Review: It's strike 3 for Microsoft's Windows Phone

The HTC 8X and Nokia Lumia 800 series are solid smartphones running a dubious mobile OS

Three strikes and you're out! The third version of Windows Phone -- Windows Phone 8 -- finally adds basic compatibility with corporate Exchange server security settings, but not much else. Despite an initially enticing look, Windows Phone's user interface remains a frustrating blend of simplistic and difficult, with occasional touches of brilliance that render the poor usability even more frustrating.

You really have to wonder what the Windows Phone team does most of the year, given how little significant change there has been from 2010's Windows Phone 7. Certainly, it's not making a serious effort to compete with Apple's iPhone 5 or the leading crop of Android smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III, both of which are years ahead of Windows Phone. A year ago, I compared Windows 7.5 to Android 2.3 "Gingerbread," which was significantly lagging iOS 5 at the time, and found that Windows Phone 7.5 wasn't even as good as Android 2.3. A year later, Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" is out and giving iOS 6 a run for its money, but Windows Phone 8 has barely moved.

[ See how the Nokia Lumia 800 series and HTC 8X compare to the iPhone and leading Android smartphones. | Learn how Windows Phone 8's security capabilities compare to iOS and Android. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

What's new in Windows Phone 8? As noted, the biggest improvement for users is support for on-device encryption and some Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, both typically required for corporate usage. The browser is now Internet Explorer 10, which is a little more HTML5-savvy than the previous IE9. The home screen tiles now have two additional sizes: a quarter-size tile so that you can cram more tiles and thus scroll less to find them, and a double-wide tile for live tiles that display a lot of information that's otherwise too hard to read. (Tap and hold a tile until an arrow icon appears at its lower-right corner; tap it to toggle through the three sizes.) The lock screen now displays alerts, like iOS and Android, and the Kid's Corner mode lets you create a custom workspace for others to use, typically with a limited set of apps.

Windows Phone 8 also integrates several Microsoft services -- the Xbox Music and Xbox Video stores, as well as SkyDrive cloud storage, Skype messaging system, and Microsoft user accounts -- that Windows 8 supports. The new Wallet app lets you collect loyalty and other electronic cards, similar to the Passbook service in Apple's iOS 6. Hardware support is improved: Windows Phone 8 devices can now use SD cards and have screens with 15:9 or 16:9 ratios. Near-field communication (NFC) is supported by the OS, so hardware makers can now make phones that support NFC-enabled mobile payments or data sharing (like Android and BlackBerry OS).

Hardware: HTC 8X versus Nokia Lumia 800I've been testing Windows Phone 8 on two of the three smartphones in the United States that support it: the HTC Windows Phone 8X and the Nokia Lumia 800 series. (The Nokia Lumia 920, whch was unavailable for testing, also runs Windows Phone 8.) Before I get into the details of Windows Phone 8 itself, let me compare the two devices. The two smartphones are fairly similar, as Microsoft gives Windows Phone makers very little leeway to differentiate. But the Lumia 800 is definitely a lower-end device, whereas the HTC 8X aims higher.

The HTC 8X is thin, weighs 4.6 ounces, and has a contoured, colored, easy-grip case, whereas the Lumia 800 is thick, weighs 5.1 ounces, and has a blockier all-black case. The HTC 8X is much more comfortable to hold. Both have 4.3-inch screens, but the HTC 8X has a higher-resolution display (342 pixels per inch versus the Lumia 800's 217 ppi). Both use the 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU. Both have an 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash. The HTC 8X has a 2.1-megapixel, 1080p front camera whereas the Lumia 800 has just a 1.2-megapixel, 720p front camera.

The HTC 8X's screen is crisp, and the color balance very nice when playing back movies. Its speakers also produced clean, loud, well-balanced audio, despite their tiny size. The Lumia 800's screen is not as bright, resulting in muddier video, and its speakers are quieter and produce flatter sound than the HTC 8X.

The HTC 8X has either 8GB or 16GB of storage, and no expansion capability, whereas the Lumia 800 has just 8GB of internal storage but can accept an SD card with up to 32GB of additional storage. Both support 5GHz and 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks. But neither has video-out capabilities as iPhones and many Android smartphones do. Battery life for both is adequate, with a full day's use per charge. The HTC 8X's battery rundown is similar to Android: It lasts about 24 hours when idle, like most Android smartphones, whereas the Lumia 800 uses little energy when idle, providing several days of power, like an iPhone.

Lumia 800-series models are available for AT&T (as the Lumia 820), T-Mobile (as the 810), and Verizon Wireless (as the 822), and the HTC 8X models are available for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Keep in mind that T-Mobile has generally poor coverage; both of my test devices were the T-Mobile models, and I frequently couldn't get data service in either San Francisco or the Central Coast region of California for the week I used them. T-Mobile also lacks LTE service, so the Lumia 810 and the T-Mobile version of the HTC 8X don't have LTE-capable radios.

Although the Lumia 800 series skimps on the hardware side, it does come with a raft of useful Nokia apps -- including Transit for mass-transit routing, Creative Studio for enhancing photos, Cinemagraph for animating photos, Panorama for taking auto-stitched panoramic photos (a feature available in several iOS 6 and Android 4.x smartphones), Transfer My Data for Bluetooth copying of contacts from other devices, and the beta Drive+ for GPS navigation. The HTC 8X has a few basic extras of its own, including a unit converter, flashlight, and photo enhancer.

At AT&T and Verizon, the HTC 8X costs $550 for the 16GB model, while the Lumia 800 series costs $400; a two-year contract drops $350 from those prices. At T-Mobile, the list prices are $50 more, but the discount for a two-year contract also increases by $50. Of the two models I tested, the HTC 8X is the more appealing smartphone. You might consider the $450 Nokia Lumia 920 instead; it has beefier hardware as well as Nokia's special apps, but it's also both larger and heavier than the 8X and Lumia 800 series.

Business connectivity: Decent email, mixed calendar, good contacts, poor office productivityWindows Phone 8 is the first version of Windows Phone that a corporation could seriously consider adopting, thanks to its support of basic EAS policies. The good news is that for basic information worker usage, Windows Phone 8 is adequate, even if less capable in total than what iOS and Android offer.

The Outlook email app supports Exchange, IMAP, and POP accounts, with quick setup options for Gmail and Hotmail. I like Windows Phone's way of handling message groups such as unread and flagged messages: Just swipe to the right to see lists of unread messages; repeat to see flagged messages. It also implements a color highlight on the subject of unread messages in the All message list, but the Unread list is simpler. To save on cellular data usage, attachments don't auto-download, though you can specify that they do when connected to Wi-Fi. Windows Phone 8 can open Zipped attachments (like Android but unlike iOS).

If you have multiple email accounts, Windows Phone 8 grows hinky. You either have to link them (select Linked Inboxes in the More menu; that's the ... menu) so that their inboxes appear merged in the Outlook app, or you have to switch to folder view (via the More menu) to see each account's inbox and folders, then tap the one you want. It's inefficient and far more complicated than how iOS and Android do it.

Outlook's capabilities for working with emails match those in iOS and Android. But the way the options are presented is confusing. Some options are available as icons, while others are available as textual menus via the More menu. Essentially, the ones Microsoft think you will use commonly are available as buttons, but the rest require access through a menu. That's similar to how Android has long worked, but the most recent version of Android has adopted iOS's easier approach: Put all pertinent controls in front of you, rather than force you down menu paths.

Further, Windows Phone 8's icons are often unclear, and their labels hard to read. When you are using the More menu, the options Microsoft thinks you're less likely to use are displayed in readable text, but the ones it thinks you're more likely to use are displayed as harder-to-comprehend icons. That's really an issue of poor iconography, but it's emblematic of Windows Phone 8's UI flaws.

The Calendar app is a mix of good and bad. When creating events, you can invite attendees; specify the date, time, and duration; set an alert; add notes; and choose the calendar. For repeating events, you can set a variety of patterns such as every week, every Monday, or every 25th day of the month -- the same as Android.  By comparison, iOS can't do patterns such as every Monday or every 25th day of the month. But you can't set a second alarm or specific the time zone for the appointment (Android and iOS can do both). However, only Windows Phone 8 lets you mark an appointment as private, so its contents aren't visible to others in shared calendars.

Where Calendar in Windows Phone 8 goes off the rails is in its views. There are two: agenda (the default) and month. Worse, when you switch to month view, there's no obvious way to shift back to agenda view -- you have to tap the physical Back key on the smartphone. iOS and Android support day and week views, and both make it easy to switch views via onscreen controls. Also, both iOS and Android show a scrollable agenda for the currently selected day, whereas Windows Phone 8 lacks this convenience.

The People app in Windows Phone 8 is its strongest suit for business users. The People app not only provides access to your contacts, it's also a hub for social updates from those people, letting you see in one combined location the tweets and posts from all your contacts, as well as the individual tweets and posts from any contact. People works largely as it did in Windows Phone 7.5, except now it has the notion of rooms, where you can create invitation-only groups for shared chats, notes, photos, and calendars -- a nice advancement. You can also create groups to monitor the social posts of certain members. My only beef with People is that the more contacts you have, the harder it is to navigate among them. There's no quick-jump capability as in iOS and Android; instead you have to use the app's search function.

Windows Phone 8, like its predecessors, includes a version of Microsoft Office, with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint document support in the Office app and synced note-taking in the OneNote app. They're all primitive.

OneNote is fine if you use OneNote on a PC, Mac, iOS device, or Android device, as it syncs across all devices attached to your Microsoft account. But iOS's Notes app is more flexible because it can sync not only across iCloud devices but across IMAP accounts, too. OneNote does let you apply character and list formatting to your notes, unlike Notes. (Android has no stock note-taking app.)

Office in Windows Phone 8 has been improved to support basic formatting for Word files you create, but that's it -- there's no support for paragraph formatting, much less tables, revisions tracking, or comments. Excel offers more capabilities for files you create in it, including sorting, chart creating, and formula editing. For PowerPoint, all you can do is add or edit notes to presentations created elsewhere. When I tried to open Word or Excel files created on a PC, Office told me consistently there were features in those files it could not handle and, thus, could not edit the files. You might have some Word or Excel documents that Office for Windows Phone 8 can open, but it's not likely.

Also, from within Office, you can access only files from Microsoft's own SkyDrive and Office 365 cloud services, as well as from SharePoint servers and email attachments. You can open Office from other apps, such as the Box cloud storage service, but you have to start in those apps to see the files. Quickoffice for Android and iOS aren't biased in this way, and even Apple's iWork apps for iOS can directly open files from outside Apple's proprietary iCloud and iTunes from third-party services that support the WebDAV protocol.

Neither iOS nor Android comes with a free office productivity app, but the iWork suite (the $10 Pages, $10 Keynote, and $10 Numbers) for iOS and $20 Quickoffice Pro for iOS and Android are very capable editing apps worth their small cost. Unfortunately, there are no equivalent apps as yet for Windows Phone 8. Because of Office's deficiencies, you can't depend on it to do basic edits or fixes in a pinch as you can on an iPhone or Android smartphone. Basically, Office for Windows Phone 8 is useless.

Web and Internet: Incompatibilities ruin the experienceMicrosoft wants you to believe that IE10 is a modern browser, able to hold its own against Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Apple Safari -- all three of which moved quickly to support HTML5 while Microsoft continued to focus on a nonstandard, proprietary engine. Sadly, IE10 is more of that same proprietary incompatibility. I was shocked how poorly IE10 in Windows Phone works with websites such as the InfoWorld and Cnet mobile sites that the mobile versions of Chrome and Safari, as well as the stock Android browser, handle with ease. Other sites, such as Google Drive, were rendered at unreadably tiny sizes -- unlike in iOS or Android. (Windows Phone 7.5's IE9 had the same poor rendering on the same sites.)

The screens below show how Windows Phone 8 renders the InfoWorld and Cnet mobile sites compared to what you get in Android or iOS.

    The InfoWorld and Cnet mobile websites on Windows Phone 8's IE10 (left) and Android 4.1's Internet browser (right); the sites on iOS's Safari 6.0 look like they do on Android.

Windows Phone 8's IE10 is the only browser I've ever used that could not at least open our content management system's website. Every Android, BlackBerry OS, Chrome OS, OS X, WebOS, and Windows browser I've used have opened the Web page, even if some had trouble with its JavaScript and AJAX controls.

The HTML5test.com website's automated tests bear out Microsoft's browser backwardness. IE10 in Windows Phone 8 scored 320 out of 450 possible points, versus 434 for the stock Internet browser in Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," 390 for Google Chrome in Android 4.1, and 386 for Apple Safari in iOS 6. Windows 8's IE10 is likewise a laggard for HTML5 -- scoring 320 versus Chrome 23's 448, Safari 6.0's 378, and Firefox 16's 372 -- but it at least renders websites correctly.

The only advanced features in Windows Phone 8's IE10 are its SmartScreen filtering of suspect sites and the ability to configure whether IE10 self-identifies as a mobile browser or desktop browser, which in some cases can help you get around sites it can't correctly render (Android has a similar feature). You get basic bookmarking, as well as the ability to add bookmarks as home screen icons, but no reading list capability as in iOS or Android, no ability to create bookmark folders as in iOS, and no ability to sync bookmarks to other devices.

You can share URLs via email, messaging, and social media, and you can search within a Web page -- as iOS and Android also offer. Like the competition, Windows Phone 8 lets you control how cookies are handled, but there are no options to manage other personal information such as "do not track," browser history, cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, or debugging. iOS has all of these controls and Android has all but "do not track." Nor does Windows Phone let you choose among search engines -- there's just Microsoft's own Bing.

Finally, the Windows Phone 8 devices were unable to connect to InfoWorld's certificate-secured Wi-Fi network, even with certificate validation disabled in the Wi-Fi settings -- yet Windows Phone 7.5 had no trouble doing so. They all connected fine to regular Wi-Fi networks, such as those using WPA-2 passwords.

Apps: Limited choices, lightweight capabilitiesEveryone knows that iOS's App Store likely has an app for that, and the Google Play market for Android has a good general-interest selection for news, games, utilities, and more. There's much less in the Windows Phone Store -- no productivity apps, for example. For categories where apps do exist, such as cloud storage, banking, and RDP apps for Windows, there are few choices, if any.

Most apps are lightweight or basic, including some of the apps that come with Windows Phone 8, such as Alarms, Calculator, Maps, Phone, and Photos. That's perfectly fine for many apps, such as newsreaders and weather programs, but not for the likes of Office.

Of course, not all Windows Phone 8 apps are slackers. The Camera app has a strong set of capture settings, rivaling that of a digital SLR. As previously mentioned, the People app is one of Windows Phone's most capable apps. And the Wallet app looks intriguing, with more payment capabilities than Apple's Passbook and the same ability to store tickets and loyalty cards. But given that very few services support Wallet, it's too soon to call it an advantage. Finally, Gannett's USA Today app for Windows Phone is nicely designed for readability and navigation -- an area where its iOS and Android versions have grown increasingly worse with each subsequent update.

A few apps are problematic. For example, the Music + Video app distorted videos, compressing their width, even after I toggled between the fit-to-screen and fill-the-screen modes; iOS and Android devices played the same video undistorted. HTC's own Weather app is largely unusable because the weather conditions' tiny white text is superimposed over often light-hued moving images of skies, sunshine, snow, rain, and clouds -- rendering it unreadable. And the Nokia Transit app's routing for public transit seems determined to send you on the longest itinerary possible, at least in San Francisco.

Overall, iOS has the richest apps, as well as the broadest selection. Android has typically less-sophisticated apps and a decent selection. Windows Phone has the least-sophisticated apps on average and a small selection.

iOS's multitasking dock lets you easily see which apps are running and switch among them, and Android 4.1's Recent Apps tray does the same with a more visual punch. Windows Phone 8 has no equivalent, so switching among apps means finding them on the home screen or the apps screen, both of which involve lots and lots of scrolling if you have numerous tiles and apps. You can arrange the app tiles on the home screen where desired, as you can in iOS and Android, to help limit the back and forth. But you can't set multiple home screens, as you can in iOS and Android, to group your apps, nor can you create app folders as you can in iOS. All of this means that finding and switching apps in Windows Phone 8 takes more work than it should.

Android and iOS have long offered a notifications capability that apps can use to keep you updated on status, and iOS adopted the notification tray approach pioneered by Android in iOS 5. Windows Phone doesn't provide such notifications; it expects you'll use the home screen's tiles to track what's happening. Likewise, iOS's App Store app shows you when there are app updates available, while Android's Google Play app has a list of apps with available updates and lets you set apps to auto-update. Windows Phone has none of these conveniences; you only find out an app has an update when you open it and get an alert telling you to go to the Windows Store.

Like its predecessor, Windows Phone 8 supports dictation (pioneered by Android and added to iOS 6) and voice-based queries (pioneered by iOS 5's Siri and added to Android 4.1). The dictation capability in Windows Phone 8 works as well as in its competitors, and the voice recognition is more accurate than in Windows Phone 7.5. But its voice-based query is primitive. It supports only a few basic commands, such as "open application" or "call Bob," relegating all other queries to Web searches. Android and iOS both have a much richer vocabulary and can handle free-form inquiries such as "what's on my calendar?" or "how hot will it be tomorrow?" Windows Phone 8 has a long way to go to play in the voice game's big leagues.

For businesses, Windows Phone 8 adds a welcome feature: the ability to connect a device to a corporate app store, for easy dissemination of work-issued apps. Android has no such concept, and iOS's reliance on the use of OS X Server or third-party application management tools is more complicated for both IT and users.

If you're a Mac user, Microsoft has a free Windows Phone app in the Mac App Store to sync videos, music, photos, and podcasts to your smartphone. Unfortunately, it doesn't sync music or podcasts; the late-October update for Windows Phone 8 broke that functionality, and it's unclear when Microsoft will fix the problem.

Usability: Form rules over functionWhen people first see Windows Phone, they usually remark on its clean, colorful tile interface. The bold look is appealing, but it soon loses its luster in daily use. You realize quickly how Microsoft is all about superficial impressions, not optimal user interactions. For example, the tiles are often hard to tell apart, as almost all are the same color. Yes, the icons differ, but not as distinctly as the multicolor icons do in Android and iOS. And live tiles -- those that display information such as the current time (the HTC weather app) or date (the Calendar app) -- typically have no identifiable icons, so you have to figure out what app is hiding behind that particular status. The more you have, the harder it is to keep them straight.

As the number of your apps and tiles increases, the more tiresome the scrolling becomes. Endless scrolling is part and parcel of the Windows Phone experience (and now of the Windows 8 experience). Unlike iOS, Android, and Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 doesn't have a simple way to search your apps or tiles.

The preference of form over function is evident in other ways as well. Although some labels are very large, text in the Windows Phone 8 UI is usually tiny and hard to read at a glance, especially if you're over 40. I strongly encourage you to go into the accessibility settings and increase the text size used for email, messages, and other common apps. This won't solve the problem of tiny UI text but will at least make more apps usable for their core content. As I mentioned earlier, the iconography is often obscure, and when those indistinct icons are small, such as the copy and paste functions in Office, you're left to guess what will happen when you tap one.

Windows Phone 8 defaults to white-on-black display of text, which is also hard to read for older eyes. Fortunately, you can reverse that ill-considered default in the Settings app.

Windows Phone 8 also lacks quick access to common functions. There's no notification tray that lets you adjust Wi-Fi settings or enter airplane mode, as Android has. There's no quick list of recent messages and appointments, as iOS and Android have. There's no multitasking dock or lock-screen setting for quick controls over music playback, as iOS offers. Although the lock screen can display a recent email or message, you can't tap a notification to open its app, as you can in iOS, and you can't see multiple notifications for multiple apps, as you can in iOS and Android.

Windows Phone 8 is especially bad at text selection. Typically, when you tap and hold text to insert the text cursor, the text is selected instead. I'm not sure what makes Windows Phone 8 insert the text cursor rather than select text -- it's always trial and error for me -- but once you get into text-insertion mode, don't expect to be able to place the text cursor where you want. The text-cursor icon appears a line or two above your finger, well away from your text. Because the text is obscured by your finger, you can't tell where the text-insertion point really is.

Here's what works in practice: Release your finger and backspace to where you want to go, or try again if the cursor is in front of the desired location. By contrast, iOS has that wonderful magnifier when you tap and hold on text that allows precise cursor insertion with little effort, and Android's quick tap on text produces an easily movable pointer for precise cursor location.

Although Windows Phone 8's usability doesn't scale well as you increase your demands on the OS and its apps, the UI is well suited for basic usage. Nnontechies are apt to prefer it if they focus their usage on email, social networking, messaging, a few widgets, and the like.

Security and management: Finally, but barely, in the gameEver since Windows Phone 7 debuted in fall 2010, I've been dumbfounded as to why it had no support for on-device encryption, VPNs, or EAS policies. After all, the Windows Mobile OS that Microsoft sold for a decade had all three, and Microsoft invented the notion of EAS policies. Apple's adoption of EAS in 2010 soon made iOS the most corporate-capable mobile device on the market after the BlackBerry. About a year ago, Google's Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" also began offering basic security and management capabilities -- but not Windows Phone 7.5.

Windows Phone 8 finally supports on-device encryption (it's on by default and can't be disabled, just like iOS) and EAS policies. But it has just the basic capabilities, falling far behind both iOS and Android. A company with simple policies, such as for password complexity, will be fine with Windows Phone 8, but if your employer has stricter controls, don't count on being able to use your Windows Phone 8 device to access corporate systems.

Windows Phone 8 still doesn't support VPNs.

Microsoft restricts app installations to apps from its Windows Phone Store, which it curates just as Apple does the iOS App Store. The chances of malware finding its way to Windows Phone devices is very small, unlike the malware-infested Google Play market for Android.

Windows Phone 8 also can back up your app settings to your Microsoft account, along with photos taken by the device, easing recovery if your device is lost, stolen, or damaged. iOS and Android have similar capabilities, with iOS providing full backup via iTunes of all device contents. Like iOS, Windows Phone has long had a "find my phone" function to locate a lost or stolen device and, optionally, lock or wipe it. (Android requires the use of a third-party app to do this.)

One longtime knock on smartphones has been that you can't set up a separate user account or safe zone for kids; for example, you may want to lend your device to your child so that they can play games when waiting in line. Windows Phone 8 debuts the Kid's Corner feature that lets you set up a set of approved apps for your kid to use, with a PIN code that locks out the rest of your device's capabilities. The new Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean" provides separate user accounts on tablets, but not smartphones. Likewise, Apple's less-capable Guided Access feature in the iPad's iOS 6 isn't available for the iPhone.

Windows Phone 8 is designed to compete with Android 2.3, not today's Android or iOSA year ago when I compared Windows Phone 7.5 to Android 2.3 "Gingerbread," I gave the nod to Android, but noted it was a fairly close match. After all, Android 2.3 didn't support corporate security needs, its UI was very uneven, and its app selection sparse. What a difference a year makes. HTC, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung filled in some of those gaps themselves, but first Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" and now Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" propelled newer Android smartphones closer to the iPhone's high level.

A year ago, Android 2.3 and Windows Phone 7.5 were vying for a distant second place in terms of capabilities and usability. Android is now challenging Apple for the smartphone crown, while Windows Phone 8 is offering a modest update over last year's version. It's as if Microsoft is fighting yesteryear's war, not looking ahead to redefine the battle in its favor or make a significant leap forward. Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft's third attempt to get mobile right in the iPhone era. It's also Microsoft's third failure to do so. 

A Windows Phone 8 device is serviceable as a low-end smartphone, for those wanting email, social networking, and instant messaging, with a little gaming and media use thrown in. But it seems a waste to get a device doing only that for a monthly data fee of $30 to $50. The Nokia Lumia 800 series is a decent piece of budget hardware, and the HTC 8X is a credible mainstream device for more demanding users. But both run an operating system that has gone nowhere fast. It's Window Phone's third strike. Against iOS and Android, Microsoft continues to strike out.

This article, "Review: It's strike 3 for Microsoft's Windows Phone," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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