six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Apple in 2018: The Six Colors report card

Tim Cook in 2018

It’s time for our annual look back on Apple’s performance during the past year, as seen through the eyes of writers, editors, developers, podcasters, and other people who spend an awful lot of time thinking about Apple.

This is the fourth year that I’ve presented this survey to a hand-selected group. They were prompted with 11 different Apple-related subjects, and asked to rate them on a scale from 1 to 5, as well as optionally provide text commentary on their vote. I received 55 replies, with the average results as shown below:

data table

Since I used the same survey as in previous years, I was able to track the change in my panel’s consensus opinion compared to the previous year. The net changes between 2017 and 2018 surveys is displayed below:

data table

Read on for category-by-category grades, trends, and commentary.

Mac

Grade: B- (average score: 3.4, median score 3, last year: C)

You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and then you have the Mac in 2019. Casey Liss said, “The Mac was a bit of a rollercoaster.” On the one hand, new products appeared at last. Glenn Fleishman said, “After years of neglect that left me wondering if Apple truly intended to curtail or even kill off the Macintosh… it released significant upgrades for several models.” Charles Arthur said, “All it really needed was a new Mac Pro… everything else was, finally, coherent.” Gabe Weatherhead said, “The Mac quality is slowly turning back toward something Apple can be proud of.” James Thomson said, “It feels like the wheels of progress have been re-attached and are slowly turning again.”

The new Mac mini earned a lot of praise. John Siracusa called it “the only real standout” among new Mac models. Andy Ihnatko said “its presence gives me a little more confidence about the future of the platform. It’s a dull little flat box packed with power and features at a somewhat competitive price… and that’s what the Mac needs.”

There was also praise for the MacBook Air revision. Stephen Hackett said, “The MacBook Air looks like it’s going to be a great machine for the majority of users, even if it is a couple hundred dollars more expensive than I’d like.” John Gruber said, “I like the new retina MacBook Air a lot, but it was overdue by at least a year.”

Still, overall the MacBook line “remains entirely confused,” according to Fraser Speirs. John Siracusa said, “The story of the Mac in 2018 was dominated by a laptop lineup that remains both confusing and unsatisfying.” Adam Engst said, “Apple’s laptop line is even more of a confusing mess than before.”

“I honestly don’t know why [the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar] is even being sold—It’s similar for the MacBook… there is no compelling reason this exists. And yet it is still being sold for more than a MacBook Air. I just don’t get it…. The gulf between what Apple charges and what its competitors charge is increasing in a way that doesn’t benefit Apple,” said Christina Warren.

Steven Aquino lamented “a lack of iteration on the Touch Bar.”

And did we mention the MacBook keyboards? Matt Deatherage said, “It defies reason for Apple [to offer] keyboards of inferior design and execution.” John Gruber said, “I may be biased as a writer and a keyboard aficionado, but it used to be the case that Apple’s notebook keyboards were widely hailed as the best in the world… that’s no longer the case and I think that’s a problem.” Shahid Kamal Ahmad said that the major failing of the keyboard was not its feel but “the inherent unreliability of the switches and their propensity to fail from the inevitable ingress of a subatomic particle.”

Most people were largely unmoved by the macOS Mojave update. Dan Moren said, “As an update, Mojave was underwhelming.” But Rich Mogull called it “a solid mid-cycle stability update.” As for those apps that migrated from iOS to the Mac, Stephen Hackett called them “mediocre Mac apps at best” and John Gruber said they range “from not great and a little weird (Home) to downright terrible (the other three).” Dan Moren called them “functional, but that’s really about the best you can say for them.”

Administrators and IT people also had harsh words to say about how changes in Mojave were rolled out, as Andrew Laurence decried late-beta modifications that “dramatically altered Mojave’s behavior in [privacy policy control] areas, to the detriment of users, admins, and developers alike.”

iPhone

Grade: B+ (average score: 3.9, median score 4, last year: A)

Nobody on our panel really had anything negative to say about iPhone hardware itself. Lex Friedman said, “I literally don’t know how to improve the iPhone—good thing I don’t work at Apple.” If the iPhone XS and XS Max were anything, they were just a little bit boring. Rich Mogull said, “This was a great year for iPhone customers, but perhaps not for Apple itself… Technology is outpacing customer need and phone lifespans are ever-longer, which we saw hurt Apple’s bottom line.”

However, some panelists felt that Apple’s lost a bit of its edge. Shahid Kamal Ahmad said, “I suspect iPhone X might well have been peak iPhone.” Federico Viticci said, “I’m starting to feel like Apple is losing their advantage in mobile photography, and quickly.” Carolina Milanesi said, “There is a lot of innovation both on hardware and software that comes from players that might not be seen by Apple as direct competitors and it will be interesting to see in 2019 if Apple will feel the need to respond to them.”

There was effusive praise for the iPhone XR, which brought most of the features of the iPhone X to a lower price. John Siracusa said, “The iPhone XR gives us a glimpse of what a few well-chosen trade-offs can deliver.” John Gruber said, “After spending a few weeks using an XR full-time, I honestly question whether its LCD isn’t better than the XS’s OLED for my needs.”

Steven Aquino said, “Believe it or not, my blue iPhone XR was my favorite Apple product of last year.” Peter Cohen said, “Apple prices its flagship phones out of the reach of a lot of consumers, so I thought the iPhone XR was a smart addition to the lineup.”

iOS 12 as an update was also generally praised. Josh Centers called it “a much-needed and much-welcome sprucing up of iOS.” Marco Arment deemed it “excellent.” John Gruber called it “one of my favorite iOS updates for iPhone in years.”

Many members of the panel expressed concern about the disappearance of the iPhone SE from Apple’s product line. Glenn Fleishman said, “The failure to refresh the iPhone SE feels like a strategy to move people into a new generation of phones in keeping with Apple’s general lack of interest of keeping ties to the past, even ones that please customers.” Charles Arthur said, “The vanishing of the iPhone SE left a hole at the bottom of the range, which wasn’t filled, and means there’s a significant hole in the low-cost end for countries such as India.”

Dan Moren said, “I get that the market seems to be demanding larger phones, but there are so many of them that I wonder if the small-phone market is getting underrepresented.” Philip Michaels said, “The lack of a new version of the iPhone SE means there was no low-cost, compact phone for people who value both qualities.” Andrew Laurence said, “I enthusiastically use an iPhone SE and actively dislike the larger form factors… the iPhone line has skated to where my dollars are not.”

And then there are the high prices, a theme that came up continually. Fraser Speirs said, “I think Apple has gone beyond the boundary of what people are willing to bear in price.” Stephen Hackett said, “It feels like the iPhone may be a crossroads—can Apple continue to charge so much for these devices?”

Aleen Simms said, “Apple needs to reevaluate its market strategy… their current pricing is cost-prohibitive for many people.” Merlin Mann said, “I feel like iPhone’s price umbrella is developing some copious holes.”

iPad

Grade: A- (average score: 4.0, median score 4, last year: A-)

Our panelists spoke with one voice when it came to the iPad: praise for the new iPad Pro hardware but condemnation of the lack of iOS features to let it shine.

Jim Dalrymple said, “The 2018 iPad is the culmination of years of Apple making the iPad its own platform.” Carolina Milanesi said, “The biggest issue Apple has is perception of whether or not the iPad Pro is as good as a computer… mostly that perception is driven by software rather than hardware.” Fraser Speirs said, “The new iPad pros are delightful hardware but they’re the same software that they always were.”

John Siracusa said, “The new iPad Pros are phenomenal pieces of hardware that place Apple firmly at the top of the class when it comes to mobile computing power… It’s a shame that iOS hasn’t kept pace with the iPad’s hardware prowess.” Christina Warren said, “The future of Apple desktops is probably the iPad, and the hardware is already there—now we just need the software to catch up.”

What about that USB-C port? Once again, it’s all about hardware waiting around for the software to catch up. Stephen Hackett said, “The iPad Pro’s USB-C port may as well be a portal to the Land of Expectant Hope.” Gabe Weatherhead said, “The iPad desperately needs a new iOS optimized for working on a tablet with a keyboard, including better options for file management, external hardware support, and inter-app communication.”

John Gruber said: “On the hardware front Apple had a 5/5 year… Software wise, it wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was nothing. Which, effectively, is bad, because I think the iPad needs an ‘iPadOS’ overhaul.”

Aleen Simms said, “There’s something about the new hardware that absolutely, profoundly felt like the future to me… Charging the No. 2 Pencil is amazing, especially compared to the previous iteration.”

Federico Viticci said, “I love, love the new iPad Pro hardware… the software, on the other hand, is spectacularly behind. Apple needs to devote plenty of attention to advancing the iPad platform in 2019.” Shahid Kamal Ahmad said, “I hope that when Apple does improve iOS, it does so without introducing friction into the usability of what has been my favourite device of 2018.”

Lest we forget, Apple also introduced a low-priced, low-end iPad last spring. Charles Arthur said, “The bottom-end but powerful iPad (hard to beat the price), and then the top-end iPad Pros (hard to beat the performance). Very neat.” Stephen Hackett said, “The $329 iPad is the best deal in Apple’s entire portfolio. It’s a fast tablet with Pencil support in a terrific, time-proven design. I still can’t believe Apple isn’t charging more.”

Apple Watch

Grade: A (average score: 4.0, median score 4, last year: A-)

With the arrival of the new, larger-screened Apple Watch Series 4, the panel was a happy bunch. Christina Warren said, “Honestly, after a very shaky start, the Apple Watch has become one of the most consistent and exciting products in Apple’s lineup. It’s best-in class and keeps getting better.” Carolina Milanesi said, “It really feels like Apple’s vision has come together.”

Federico Viticci said, “The highlight of this year, for sure.” Rich Mogull said, “This is the Apple Watch we’ve been waiting for.” Scholle McFarland said, “The series 4 is the first Apple Watch I’ve recommended to people who aren’t early technology adopters.”

John Gruber said, “I don’t think Apple gets enough credit for its expertise in miniaturization. They’ve long been the best company in the world at making ever-smaller ever-more-powerful tiny personal computers, and their lead seems to be growing, not shrinking. Apple Watch exemplifies that.”

But there’s still more to be done. Dan Moren said, “My big hope is that some day we’ll get an Apple Watch that always shows the time so I can stop flicking my wrist in public.”

There was praise for Apple’s focus on health applications. Charles Arthur said, “Adding the ECG function to the Watch S4 is very clever: only good stories coming out of that.” Lisa Schmeiser said, “It’s no wonder Tim Cook has been so openly vocal about how Apple will safeguard user data — it’s laying groundwork for future business in health-adjacent markets.” James T. Green said, “The thing saved my life. Now with the EKG features, it only got better.”

However, there was some skepticism about the Apple Watch as a fitness-specific device. Adam Engst said, “The basic hardware configuration of the Apple Watch (slow screen, touch interface instead of buttons) will prevent it from ever competing against dedicated GPS watches like the Garmin Forerunner line.”

Still, there’s more software work to do. Fraser Speirs said, “The new watch faces have a number of confusing and inconsistent elements and could use a bit of fresh thinking.” Stephen Hackett said, “The OS still feels held back in some ways. I’d like to see what developers could do with more powerful tools to build their apps.” Gabe Weatherhead said, “It seems clear that the third party market for watch apps has dried up.”

Marco Arment said, “watchOS’ limitations on third-party apps and our inability to develop third-party watch faces still hold us back from taking full advantage of the excellent hardware, and the first-party watch faces are in a bit of a design slump.” James Thomson said, “It’s time to unlock UIKit apps for third-party developers so we can finally take advantage of it all ourselves.”

Apple TV

Grade: D+ (average score: 2.6, median score 3, last year: C)

2018 was the year after the Apple TV 4K arrived and the year before Apple will roll out its new video subscription service. The panel was not kind to the current limbo in which the Apple TV product find itself.

Fraser Speirs said, “Feels like Apple TV is quite stagnant and the Apple TV as an app platform just hasn’t worked out.” Jim Dalrymple said, “There still seems to be a lot missing from this product.”

John Siracusa said, “The Apple TV puck hardware is capable enough, but the software is lackluster, Apple’s streaming video service is still MIA, and the remote remains execrable.” Christina Warren said, “Nothing has happened and the price is ridiculously high.” Gabe Weatherhead said, “The AppleTV still feels like a hobby—the UI is dated and the remote is still a joke.”

Josh Centers said, “It’s the most expensive device of its kind on the market and can’t even play Bandersnatch.”

Services

Grade: C+ (average score: 3.2, median score 3.5, last year: B-)

As is seemingly usual for this survey, opinions about Apple’s services are all over the place. Everyone seems to have aspects that work fine for them and others that don’t work at all. It’s the proverbial mixed bag. Which isn’t necessarily a great look for Apple, since it spends so much time crowing about how much money it’s making on services.

Matt Deatherage said, “I feel most of these services are about where they were 3-4 years ago.” Fraser Speirs said, “Apple is treading water in a lot of areas.” John Siracusa said, “It’s 2018, and my contacts still don’t sync correctly across devices.” Lex Friedman said, “I still don’t understand how iCloud Photos is supposed to work.” (There’s a book for that, Lex!)

Christina Warren said, “Apple Music continues to grow — and I really like it on mobile.” Jessica Dennis said, “For the most part. Apple Music remains a solidly ok music service with some interesting human-curated playlists.” Carolina Milanesi said, “Apple is showing signs that services is not just the talking point on earnings but something they are very serious about—the recent move to have Apple Music on Echo devices shows that Apple will be playing by different rules going forward.”

Glenn Fleishman said, “Apple has gotten better and worse here… I feel like they’ve improved offerings, features, and interfaces, but iCloud-associated products remain a mess.” Charles Arthur said, “Still not enough iCloud storage at the base level. 5GB? Still.” Casey Liss said, “I am deeply biased by Apple’s services both not meeting my needs, and feeling like an ever-increasing source of nickel-and-diming in the ecosystem.” Adam Engst said, “Most of Apple’s services feel as though they’re merely good enough for people to want to subscribe.”

Stephen Hackett said, “Just when I think ‘Apple is good at services now,’ iCloud goes and eats a change to one of my contacts or lets a note fall out of sync. Things are better than ever, but iCloud sync should be bulletproof.” Gabe Weatherhead said, “Apple has transformed their services from the butt of many jokes to one of their top businesses. iCloud photos and Apple Music are used reliably by millions of customers… [but] Siri does not feel like it’s in the same market as [its competition].”

John Gruber said, “iCloud Photos is now one of the best sync services I’ve ever used… They should have a better free tier for iCloud and a better value proposition for paid tiers. All that said… Apple is a beacon of hope in the industry for its stance on privacy and advertising.”

Dr. Drang said, “Shockingly, the 2 TB iCloud Drive plan is a better value than Dropbox. I’m still nervous about switching over to it, but I think 2019 is the year.”

Philip Michaels said, “It’s funny. Apple’s service revenues are booming, and I don’t know that Apple’s done anything to make services appreciably better.” Federico Viticci said, “I like Apple Music and Apple News, but they’re evolving too slowly. Apple Music has been essentially unchanged for two years while Spotify keeps adding new features… If Apple is serious about becoming a services company, they need to push for more aggressive release schedules and frequent upgrades.”

HomeKit

Grade: C- (average score: 2.9, median score 2, last year: C-)

The panel showed a lot of skepticism about Apple’s commitment to smart home tech, citing stiff competition from Amazon and Google.

Carolina Milanesi said, “This to me remains the most puzzling part of the Apple ecosystem. Nothing has been happening in this space for a while and I am not sure as to why. This year it really felt like home automation was not a priority for Apple other than making the requirements for compatibility a little more flexible.”

Gabe Weatherhead said, “I have a HomeKit enabled house and it’s not reliable.” Dan Moren said, “Needs better integration on the Mac front outside of the iOS-transplant Home app, more support for different kinds of hardware (like types of sensors), and better and more automation options.”

Federico Viticci said, “Despite opening HomeKit certification to a software-based process, it seems like third-party manufacturers are still slow to adopt HomeKit… Apple needs to convince me to stay on their platform in 2019 because Google and Amazon are becoming more and more compelling by the day.”

Michael E. Cohen said, “The fact that HomeKit knows when sunset comes each day, and can turn the lamp on at that exact time every day, may be a little thing, but it’s a magical little thing.” Jeff Carlson said, “After outfitting my house with a dozen lights and a handful of switches, I haven’t been compelled or excited to do more.”

David Sparks said, “Apple was slow out of the gate but it finally feels like they’re making progress.”

Hardware reliability

Grade: B+ (average score: 3.8, median score 4, last year: A-)

There were a lot of issues, but the reliability of MacBook keyboards really came to the fore with our panel.

“iPhone 7s returned in large quantities in 2018 thanks to manufacturing problems that rendered them unable to work on cellular data networks… MacBook keyboards continue to fail despite three redesigns… And Apple Stores were choked at the end of the year with people rushing to get batteries replaced. Glad to see Apple own up to and eat the costs of some of these issues, but it still creates a lot of friction for customers who are displeased at paying a premium but not feeling like they’re getting premium quality,” said Peter Cohen.

Jim Dalrymple said, “I think the reliability overall is top notch. I haven’t had a single hardware failure in years.” David Sparks said, “I realized recently that I no longer take Mac hardware reliability for granted.”

Marco Arment said, “Almost every category is very reliable, but the continued problems with the MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards, despite the reductions from the 2018 keyboard’s membrane, tarnish their reputation in a big way.” John Siracusa said, “That butterfly keyboard really has to go!” Casey Liss said, “I’m not calling for anyone’s head to roll, but I do think there’s a legitimate problem here that needs to be addressed.”

Christina Warren said, “I don’t love how the keyboard issues have been handled, if I’m honest. The redesigned keyboards appear to do better — but only time will tell.” Rene Ritchie said, “You don’t hear much about the 3rd generation butterfly keyboard failing, so you take your wins where you can.”

Software quality

Grade: B- (average score: 3.4, median score 3, last year: C-)

There are always issues, but most of our panel had to admit that Apple’s upgrade this cycle this year (to Mojave and iOS 12) went smoothly.

“Bugs exist, now and forever, but I get the feeling that the system’s complexity is outpacing the testing plans. It makes me worry about how a processor transition might proceed,” said Matt Deatherage.

“There are some quirks with Apple software that sometimes baffles the mind. Overall, I think the company has great software and they work really hard to make all of the OSes work together, which is extremely important,” said Jim Dalrymple.

“I feel like 2018 was a good year for Apple software…. I wonder if the yearly cadence is still working for releases…. I do wonder if splitting some of the bigger features over the year — and sharing that upfront — might work better,” said Christina Warren.

“Mojave is fine, and hasn’t had showstoppers, but blecho is my word for Apple’s ongoing commitment to not caring about most of its desktop software. Photos still is feature incomplete and buggy… iTunes remains a hideous blancmange lurching across its many functions… I constantly battle with Mail, Pages, Photos, iTunes, and other Apple software,” said Glenn Fleishman.

“iOS 12 was a great improvement for stability and speed. Mojave has been a quiet update - haven’t noticed anything from it. Good software is when you don’t notice it,” said Charles Arthur.

“I’d like Apple to focus on the apps it ships with the system, but then I remember at how bad Home, News, Voice Memos and even the new Mac App Store are at being decent Mac apps and I fear for the future,” said Stephen Hackett.

“iOS’s growth in functionality has come too many hidden options, and too much reliance on precise timing of touching, holding, and dragging. And old essential operations like text selection are still far too fiddly,” said Dr. Drang.

“It is an ongoing source of exasperation that as the overall computing environment becomes ever more cloud-based, with the idea that data syncing across devices for a consistent user experience being the whole selling point, that Apple’s core apps are just not up for the job,” said Lisa Schmeiser.

“iOS 12 is the best version of iOS I have tested in years. The work Apple put into optimizing performance on older hardware truly shows… particularly if you consider how some users may have held off upgrading to new devices because their old ones work better on iOS 12,” said Federico Viticci.

Developer Relations

Grade: B- (average score: 3.4, median score 4, last year: B)

When we started this survey a few years ago, Apple’s relationship with app developers was much more fraught than it is today. Still, there was a slight backslide in scores from last year.

Jim Dalrymple said, “I think developer relations is something Apple has improved on immensely over the past few years.” Lex Friedman said, “I think it’s a BFD that Panic returned to the App Store.”

“It seems that Apple has not been able to replicate the iOS App Store success for other platforms, which is limiting the opportunity for developers to fully take advantage of the Apple’s ecosystem,” said Carolina Milanesi.

“With new APIs for Apple Watch and the APIs for Siri Shortcuts on iOS, it does feel like Apple has a road map to give third party apps deeper integrations and more power,” said Gabe Weatherhead.

“I think Apple needs to do a much better job policing scams and frauds in the App Store,” said John Gruber.

“I have never seen the App Store review process move as quickly as I saw in 2018. Fast turnarounds, and good feedback on rejections, too,” said Brett Terpstra.

Societal/Environmental Impact

Grade: B (average score: 3.7, median score 4, last year: B+)

“I appreciate that Tim Cook says important things loudly and publicly. I don’t appreciate that he is softer in his criticisms of the administration,” said Lex Friedman.

“Apple’s failure to take a more aggressive stance on the Trump administration’s more noteworthy follies will be a stain on the company’s reputation long after the current administration is a shameful memory. If you can’t use your weight as the world’s most valuable company to steer the debate on topics like immigration, trade wars and the like, then what good is that power and influence?” said Philip Michaels.

“Apple believes in freedom and privacy and security when a company rep is in front of a microphone complaining about the behavior of the tech companies they’re competing with. Ask them about China annnd gosh, that steel rod in their spine turns to tapioca,” said Andy Ihnatko.

“Apple’s focus on user privacy, whether motivated by money or honest intent (a mix of both, I’m sure), remains a beacon in a world ravaged by Facebook and Google’s missteps,” said Glenn Fleishman.

“I particularly like the voice Tim Cook has on social media on diversity, civil rights and other social issues although I would like to see Apple do more for diversity within its c-level management in particular,” said Carolina Milanesi.

“I think people forget that Apple regularly got low grades from environmental groups in the early ’00s. The company’s commitment to fixing that has been one of its greatest success stories. Employee diversity, not so much,” said Dr. Drang.

Aleen Simms said, “They seem to be making slow progress on diversity within their workforce. I would still like to see this change to be faster.” Jean MacDonald said, “I was really excited by Apple’s announcement of Entrepreneur Camp for women app developers, which offers not just support in coding, but also app design and marketing. From our experience at App Camp For Girls, I know this is a powerful approach in encouraging the participation of underrepresented people in the business of app development.”

“I’d like to see Apple pushing forward with more lobbying in D.C. as a countermeasure to growing discrimination in the U.S… I’d also like to see more visible examples of Apple s zero tolerance for discrimination,” said Gabe Weatherhead.

“Apple has no public roadmap for their efforts in education and also appear to be letting iTunes U wither on the vine. Google is now trouncing them in this area with new features coming virtually monthly. It’s time to worry,” said Fraser Speirs.

“Accessibility-wise, Apple’s commitment to the disabled community remains as strong as ever. 2018 was an interesting year, however, in terms of strategy. Instead of discrete accessibility features (save for AirPods with Live Listen) the company focused on how mainstream functionality can be accessible in certain contexts. It’s smart marketing insofar as Apple made a concerted effort to show their products can be used by literally everyone, regardless of ability,” said Steven Aquino.

Notes

I didn’t vote in the panel. My panelists included Shahid Kamal Ahmad, Steven Aquino, Marco Arment, Charles Arthur, Leah Becerra, Shawn Blanc, Jeff Carlson, Josh Centers, Michael E. Cohen, Peter Cohen, Alex Cox, Jim Dalrymple, Matt Deatherage, Jessica Dennis, Dr. Drang, Adam Engst, Glenn Fleishman, Lex Friedman, Rob Griffiths, John Gruber, Stephen Hackett, Myke Hurley, Andy Ihnatko, Joe Kissell, Andrew Laurence, Rick LePage, Casey Liss, Roman Loyola, Jean MacDonald, Joe Macirowski, Merlin Mann, Kirk McElhearn, Scholle McFarland, Philip Michaels, Carolina Milanesi, Rich Mogull, John Moltz, Dan Moren, Rene Ritchie, Lisa Schmeiser, Brent Simmons, Aleen Simms, John Siracusa, David Smith, David Sparks, Fraser Speirs, Brett Terpstra, Ben Thompson, James Thomson, James T. Green, Michael Tsai, Khoi Vinh, Federico Viticci, Christina Warren, and Gabe Weatherhead.

Previous surveys were reported for 2015, 2016, and 2017.

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