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Where content meets technology

May 06, 2013

Drupal not listed as an alternative to Wordpress

Anthony Myers (@xanthonysfx) , from CMSWire, recently posted an article listing "Five Alternatives to Wordpress." His list was really interesting. First, he openly left off Drupal, putting Plone there instead. I really like Plone but I would have to say that Drupal is a much closer analog to the core functionality of Wordpress. The projects even have an ongoing rivalry with each other as shown by Dries's April Fools post "The Red Press of Drupal" where he announces that Wordpress is moving onto Drupal.

Second, the author didn't include blogging products like Expression Engine, MovableType (which, I hear, is improving), and SquareSpace. The products that he listed (Adobe Business Catalyst, Plone, Typo (I have a feeling Anthony meant Typo3, not this relatively obscure Rails blogging platform), Umbraco, and eZ Publish) are all traditional, page-oriented (as opposed to post-oriented) platforms. This shows that Wordpress, at least in Anthony's eyes, has grown out of its blogging roots and readers would be considering it for traditional web content management. I would have to agree with Anthony on this.

The third interesting thing about this article is that the various software communities didn't flood it with comments and other reactions. I would at least expect the very large Drupal community to dive in and lobby for their inclusion. Maybe the link-bait title of this post will change that. :)

Jan 24, 2011

The Dark Ages of the Future

There is a mini-meme going around about the fragility information in a digital society. The argument goes that, because we manage information in proprietary digital formats and rapidly changing devices, we are increasing the risk of losing everything. Archeologists of the future will not be able to analyze MS Word 2010 files on old hard drives like the archeologists of today can read ancient texts on papyrus and stone. One of the better posts is Cheryl McKinnon's OpenSource.com article "From information overload to Dark Ages 2.0?" and the video embedded below.

I call this a mini-meme because it is not stirring up a Y2K-bug-grade hysteria. I guess you need images of planes falling out of the sky to get that level of reaction. The concern for this is more in line with that of the constant low level anxiety that all CIOs feel from the information overload problem — "this is a big problem that we are going fix after we take care of all the urgent matters on our plate."

We do need to curate and preserve information that is important. We need to do it on an individual level so our descendants can know where they came from and we need to do it on a societal level to teach future civilizations what we know. The problem is that we have a lot of crap to sift through. It used to be that producing information assets was hard and expensive. If you got an idea to create something, you would consider the effort and cost it would take to produce and distribute it, and then weigh that against the value. If something was created, you could assume that someone thought it was important. Now... not so much (queue the LOLCats).

In ancient times you had to have near-deity status for someone to go through the trouble of carving your likeness in stone. The cost of portraiture has been steadily going down to the point where now people don't even know when their picture is being taken. Remember, not long ago (before digital photography became the norm), you would really hesitated before snapping the shutter because each picture would cost you regardless of whether it even came out or not? When I got my first digital camera, I would snap away but delete the photos off the card to save space. Now I don't even bother to delete the bad ones. You can even go onto Facebook and see that a grainy blur has been tagged as you.

The same thing happens in the office. When I came of age professionally, one of my first responsibilities was to produce and distribute a productivity report. This meant running the report, printing it, making copies, and then putting them in physical mail boxes. It took the better part of a morning to do it. If there was even an outside chance that report wasn't useful, that task would disappear. Ten years earlier, I would have had to type up the report and run it through a mimeograph. It would have taken more than a day and wouldn't have been worth it. Now email inboxes are flooded with automatically generated reports that nobody reads.

It will be difficult to go through all the digital information we are producing and decide what is worthy of preserving for the long term. We will probably procrastinate this effort until there is some sort of scarcity or scare that brings the threat of loss to the forefront. When we do get around to it, however, I think we are going to learn about ourselves in the process.

Jan 18, 2011

Open formats in personal knowledge management

I have a complicated relationship with personal information management (PIM) tools. I love PIM software and services that promise to remember everything that I once knew. I am tempted by every new information gadget that comes down the pike. But I have also been burned lots of times too. I spent hours on corporate intranets documenting my knowledge only to have them shut down. I used proprietary software like the The Brain which became inaccessible when I switched computing platforms (note: now The Brain supports Linux and Mac OSX as well as Windows). My Google notebooks are now barely supported by Google. And now we have news of Delicious's uncertain future.

Because of these experiences, I have been fighting my urges to use services like Evernote, SpringPad, Yojimbo, etc.. Instead, I have been sticking with humble text files. In an earlier post, I described how I am using TextMate as a blogging tool. I have started to use it as a knowledge management tool as well.

Textmate Notebook

I don't pretend that I have the features that products like Evernote do, but here is what I can do:

  • Create notebooks with multiple pages by using TextMate's project feature.

  • Organize pages into folders.

  • Create todo items and other tags that I can summarize by using the ToDo bundle

  • Search using "Find in Project" or Spotlight.

  • Collaborate with others using GitHub or another code hosting service.

  • Store and organize binary files like diagrams created in OmniGraffle.

The truth for me is that the greatest benefit of any PIM tool is simply the act of recording and organizing the information. These activities help me remember and process information into actionable knowledge in my head. You can do that with any tool. The second most important aspect is search and recall. This is where the open format of text files really excels. It would be really frustrating to try to retrieve some information but not have access to the software to consume it.

Jan 12, 2011

Another tough year for personalization

While I generally don't enjoy 2011 prediction posts, I really loved James Hoskins's article (20)11 predictions from the CMS coal face. I found it thoughtful, pragmatic, and meaningful. One of my favorite predictions is #8 Personalisation falters again. I have had similar challenges with personalization. Most content organizations do not have the maturity, discipline, and energy to fully leverage this kind of technology. Interest and investment inevitably subsides after irrational expectations are not immediately gratified. Investment is higher than expected: you have to manage more complex technology, you need to develop more content, and you need to test a lot more. Return is lower than expected: most companies don't even know how to measure the value of the return.
There are, of course, exceptions. The importance of display and placement are ingrained in retail culture (online and offline) and small tweaks can lead to big returns. Customer extranets are inherently personalized so I am not including that here.

Traditional media companies (magazines, newspapers, and television/radio stations) would like to personalize but they don't have quite the upside eCommerce sites do; on a media site, an extra click means a few more ad impressions rather than a potential sale. Most media clients find that the volume and turnover in content makes the cost of tuning personalization greater than the return. Showing articles that are related to the current article brings the biggest bang for the buck. Marketing sites are more campaign driven than personalized; you put up different pages with different URLs rather than creating a personalized user experience.

As problematic as it has been in the past, I think that succeeding with personalization is only going to get harder. First of all, multiple device support is going to eat up your development resources so you will have even less time to test and tune complex personalized views. Second, unless you are lucky enough to be one of the premier social networking sites, most of your audience will only be on your site for a page or two — if at all. Most visitors will follow a deep link to your site, scan the content, then go back to the conversation about it. Some visitors will take snapshot of the page using a service like Read It Later or Instaper. Some visitors will just read the conversation and never click through. The upshot is that most visitors will not hang around long enough to implicitly or explicitly build a profile that can drive personalization logic.

I think that the greatest potential for personalization will be to use a service like Facebook Connect like Levis is doing. When a visitor comes with Facebook Connect, they bring some additional context that can be used to drive personalization logic. Most web savvy people find Facebook Connect creepy (and will try to avoid it) but the vast majority of web surfers are either unaware or unconcerned with privacy issues. I would look for a major uptake of Facebook Connect. In particular, I expect to see recommended content display components that can be used in different presentation channels. In the near term, however, I the greatest returns will come from the "make every page a home page strategy" where each page promotes content that is related to the current page. That's not personalization. That's just good content re-use.

Dec 23, 2010

11 Content Management Wishes for 2011

I don't generally write (or even read for that matter) upcoming year prediction posts. They seem more for the benefit of industry watchers than practitioners in the trenches. This, I know: some vendors will flourish; others will get acquired; early adopters will believe themselves to be leading lasting trends; many of them won't be; many employees will be frustrated that their companies are not following these trends; the rest of the world will take little notice. Now onto my hopes for the new year. I wish these things not just for the trendsetters but for everyone working in content management.

  1. I hope that expertise follows the technology. We have seen a trend of corporate web publishing moving out of the Information Technology group and into the Marketing department. This is great but I haven't seen marketing departments develop the talent to manage these technologies. People in marketing don't have enough experience hiring and managing technical people, enforcing engineering rigor, and buying technology services. This is particularly problematic because the content management products they are buying have a huge upside if you understand how to implement and maintain their sophisticated features.

  2. I want "Creative Developer" to emerge as the dominant role in most web teams. I have had the pleasure of working with some talented people who are good enough with design, HTML, CSS, AJAX and can also hold their own on a software development team. They can maintain their own development environments, can get around a command line, can pick up server-side coding, and have a genuine interest in engineering. For a while I got spoiled and didn't have an idea of how rare these individuals are. I would like to see this skill set become the norm rather than the exception.

  3. I want analytics to become a core competency. Nearly all companies practice web analytics but very few have achieved the level of mastery it takes to leverage this information. Setting and striving for metrics-based goals isn't baked into the culture. Traffic trends are more of a curiosity rather than a call to action. Typically companies are smartest about analytics immediately after purchasing a product and sending a team member to training. Then the intelligence decays as other operational aspects take priority or the person leaves. Often I see companies on the market for a new analytics system when they could do just as well by retraining on their current system.

  4. I wish everyone would dump IE6 support. Can we just do this already? By continuing to support IE6, we are not only wasting money and stifling innovation but we are also enabling companies to force their employees to use outdated, insecure technology.

  5. I wish technology companies would get more sustainable. The current pattern for technology companies is to: 1) burn lots of cash to build a product; 2) build a user base; 3) cash out by being bought by some other company. Customers are drawn in during phase 2 and then get screwed in phase 3. We see this in enterprise software (Vignette, RedDot, Merant) and in consumer software and services too (most recently with Delicious). Knowing this, I prefer solutions that I can see a sustainable business model from the start.

  6. I want a focus on content strategy to become the norm. Last year was big for content strategy. The field has been gaining awareness and key visionaries are starting to emerge. My hope is that this discipline continues to be incorporated into standard business practices. Teams need to start with the content rather than the container. We will know we are close when we stop seeing lorem ipsum in wirefames (another blog post I need to write).

  • I wish for the return of the corporate librarian. Too many companies believe that they can buy technology to play the role of a corporate librarian. Rather than invest time to organize and curate information, they leave it where it is and hope enterprise search will find it. The problem is that there winds up being so much duplicated content that the search engine can't effectively prioritize and recommend what it should in a search result. Either every knowledge worker needs training in basic library sciences, or companies need corporate librarians to help teams organize and share their information.
  • I hope the social intranet gets real. Up until recently companies have been operating under the myth that if you launch an internal Facebook, employees will jump in with the same enthusiasm that they poured into the real thing. That hasn't happened and it isn't going to happen. Nobody wants to invest their entire social being into their employers system where it only can be seen by co-workers. However, I think the social intranet concept has more legs than its predecessor which was to create a shared corporate brain (repository) that employees would voluntarily dump all their knowledge into and be able to leverage when they needed it. All the science says that knowledge and learning doesn't work that way. People learn by experience. The learning happens faster with immediate feedback. Someone else's feedback is almost as good as the natural feedback from a good or bad decision. If the social intranet can simply connect people who are learning skills with people who have been through the learning process, there will be huge returns. The challenge is to align the rewards to create a culture that prioritizes those types of exchanges.
  • I hope publishers develop a sustainable web business model. The foundation of the web is interconnectedness. Visitors bounce around from site to site and share links with each other. Traditional publishing has focused on building a captive audience — getting the full attention of a customer and renting some of that attention to advertisers. That is easier to do with a paper magazine or newspaper in hands of a person in a comfy chair than it is in a browser under the control of an attention challenged, click-happy web user. Publishers either need to either figure out away to monetize a non-captured audience or re-capture their audience. Apps and pay walls (the current infatuations of publishers) attempt the latter but they take the publisher out of the web ecosystem. I don't think that is going to work over the long term. This problem is more than a year away from getting solved but I would like to see some progress during 2011.
  • I hope Net Neutrality is preserved. I am getting dangerously close to industry-watcher territory here, but the threat to net neutrality really concerns me. It wouldn't be a problem if there was real competition between internet service providers, but most consumers have only 1 or 2 broadband service options. If the government is going to allow (and enable) these monopolies to exist, it has a responsibility to regulate this overly monopolistic behavior.
  • I hope content professionals continue to be passionate about their craft and earn their place in upper management. In order for that to happen, we will need to realize the rhetoric of content as a strategic asset. This means demonstrating how better content management can make businesses more effective and competitive.
  • As you can see, we all have our work cut out for us. Get some rest over the next couple of days and get ready for 2011. I expect great things from you all!

    Happy holidays.

    Jul 02, 2010

    Would anyone "Like" this blog?

    One of my newspaper clients recently added the Facebook "Like" button to their site and saw large increases in traffic. I was thinking of doing the same thing for Content Here but then I started to wonder "would I Like Content Here?" Don't get me wrong. I LOVE writing this blog and I also find the posts tremendously useful as a resource. Re-reading old posts is a great way for me to recreate an idea that I once had in my head or re-use an explanation for one of my clients. Sometimes I catch myself sending link after link to a client.

    So while I LOVE this blog, I am not sure that I LIKE it — at least not in a Facebook kinda way. I guess it all boils down to how I use Facebook: I use it for purely social purposes. I keep strict separation between my Facebook world (where I connect with friends and family, many of whom are not technical) and my professional (Twitter and LinkedIn) world. Some contacts span both worlds — mainly people who I know professionally but also hang out with outside of work. On Facebook, I don't post about anything work-related; just as I don't bore dinner guests with esoteric content management theory or programming stuff. There I talk about things that many of my friends and I are passionate about or would find amusing. On Twitter and this blog, I write about things that I find interesting professionally. I avoid personal subjects like my family, political views, and silly humor. I have a feeling that others either consciously or unconsciously maintain this kind of barrier. How many people would want to confuse their non-technical mother-in-law and the rest of their social network by "liking" the post Code moves forward. Content moves backward? Probably about as many people who want their boss to see their beach pictures which were taken on a sick day.

    This probably infuriates Facebook because they want to manage the full social graph — not just half of it. But I don't think they have a great answer for people like me. Some of my friends are working around this issue by creating two Facebook accounts: one for business and one for social. My good friend Brice Dunwoodie has a Facebook profile called Brice Dunwoodie SMG for his "semi-public self." But this isn't really a good solution for Facebook because it fractures their social graph. In order to pull these social and professional aspects together, Facebook would need to get really clever about its privacy and filtering settings which are already overly complicated and controversial.

    If Facebook can't have all the social graph, which half would they want? Are they be satisfied with the social side of the social graph which they already dominate? Or would they prefer the professional side (currently owned by LinkedIn)? Historically, Facebook ad revenue has been low considering their huge traffic volumes. This makes sense because general interest content (like news, entertainment, personal statuses, and other content that people might "like" in a Facebook kind of way) has notoriously low CPM rates; not like niche publications that have their audience in a buying state of mind and know what types of products they are interested in. Facebook's bet seems to be that, through their social graph, they can improve the targeting problem for general interest content. If they are successful, they will achieve that lucrative formula of high traffic volume AND high CPM. If they are not successful, they will probably need to think of some other way to monetize that large but distracted audience.

    Jun 11, 2010

    Never say "User"

    Ever since I got into web content management, I have advised my clients to avoid the word "user." It's a useless word because you are never quite sure if someone is talking about a user of the CMS, or a user of the website. For this reason, I get my clients to adopt the words "contributor" and "visitor." A contributor is a person that contributes content or participates in the content workflow of the content management system. A visitor consumes content on the website.

    The primary goal of a content management system is to mediate between these two populations. If a CMS was only to think of the contributor, the content would be poorly structured, cluttered, chaotically structured, and hard to find. By the way, pretty much every organization has one of those systems — it's called a shared drive. If a CMS only represented the visitors (or other consumers of content such as other systems), it would insist on extremely fine-grain structure for maximum reuse, pristine HTML (sorry, no WYSIWYG editors), and perfect quality (hello 10 step workflows). The CMS applies structure and rules to establish a compromise between these two groups.

    Web 2.0-style sites jumble this model up a bit because the line between contributor and visitor are blurring. Visitors can potentially contribute. Web content management systems like Drupal, Plone and many others merge the contributor interface into the externally facing website. These platforms tend to call registered users (contributors and visitors) "members" and, by default, allow members registered themselves. The distinction between a self registered member and a "SuperUser" is just a matter of permissions.

    I still think that the distinction of contributor and visitor is useful because members need to wear different hats. Sometimes they are visitors on the site simply trying find something. Other times they are contributors wanting to post something. The CMS is still mediating but instead of mediating between different types of users, it is potentially mediating between the same user in different contexts. It forces the contributor to put in a little extra effort to make life easier when he becomes a visitor. It would be a little like Clippy telling you "Oh, you don't want to use that file name and place that document there because you will NEVER find it again! And while you are at it, maybe you should print that out because you messed with the margins and I bet its going to look like hell." Clippy doesn't do that and we still find him annoying. Now you wonder why nobody loves their content management system?

    Jan 07, 2010

    The biggest thing since wood pulp

    One of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money, recently did a segment on bias in journalism. Apparently, back in the 1870's, most newspapers were blatantly affiliated with a political party. In fact, their bias was openly stated in their mission statement and it was part of the newspaper industry business model. In return for political support, a newspaper publisher would get lucrative contracts for printing government documents and cushy government posts like postmaster. You historians will remember that Ben Franklin, himself a publisher, was the first postmaster general. The newspaper publishers didn't do this because they were greedy or unscrupulous; it was hard to make a living publishing a paper any other way. The cost of printing and distributing a paper was more than the audience could afford. Given the options of the low return of serving an audience that can't afford your product or the high return of serving a political party, the choice was easy.

    But then a big technology disruption happened that drastically cut the cost of publishing a newspaper and all of the sudden made the business more profitable. It wasn't the Internet, it was cheap paper made from wood pulp. Up until that point, the news was printed on rag paper like what our dollars bills are made of. With cheaper paper, a publisher could lower the price and get a higher volume of sales. You could sell even more papers if you had higher quality news. More newspapers entered the market but there were still barriers to entry to preserve profits. Even though the variable cost of the papers was low, the up front fixed costs of the presses and distribution channels kept competition manageable.

    Like wood pulp, the Internet also disrupted the news business but in a different ways. While the Internet has reduced the cost of distributing the news (especially over large geographic areas), it has also driven the revenues down. Most importantly, the classifieds business has been eaten up by sites like Craigslist. Advertisers have other options to reach a more targeted audience than general news can. And, of course, there are no barriers to entry. Even an schmo like me can have a blog.

    Will the decline of profitability push publishers back to bias? There are some concerning signs. Not so much with the big media brands (although you could definitely make the argument that all publications have their leanings), but there are plenty of examples in blogosphere (and Twitter) where bloggers are paid to promote a product or political agenda. The distinction between professional and amateur media is blurring. We tend to follow people (professionals and amateurs) who share our passion (usually on very narrow topics) and we unsubscribe when they lose our interest or confidence. But very few people are getting rich on having us as an audience — not until they sell out and exploit our trust. Then we will leave as quickly as we came because there is bound to be a fresh new voice that values our attention as unprofitable as it may be.

    As an audience that wants to be informed, we need to do two things.... First, we need to figure out a way to compensate for the value that we enjoy. There have been some interesting ideas of establishing non-profits and public-media style structures. Second, we need to become very good critical thinkers. We need to be able to filter and verify the information that is bombarding us. We need to become our own editors if we can't immediately trust anything in print. I am sure that is what people did back in the 1860's did too.

    Dec 18, 2009

    WCM needs a new name. Or, perhaps, an old one.

    This post was originally written as a comment on Jon Mark's excellent post Visions of Jon: WCM is for Losers but it got out of hand and I suspect that it is too long for a comment so I am re publishing it here.

    Thanks for the great post Jon! I have to agree with you that the term Web Content Management System is misleading because of its diverse focus on multiple publishing channels. You probably remember that in the old days (~1996), the term "CMS" was first used to describe products like Vignette and what are now called ECM systems were just called Document Management Systems, Records Management Systems, etc. When the big DMS vendors started to covet the term "content," the (then) smaller WCM vendors had to slide over a bit and qualify their category with a "W." Then some of them started to ruin themselves by trying to expand into document, management, records management, etc. - but that's another story.

    But enough about the Ghosts of Christmas Past... I agree with the point that a WCMS has multiple aspects. I would name three: a management tier to edit semi-structured content, a repository to store the semi-structured content, and a rendering tier to render the content. Usually the repository is more tightly coupled to the management tier so it is often tucked into the management application. In fact, the three components are often bundled for convenience.

    In my mind, what sets WCM apart from the other forms of CMS is the C. I still think of Content as having more structure (and less embedded formatting) than what you typically find in an ECM repository. In the ECM world, the structured information is called metadata and is not considered part of the asset (a MS Office file that jumbles together information and presentation). A WCM asset needs to be rendered (given a format) to be useful to a consumer. This is why a WCMS needs a good rendering system.

    Most ECM assets can just be downloaded but the range of formats they can take is limited. You can get a different file format (like a PDF) or a different scaling or cropping of an image but the output looks essentially the same. ECM has tricks to add structured information like metadata and embedded tags but that is going against the grain. WCM, which is inherently structured, knows what each of the different elements of an asset mean. I like to say that ECM is documents pretending to be content and WCM is content pretending to be documents. That is, ECM starts with a document and tries to pull information out of it while a WCM starts with structured information and renders it into a .html, .pdf, .xml, or any other kind of document.

    So, at the end of it all, I would say that WCM should be renamed back to CM and ECM should be renamed to EDM: Enterprise Document Management.

    Dec 07, 2009

    The Content Here Map of the Information Market

    I generally dislike the "map of the market" approach to describing a software market because the actual use of software is too specific to be generalized into abstract dimensions like "high and low end" or "innovative." However, during a recent Content Here leadership offsite (OK, I went on a bike ride), I was thinking about Content Here's positioning in the marketplace and I found a picture to be quite helpful. This is what I came up with (click on the image for a larger view).

    Map of the Content Management Information Market

    The primary point of the diagram is to show that consumers enter the information marketplace with different types of questions and information providers offer different types of answers. The intent of the question appears on a continuum that ranges from problem focused to solution focused. Technology buyers are focused on their business problems. As you progress towards the "problem" end of the spectrum, the questions get more specific and require intimate knowledge of the context and domain to answer. On the other end of the spectrum, the consumers (software vendors and investors) are trying to understand trends that will inform a business strategy for managing (or investing in) a solution. The information on the solution side gets very abstract and speculative because the solutions themselves are designed to be re-usable across many different kinds of problems and software companies need to build products that will be sold in the future. In the center of the spectrum is where the interests of the buyers and sellers converge. Here the buyers are thinking a little beyond the specific problems they are trying to solve today to where they need to be in five years. Here vendors are thinking beyond how their solution measures up today to what buyers need going forward.

    All of these questions are important and the marketplace for answers has evolved to answer them. On the sellers side of the diagram, you have the major analyst firms who primarily serve the technology vendors. Their information can also useful to the CIO that is trying to understand trends but it will not be useful for a decision faced today. I didn't put too much thought into the positions of the "sell-side" analysts on the right side of the diagram. I would love input here.

    I am more interested in the left side of the diagram — in particular, where Content Here is focused. My unofficial tag line for Content Here is "Content Here helps technology buyers be awesome at making decisions" (format borrowed from the Joel on Software article: "Figuring out what your company is all about"). Content Here tries to help client's answer the questions of what technology to buy and what do to with it. To play this role, I need a deep understanding of how the various technology products work — but not as deep as a systems integrator that specializes in that technology or the software vendor's technical support. Consequently, my reports are very technical compared to other analyst reports. I tend not to go as broad as CMS Watch because I stop keeping up with a product once I realize it is not relevant to my potential client base. Only when I hear that something has changed with the product do I check back (and this is why I don't publish a list of technologies that I follow or don't follow). Most importantly, I need to be able to rapidly discover a client's requirements through an efficient consultative process.

    This hybrid approach puts Content Here in between a systems integrator and an analyst company in terms of detail. I am not surprised by low number of competitors because this is a hard place to be. I need to dig into the many technologies I cover by building prototypes and talking with implementors. I also need to understand the business aspects of how the technologies are used. I am always on the challenging slope of the learning curve. I can neither sit back and pontificate on the abstract nor enjoy the luxury of knowing every detail. As difficult as it is to be in this position, I can't think of a more stimulating business to be in.

    That is as far as I have thought things through. I would love to hear your feedback on the usefulness of the concept and the positioning of the different players. In particular, if you are a consumer of information, is the information marketplace serving you with the appropriate level of detail?

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