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Smartphone maker Realme is taking India and other emerging markets by storm

02:32 | 12 November

As Xiaomi widens its smartphone lead over Samsung in India, a new competitor is increasingly posing a challenge.

Realme, a one-and-half-year-old smartphone vendor that spun out of Oppo, commanded 14.3% of the world’s second largest smartphone market in the quarter that ended in September, research firm IDC said on Monday.

While Xiaomi, with 27.1% of the local smartphone market share, still dominates the market, the volume of handsets that Realme has shipped in India rose at a staggering 401.3% since the same period last year, according to IDC.

Market share of smartphone vendors in India

What’s fascinating about Realme’s expansion in India is just how closely it is replicating Xiaomi’s playbook in the country. Like Xiaomi, Realme for a year sold phones only through an online channel to cut overhead costs. Last quarter, the company began selling phones in India through offline stores, which still account for more than two-thirds of all smartphone sales.

In terms of online-only shipment, the company’s market share has ballooned to 26.5% in Q3 2019 from 16.5% in Q2 this year, the research firm said.

Realme has launched more than a dozen aggressively priced smartphone models so far, all priced between $80 to $240 — the sweet spot in the local market. In fact, IDC says Realme’s C2, 3i and 3 models — priced between $80 and $110 — were the top-selling phones for the company in Q3 this year.

Like Xiaomi’s handsets, Realme smartphones pack above the punch — sporting some of the highest-end hardware modules for their price range. The $80 Realme C2 features a six-inch HD+ display, 3+2 rear megapixel cameras, 4,000 mAh battery, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of expandable storage — and it supports 4G networks and has a facial unlock feature.

Other markets

Realme today operates in 18 countries, including its home market China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Egypt. In May this year, the company entered the European region.

In a report Counterpoint shared with its clients recently, the research firm said that based on the number of smartphones that Realme has shipped, the company’s rank went from 47th in Q3 2018 to 7th as of September this year. By shipping more than 10 million smartphones, the Chinese firm’s shipment grew by a whopping 808% during this period, the research firm said.

India and Indonesia accounted for more than 80% of smartphones that Realme has shipped to date, according to Counterpoint.

“We expect realme to become a serious contender in the market next year as growth will continue in emerging markets and online channels. The value for money proposition is also powerful in times of stagnant economic growth globally,” Counterpoint analysts wrote.

The aggressive growth of Realme hasn’t gone unnoticed with Xiaomi. The two companies have already exchanged testy words with one another and made allegations.

And you thought smartphone wars were over.

 


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Alibaba’s Singles’ Day sales top $38 billion

19:13 | 11 November

After 24 hours of frenzied buying and selling, and weeks of advertising and promotions before it, the Alibaba Group said today its sales hit another record high on Singles’ Day, the biggest shopping day on the planet.

The Chinese e-commerce giant said its 11th Singles’ Day event sold goods worth 268 billion yuan, or $38.3 billion, easily exceeding last year’s record $30.7 billion haul. Electronics gadgets and fashion items were among the most sold goods this year, company executives said.

More than half a billion people from a number of countries participate in the event, which is China’s equivalent to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Except, Singles’ Day is much larger. The five-day Black Friday clocked under $25 billion in sales last year. Alibaba Group said earlier today that it had netted its first $1 billion in sales this year in just 68 seconds.

The shopping glitz hosted a number of celebrities including Taylor Swift and Asian pop icon GEM to generate buzz. This year, the Hangzhou-headquartered firm has also focused on live-streaming via its platform, a phenomenon that has gained significant traction in China.

In a live stream, Kim Kardashian announced last week that her fragrance brand KKW will be sold on Tmall this Singles’ Day.

One figure who was missing from the action was Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, who retired in September this year. In previous years, Ma has not only just delivered speech but also put on performances for employees and customers.

At a press briefing an hour ago, Alibaba Chief Technology Officer Jeff Zhang described 11.11 as an “airplane flying at turbo speed,” adding that the company has been improving the supposed engine for years.

 


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China Roundup: facial recognition lawsuit and cashless payments for foreigners

20:00 | 10 November

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, a lawsuit sparked a debate over the deployment of China’s pervasive facial recognition; meanwhile, in some good news, foreigners in China can finally experience cashless payment just like locals.

China’s first lawsuit against face scans

Many argue that China holds an unfair advantage in artificial intelligence because of its citizens’ willingness to easily give up personal data desired by tech companies. But a handful of people are surely getting more privacy-conscious.

This week, a Chinese law professor filed what looks like the country’s first lawsuit against the use of AI-powered face scans, according to Qianjiang Evening News, a local newspaper in the eastern province of Zhejiang. In dispute is the decision by a privately-owned zoo to impose mandatory facial recognition on admission control for all annual pass holders.

“I’ve always been conservative about gathering facial biometrics data. The collection and use of facial biometrics involve very uncertain security risks,” the professor told the paper, adding that he nonetheless would accept such requirement from the government for the purpose of “public interest.”

Both the government and businesses in China have aggressively embraced facial recognition in wide-ranging scenarios, be it to aid public security checks or speed up payments at supermarket checkouts. The technology will certainly draw more scrutiny from the public as it continues to spread. Already, the zoo case is garnering considerable attention. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, posts about the suit have generated some 100 million views and 10,000 comments in less than a week. Many share the professors’ concerns over potential leaks and data abuse.

Scan and pay like a local

The other technology that has become ubiquitous in China is cashless payments. For many years, foreign visitors without a Chinese bank account have not been able to participate in the scan-and-pay craze that’s received extensive coverage in the west. But the fences are now down.

This week, two of the country’s largest payment systems announced almost at the same time that they are making it easier for foreigners to pay through their smartphones. Visitors can now pay at a selection of Chinese merchants after linking their overseas credit cards backed by Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Global Network or JCB to Tencent’s WeChat Pay.

“This is to provide travelers, holding 2.6 billion Mastercard cards around the world, with the ability to make simple and smart payments anytime, anywhere in China,” Mastercard said in a company statement.

Alipay, Alibaba’s affiliate, now also allows foreign visitors to top up RMB onto a prepaid virtual card issued by Bank of Shanghai with their international credit or debit cards. The move is a boon to the large swathes of foreign tourists in China, which numbered 141 million in 2018.

Also worth your attention

Didi’s controversial carpooling service is finally back this week, more than a year after the feature was suspended following two murders of female passengers. But the company, which has become synonymous with ride-hailing, was immediately put in the hot seat again. The relaunched feature noticeably included a curfew on women, who are only able to carpool between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. The public lambasted the decision as humiliating and discriminating against women, and Didi responded swiftly to extend the limit to both women and men. The murders were a huge backlash for the company, and it’s since tried to allay the concerns. At this point, the ride-hailing giant simply can’t afford another publicity debacle.

The government moves to stamp out monopolistic practices of some of China’s largest e-commerce platforms ahead of Single’s Day, the country’s busiest shopping festival. Merchants have traditionally been forced to be an exclusive supplier for one of these giants, but Beijing wants to put a stop to it and summoned Alibaba, JD.com, Pinduoduo (in Chinese) and other major retail players for talks on anti-competition this week.

Iqiyi, often hailed as the “Netflix of China,” reports widening net loss at $516.0 million in the third quarter ending September 30. The good news is it has added 25 million new subscribers to its video streaming platform. 99.2% of its 105.8 million user base are now paying members.

36Kr, one of China’s most prominent tech news sites, saw its shares tumble 10% in its Nasdaq debut on Friday. The company generates revenue from subscriptions, advertisements and enterprise “value-added” services. The last segment, according to its prospectus, is designed to “help established companies increase media exposure and brand awareness.”

 


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Microsoft uses AI to diagnose cervical cancer faster in India

16:00 | 9 November

More women in India die from cervical cancer than in any other country. This preventable disease kills around 67,000 women in India every year, more than 25% of the 260,000 deaths worldwide.

Effective screening and early detection can help reduce its incidence, but part of the challenge — and there are several parts — today is that the testing process to detect the onset of the disease is unbearably time-consuming.

This is because the existing methodology that cytopathologists use is time consuming to begin with, but also because there are very few of them in the nation. Could AI speed this up?

At SRL Diagnostics, the largest chain to offer diagnostic services in pathology and radiology in India, we are getting an early look of this. Last year, Microsoft partnered with SRL Diagnostics to co-create an AI Network for Pathology to ease the burden of cytopathologists and histopathologists.

SRL Diagnostics receives more than 100,000 Pap smear samples every year. About 98% of these samples are typically normal and only the remaining 2% samples require intervention. “We were looking for ways to ensure our cytopathologists were able to find those 2% abnormal samples faster,” explained Dr. Arnab Roy, Technical Lead for New Initiatives & Knowledge Management at SRL Diagnostics.

Cytopathologists at SRL Diagnostics studied digitally scanned versions of Whole Slide Imaging (WSI) slides, each comprising about 300-400 cells, manually and marked their observations, which were used as training data for Cervical Cancer Image Detection API.

A digitally scanned version of a Whole Slide Imaging (WSI) slide, which is used to train the AI model

Then there was the challenge of subjectivity. “Different cytopathologists examine different elements in a smear slide in a unique manner even if the overall diagnosis is the same. This is the subjectivity element in the whole process, which many a time is linked to the experience of the expert,” reveals Dr. Roy.

Manish Gupta, Principal Applied Researcher at Microsoft Azure Global Engineering, who worked closely with the team at SRL Diagnostics, said the idea was to create an AI algorithm that could identify areas that everybody was looking at and “create a consensus on the areas assessed.”

Cytopathologists across multiple labs and locations annotated thousands of tile images of cervical smear. They created discordant and concordant notes on each sample image.

“The images for which annotations were found to be discordant — that is if they were viewed differently by three team members — were sent to senior cytopathologists for final analysis,” Microsoft wrote in a blog post.

This week, the two revealed that their collaboration has started to show results. SRL Diagnostics has started an internal preview to use Cervical Cancer Image Detection API. The Cervical Cancer Image Detection API, which runs on Microsoft’s Azure, can quickly screen liquid-based cytology slide images for detection of cervical cancer in the early stages and return insights to pathologists in labs, the two said.

The AI model can now differentiate between normal and abnormal smear slides with accuracy and is currently under validation in labs for a period of three to six months. It can also classify smear slides based on the seven-subtypes of cervical cytopathological scale, the two wrote in a blog post.

During the internal preview period, the exercise will use more than half-a-million anonymized digital tile images. Following internal validation, the API will be previewed in external cervical cancer diagnostic workflows, including hospitals and other diagnostic centers.

“Cytopathologists now have to review fewer areas, 20 as of now, on a whole slide liquid-based cytology image and validate the positive cases thus bringing in greater efficiency and speeding up the initial screening process,” Microsoft wrote.

“The API has the potential of increasing the productivity of a cytopathology section by about four times. In a future scenario of automated slide preparation with assistance from AI, cytopathologists can do a job in two hours what would earlier take about eight hours!” Dr. Roy said.

SRL Diagnostics-Microsoft consortium said they are hopeful their APIs could find application in other fields of pathology such as diagnosis of kidney pathologies and in oral, pancreatic and liver cancers. The consortium also aims to expand its reach with tie-ups with private players and governments and expand the reach of the model even in remote geographies where the availability of histopathologists is a challenge.

The announcement this week is the latest example of Microsoft’s ongoing research work in India. The world’s second most populous nation has become a test bed for many American technology companies to build new products and services that solve local challenges as they look for their next billion users worldwide.

Last week, Microsoft announced its AI project was helping improve the way driving tests are conducted in India. The company has unveiled a score of tools for the Indian market in the last two years. Microsoft has previously developed tools to help farmers in India increase their crop yields and worked with hospitals to prevent avoidable blindness. Last year, the company partnered with Apollo Hospitals to create an AI-powered API customized to predict risk of heart diseases in India.

Also last year, the company also worked with cricket legend Anil Kumble to develop a tracking device that helps youngsters analyze their batting performance. Microsoft has also tied up with insurance firm ICICI Lombard to help it process customers’ repair claims and renew lapsed policies using an AI system.

 


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China’s news and data site 36Kr tumbles in its stock market debut

05:46 | 9 November

36Kr, a Chinese news and data website that tracks startups, fell 10% in its Nasdaq debut on Friday.

The disappointing debut followed 36Kr’s decision to slash the size of its offering from 3.6 million shares to 1.4 million and pricing its shares at $14.5, the bottom of marketed range. This meant that the firm, which had initially aimed to raise as much as $100 million, settled for $20 million. A company top executive said that even as the offering is smaller, it has great confidence in its stock’s future performance.

The nine-year-old Chinese company’s decision to list in the U.S., instead of doing so in Hong Kong especially during the ongoing trade war between the two nations also surprised many.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance on Friday, 36Kr founder and co-chairman Cheng-Cheng Liu said the company decided to go public on Nasdaq because “our team thinks the U.S. stock market is one of the most matured markets in the world. Also, we have business outside of China.”

36Kr provides financials on companies, market updates, and commentaries. It maintains an English website as well and makes money through ads and multiple subscription offerings. The company could look to expand its business in North America in the future, said Liu. He also said that the company is betting that “the U.S. and China will be friends again.”

Liu said the recent instances such disappointing debut of Uber and tremendous fall of We, which postponed its public debut, should not affect 36Kr’s performance because unlike other companies 36Kr is “not cash burning” and has been profitable. In the first half of 2019, 36Kr generated a revenue of $29.4 million, a 179% year-over-year increase

The company, often called “Crunchbase* of China,” counts Ant Financial, Matrix Partners China, e.ventures, and Infinity Ventures among its investors and has raised over $100 million in venture fund. Crunchbase, which late last month raised $30 million, started as part of TechCrunch and has since spun out.

 


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Relocating Indonesian capital will impact nation’s startup ecosystem

02:13 | 9 November

Hugh Harsono Contributor
Hugh Harsono is a former financial analyst currently serving as a U.S. Army officer.

Recently reelected, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced a desire to move the nation’s capital from Jakarta to the East Kalimantan region, citing environmental concerns, the most exigent of these being the fact that Jakarta is literally sinking due to the uncontrolled extraction of groundwater. Widodo said he wished to separate Indonesia’s government from its business and economic hub in Jakarta.

However, what would a move from Jakarta do to Indonesia’s burgeoning startup economy?

Shifting administrative governmental hubs

According to Widodo, studies have determined that the best site for the proposed new capital is between North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kertanegara, both located in East Kalimantan. The basis of this selection is due to studies highlighting the region’s relative protection from natural disasters, especially when compared to other regions. This would definitely be a benefit for the governmental heart of Indonesia, ensuring continuous administrative functions in a disaster-prone region. Other governments have separated administrative centers from their economic hubs with varying degrees of success, with some examples being Brazil’s creation of Brasília, as well as Korea’s projected move from Seoul to Sejong.

What is most interesting to note from prior examples is that these newer branched-out cities are non-surprisingly, heavily government-centric. In Brasília, roles tied to the government make up nearly 40% of all jobs, while in Sejong, a lack of facilities like public transit and commercial mall space cause many to commute into Sejong for government work, instead of permanently settling in the area. Given the semi-undeveloped nature of East Kalimantan, these anecdotes are quite troubling if the government is actually moving to North Penajam Paser or Kutai Kertanegara.

These facts raise the question of economic impacts of such governmental moves. In fact, one may even opine that while these moves do allow for governmental growth, ultimately, they may hurt the country economically due to a divestment between both government and economic hubs. In this specific instance, it is most important to analyze the impact of such a move on Indonesia’s startup economy, as the nation is one the world’s leaders in startup growth.

Indonesia’s startup economy

Indonesia has emerged as a startup hub within Southeast Asia in recent years, with its population of over 260 million marking it as the world’s fourth-most populous country. Additionally, Indonesia’s mobile-first population has enabled the full embrace of the internet era, with 95% of all internet users in Indonesia connected to the web via a mobile device.

Similarly, startup growth has boomed in the island archipelago, with several Indonesian-based unicorns disrupting local, regional, and global economies. Softbank-backed ecommerce giant Tokopedia is currently in talks for a pre-IPO funding round, while emerging super-app Gojek controls significant portions of the ride-sharing industry in Asia, simultaneously expanding into separate industries to include digital payments, food delivery, and even video-streaming. Additionally, online travel portal Traveloka (in which Expedia has a minority stake) has recently entered the financial services space, furthering its impact within Asia. These specific examples of high-growth startups demonstrate a population hungry for innovation, further driving the developing startup economy.

 


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Alibaba to invest $3.3B to bump its stake in logistics unit Cainiao

13:17 | 8 November

Alibaba is doubling down on its logistics affiliate Cainiao, two years after acquiring a majority stake in the firm. The Chinese giant said today it would invest an additional 23.3 billion yuan (about $3.33 billion) to raise its equity in Cainiao to 63% from 51%.

Cainiao was co-founded by Alibaba in 2013 to bring organization in Chinese logistics, particularly around e-commerce deliveries. And it has delivered: Today Cainiao powers most of Alibaba’s logistics needs in the nation and elsewhere. Department store owner Intime Group, conglomerate Fosun Group, and a number of other logistics firms also own stakes in Cainiao.

In 2017, Alibaba said it was bumping its stake in Cainiao to 51% from 47%, and at the time committed to spend more than 100 billion yuan to expand the logistics business over five years.

More to follow…

 


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Google hires former Disney and Star executive to head its India business

11:28 | 8 November

Google said on Friday it has appointed Sanjay Gupta, a former top executive with Disney India and Star, as the manager and vice president of sales and operations for its India business.

Gupta will be replacing Rajan Anandan, who left the company to serve VC fund Sequoia Capital India as a managing director in April this year.

Gupta served as a managing director at Disney India and Star (which now Disney owns) before joining the Android -maker. He helped Star make a major push in the digital consumers business through Hotstar, where he aggressively worked on partnerships and licensing for cricket rights and other content.

Hotstar, which is now owned by Disney, has cashed in on the popularity of cricket and reported 300 million users earlier this year. (Facebook roped in Ajit Mohan, the former chief executive of Hotstar, to head its India operations late last year.) Gupta also held top executive roles at other companies including Bharti Airtel telecom network.

Sanjay Gupta, a former top executive at Disney and Star, is now the head of Google’s India business

In a statement, Gupta said, “it’s an exciting opportunity to leverage the power of technology to solve some of India’s unique challenges and make Internet an engine of economic growth for people and communities. I am happy to join the passionate teams across Google and look forward to contributing to India’s digital journey as it becomes an innovation hub for the world.”

When Anandan, a long-time influential and widely respected Google executive, left the company earlier this year, Google said Vikas Agnihotri, who is the director of sales for the firm’s India operations, would be taking over. For Google, this was the latest high profile departure in Asia. Karim Temsamani, head of Asia Pacific (APAC) at Google, also left the company earlier this year.

Even as India contributes little to Google’s bottom line, the company has grown increasingly focused on India and other Asian markets to develop products and services that solve local problems and address barriers that are hindering growth in these markets.

In a statement, Scott Beaumont, President of Google APAC, said company’s operation in India “is important and strategic for its own sake but also for the innovation which then feeds breakthroughs elsewhere in Google.”

Gupta will also have to oversee some major challenges, including the fast growth of Facebook’s advertising business in India and an antitrust issue with the local regulator.

 


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China’s Didi to relaunch Hitch carpooling service this month

13:31 | 6 November

Chinese ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing said today it will conduct a trial relaunch of its Hitch carpooling service in seven major Chinese cities with additional safety features by end of the month, more than a year after suspending the service following the murder of a female passenger by her Didi driver.

The relaunch of popular service Hitch, which was started in 2015 and has clocked more than a billion rides, follows a “comprehensive safety review and product revamp,” Didi said Wednesday. The company claimed its system can now identify high-risk scenarios and trip anomalies as well as support effective intervention. There’s also a new in-app Safety Assistant that shows detailed information on drivers and passenger and offers real-time support from safety specialists.

Additionally, during the trial, Hitch service will only allow trips under 50 kilometres (31 miles) in metro areas between 5am and 8pm for female users. Male users can enjoy the service till 11pm. The cities where Hitch will conduct the trial are Beijing, Harbin, Taiyuan, Shijiazhuang, Changzhou, Shenyang, and Nantong.

Didi suspended the carpooling service after the murder of a female passenger in August 2018, a second such incident after another passenger was murdered only a few months prior. At the time, Didi also issued an apology for its “disappointing mistakes.” (Didi’s other carpooling and general offerings were not suspended.)

Chinese transport ministry lambasted Didi for the incidents, saying the firm had “lost control” of its drivers and vehicles. It said there had been multiple lapses in offline management of people and cars, that had resulted in criminal and security cases. Didi said today it had alerted the authority about the trial re-run.

Hitch is a modern take on hitchhiking that lets a passenger ride for free with a driver headed in their direction. Passengers are encouraged to leave a tip to cover petrol, but the idea is to make each car ride more efficient. Didi doesn’t monetize the service, but it is a strategic way to attract passengers and drivers who may use other services that the firm does draw revenue from.

The Chinese firm did not mention last year’s unfortunate incidents today, but noted that Hitch has become a “popular day-to-day commuter ride-sharing among China’s rising middle class.”

“Since then it has also become an important inter-city mobility solution as the country’s sustained urbanization process continues to drive regional integration and mass migration. During China’s 2018 Lunar New Year, 30.7 million Chinese took Hitch for their annual family reunion over the seven-day break,” it said.

Didi, which was valued at $56 billion earlier this year and claims to have amassed over 550 million users globally, hasn’t been able to turn a profit. The relaunch of carpooling service could put the company, which has been backed by SoftBank and Uber, on the right track.

 


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Xiaomi unveils Mi Watch, its $185 Apple Watch clone

14:45 | 5 November

Xiaomi, which competes with Apple for the top position in the wearable market, today made the competition a little more interesting. The Chinese electronics giant has launched its first smartwatch called the Mi Watch that looks strikingly similar to the Apple Watch in its home market.

The Mi Watch, like the Apple Watch, has a square body with a crown and a button. It sports a 1.78-inch AMOLED display (326 ppi) that offers the always-on capability and runs MIUI for Watch, the company’s homegrown wearable operating system based on Google’s Wear OS.

Inside the metal housing — aluminum alloy with a matte finish — are microphones on two sides for recording audio and taking calls, and a loudspeaker on the left to listen to music or incoming calls. The Mi Watch, which comes in one size — 44mm — has a ceramic back, which is where the charging pins and a heart rate sensor are also placed.

The Mi Watch is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 3100 4G chipset with four Cortex A7 cores clocked at 1.2GHz, coupled with 1GB of RAM and 8GB storage. The company says its first smartwatch supports cellular connectivity (through an eSIM), Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and NFC for payments. The Mi Watch should last for 36 hours on a single charge on cellular mode, the company claimed.

The Mi Watch will also help users track their sleep, performance while swimming, cycling and running, and also measure their heart rate.

Over 40 popular Chinese apps such as TikTok and QQ Messenger are available for the Mi Watch on day one. The company’s own XiaoAI assistant is the default virtual digital assistant on the watch.

The Mi Watch is priced at CNY 1,299 ($185) and will go on sale in the country next week. There’s no word on international availability just yet, but if the past is any indication, Xiaomi will likely bring the device to India, Singapore, Indonesia and other markets in coming quarters.

The company says a variant of the Mi Watch that sports a sapphire glass and stainless steel will go on sale next month in China. It is priced at CNY 1,999 ($285).

 


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