of Web sites that use Flash in a simple manner (for basic interactive content such as banner ads or splash pages). One could argue that much of this content is of low value (users get “banner blindness”, and are habituated to skip useless intro or splash pages). Regardless of its value, much of this simple interactive content could be replaced today’s HTML5 working subset, although only from a browser technology perspective.
- It’s not just about features, but also about deployed infrastructure. This benefits Flash. A pragmatic perspective should look at the numerous tools, ad engines, business processes, infrastructure and platforms that support and/or enable Flash-based advertising. This aggregate mass will take a long time to shift to an alternative, no matter how good that alternative may be, due to sheer inertia of large scale systems that are operationally functional.
- The iPhone and iPad throw a harsh spotlight on Flash, at least for those readers who only read about Apple’s side of the story in the mainstream press. Apple says that Flash is low-performance, insecure, drains battery life, and this week Jobs was quoted in some articles as saying that Adobe programmers were “lazy” because they did not improve Flash.
- However, Apple’s resistance to Flash is irrational and long-standing. The comments about performance and security are hypocritical given that iPhone OS versions are regularly jailbroken through security flaws in Quicktime, Safari and other parts of the stack, and that there are many thousands of apps in the App Store written by semi-skilled programmers, or those who are in it for a quick buck. For example, the 3rd most prolific developer on the App Store had 943 apps to his name (releasing about five low-value, relatively high-priced, apps per day), until he was banned by Apple. So the resistance by Apple to Flash appears to be due, not to technical considerations, but to some kind of personal grudge or beef that Steve Jobs has with Adobe, one that perhaps dates back to the days of Display Postscript, John Warnock and the Next machine. Also playing a role is the potential for Flash to threaten Apple’s platform, given it is a cross-platform presentation layer on mobile and desktop machines. (However, Apple seems to grant Google a “most favored nation” status despite increasing competition with Android, which is why Apple’s objections to Flash seem irrational.) Barriers to Flash on the iPhone/iPad will linger as long as Jobs is at the helm of Apple. The question is what impact will this resistance have on Adobe, and to what extent Adobe can work around these limitations (as it has started to do with its Flash-to-iPhone compiler).
- Any large powerful app will consume CPU and battery , whether that app is written in Flash, Silverlight or HTML5. Simple apps consume minimal resources, and most HTML5 and Flash apps are simple. Complex apps with high interactivity and large amounts of computation will consume CPU and battery no matter what technology they are implemented in. Some may be better than others in this regards — perhaps even 20% or 30% better –but such differences are incremental, not game-changers, in the big picture. Granted, the iPad has the potential to change the rules of the game a bit with the A4 custom processor that can decode HD video without draining battery life quickly (Apple claims 10 hours). But if the A4 is such a leap forward, one would think Apple would let allow Flash on board so it can fall flat on its face.
- Flash has a long record of being light, fast and (reasonably) secure, which is why it is found in 98% of Internet connected PCs, and why it succeeded while other approaches failed in the market (client-side Java, ActiveX, WPF, etc). This does not mean Flash is the optimal choice for a Web page that requires simple interactivity (any more than client-side Java or Silverlight would be).
- HTML5 is the future of Web, for simple interactivity, including charting, some limited 3D vector graphics, image transforms, video, audio. It is possible that 90 to 95% of an average enterprise needs could be met by HTML5 There are only a few classes of corporate apps that would gain significant benefit from Flash, Silverlight or Java over what is available in HTML5 or even in Ajax.
- However, there is a portion of the Web that requires richer interaction,. Your mileage (i.e. requirements) may vary, of course. Your applications might require extensive offline processing, direct manipulation of graphics, real-time notifications and alerts, high-speed binary communication protocols, tight integration with local devices, and so on. In these scenarios, you might need to use Flash, Silverlight or Java (the exact choice would depend on your context, such as your development team, your IT landscape, your vendor relationships, and so on).
- The choice among these technologies is not “all or none”. One approach that many, if not most, organizations might end up pursuing is a hybrid approach — sometimes known as “islands of RIA” or supporting “hot spots of interactivity”. In the near term, this requires a plug-in based approach, such as Flash, Silverlight or Java. Over the long-term (5 or 10 years), HTML5 may fit the bill.
- The old anti-Microsoft alliance of Google, Adobe, and Apple is splintering. This was only a loose alliance to begin with (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”). But now there are multi-way tensions and collision courses (Apple vs Google in mobile space, Apple vs Adobe in browser/plugin, and of course Microsoft vs each one of these).
- HTML5 poses a strategic threat to Adobe, as well as to Microsoft and Java. However, Adobe is the most impacted in the short term — because Microsoft has some solid territory in enterprise IT environment (for example, Silverlight is leveraging the success of the Sharepoint portal), and enterprises do not shift direction easily. Also, Silverlight leverages .NET developer skills directly. By contrast, the consumer Web (especially the smaller more agile Web properties) can change direction and platform more quickly. Flash is used in 70% of high traffic Web sites, but some of these uses are surface-level and easily removed. (However, as mentioned earlier, it will be harder to turn large scale ad-engine operations around).
- Adobe sees the writing on the wall and is responding. Adobe has undertaken various initiatives, from the Flash library for iPhone that allows compilation and embedding into native iPhone apps, to Flash 10.1 which is a more efficient implementation for mobile CPUs that need to conserve battery life, to improved security procedures and development process. Adobe’s future depends on how well and how fast it executes.
- Lastly, the average enterprise won’t effectively use Flash or HTML5 or any other shiny new UI technology. Because the root problem as I see it is not lack of powerful UI technology. Instead, the root causes for sub-optimal user experience have to do with lack of appropriate process, and governance, and lack of a genuine commitment to a quality user experience. Such a commitment would lead organizations to adopt a user-centered usability-oriented development process. Rather than taking these steps, we see a lot of projects that are “stakeholder driven” (i.e., driven by internal politics). Very few organizations center development around user needs by relying on objectively measured data about user behavior. Most enterprises don’t care enough about the user experience to change their habits (developer-driven, vendor-driven, stakeholder-driven). The principles of creating effective user experiences are well-known among successful external-facing ecommerce or consumer sites such as Amazon, Ebay, Expedia or Facebook. Unfortunately, it will likely be a long time before these principles become part of the average enterprise skillset.
Anyway, that’s probably too many talking points for now.
And you, what are your thoughts and reactions?
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by Ray Valdes | January 28, 2010 | 13 Comments
Following up on my blog post from yesterday, here’s a quick reaction to some of the design challenges I mentioned.
Overall, I am underwhelmed, but I realize the iPad is for a different market. I have a MacBook and iPhone — both of which I am happy with and use constantly. There is no room in my lifestyle for an iPad (I need a real keyboard and the protective clamshell cover).
However, there are many other people (both in the youth-oriented demographic groups as well as in some senior segments), where the iPad directly targets their needs. These folks might currently have no laptop (or perhaps only a sub-par machine) and they don’t need to do a lot of knowledge work (i.e., less content creation, and more content consumption). The iPad will make a great first computer for my 88-year-old father, or for an affluent 10 year old, or for the 30-ish Mom or Dad that wants to read on the couch after the kids are in bed. For these folks, it is a great “netbook killer”, which answers my question about market niche, as illustrated by the diagram in my earlier post.
I think the iPad is substantial enough, from a market perspective, that it can shove aside more conventional netbooks for specific market segments — in the same way that the iPhone and iPod were able to achieve this in their respective categories. The converging arrows in the above diagram get reshaped.
In the past, I’ve overheard conversations (say on an airplane) where people say that the iPhone changed their life, in terms of how they conduct a wide range of activities (communicate, entertain, travel, etc). The iPad may not change your life, but it might change that of your Grandma or nephew.
Here are specific aspects that caught my attention
- Well designed extension to the iPhone product line, unfortunately with few surprises that would let Apple meet sky-high expectations. I was looking for great (an innovative input method, a compelling industrial design that meets the needs for graspability, mobility, and protection, etc). Instead, Apple delivered on good.
- Great price point. The base price of $499 is a pleasant surprise. This was well played in the media by Apple, because Apple cultivated (or at least did not dispel) widespread speculation that the tablet would come in at $999. That high price would have given ammunition to competitors that want to reinforce Apple’s historically elitist image. Instead, this price point shows it is going for the broad market (not just with price but with concept)
- Good connectivity options, not just Wi-Fi but 3G at a special non-contract price. What would have been great, at least for US consumers, is an alternative to AT&T, such as Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint.
- No front-facing camera. This blocks a bunch of key user scenarios where the tablet would otherwise be a natural fit: social, mobile interaction for the always-connected generation.
- Not easily graspable. This limits use to sitting on a couch, as opposed to moving around. I’d be afraid it would slip from my fingers and crash to the floor. I would have liked an industrial design with handles, a place for a strap, a protective cover, etc. However, I think the after-market vendors will likely fill in these gaps.
- Lack of Flash support. On the iPhone, this was a minor transgression (at least in the initial release). In the case of the iPad, the omission is starting to get ugly, because the past excuses (veiled allusions to performance or battery life) do not hold water when there are 100,000 apps written by semi-skilled programmers available on the AppStore. The value proposition of the iPad is to provide an easier and better way to access all of the Web, including the many thousands of sites that rely on Flash. The only explanation that makes sense is that Flash got left out of the party because of some long-standing personal grudge that Steve Jobs has with Adobe. That, or Apple views Flash as a significant competitive threat, with its cross-vendor rich UI platform. I expect Microsoft Silverlight will run on iPhone/iPad before Flash does.
- Horrible name. Can be easily confused with iPod, leading to many “interesting” customer service discussions. Customer on noisy phone line: “Hello, Apple, yes I would like to order an iP*d. What? Yes, I said iP*d…. Can you hear me?” Beyond the aural confusion, the name iPad has unwanted resonance with a brand name for a feminine hygiene product, leading to disbelief, rolling of eyes, and twittering on Twitter.
The above comments all are from the consumer and market perspective. There is a separate, long discussion one can have about the iPad as a platform for developers. There are some interesting twists in the API, but unfortunately Apple has changed the developer license, back to the bad old days of “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you afterwards, because Apple will come after me.“. This leads to some roundabout ways of talking among developers, who have to talk about a “hypothetical unnamed device” instead of straightforwardly referring to specific features.
What’s your take on today’s announcement?
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