Software

Consolidation is coming to gaming, and Jam City raises $145 million to capitalize on it

Posted by | App Annie, Bank of America, Chris DeWolfe, computing, Disney, Electronic Arts, Europe, Facebook, Gaming, helsinki, jam city, King, Los Angeles, mobile game, Pixar, Recent Funding, silicon valley bank, Software, Startups, TC, toronto, United States, Zynga | No Comments

A slew of banks are coming together to back a new roll-up strategy for the Los Angeles-based mobile gaming studio Jam City and giving the company $145 million in new funding to carry that out.

There’s no word on whether the new money is in equity or debt, but what is certain is that JPMorgan Chase Bank, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and syndicate partners, including Silicon Valley Bank, SunTrust Bank and CIT Bank, are all involved in the deal.

“In a global mobile games market that is consolidating, Jam City could not be more proud to be working with JPMorgan, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Silicon Valley Bank, SunTrust Bank and CIT Group to strategically support the financing of our acquisition and growth plans,” said Chris DeWolfe, co-founder and CEO of Jam City. “This $145 million in new financing empowers Jam City to further our position as a global industry consolidator. As we grow our global business, we are honored to be working alongside such prestigious advisers who share Jam City’s mission of delivering joy to people everywhere through unique and deeply engaging mobile games.”

The new money comes after a few years of speculation on whether Jam City would be the next big Los Angeles-based startup company to file for an initial public offering. It also follows a new agreement with Disney to develop mobile games based on intellectual property coming from all corners of the mouse house — a sweet cache of intellectual property ranging from Pixar, to Marvel, to traditional Disney characters.

Jam City is coming off a strong year of company growth. The Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery game, which launched last year, became the company’s fastest title to hit $100 million in revenue.

Add that to the company’s expansion into new markets with strategic acquisitions to fuel development and growth in Toronto and Bogota and it’s clear that the company is looking to make more moves in 2019.

Jam City already holds intellectual property for a new game built on Disney’s “Frozen 2,” the company’s newly acquired Fox Studio assets like “Family Guy” and the Harry Potter property. Add that to its own Cookie Jam and Panda Pop properties and it seems like the company is ready to make moves.

Meanwhile, games are quickly becoming the go-to revenue driver for the entertainment industry. According to data collected by Newzoo, mobile games revenue reached a record $63.2 billion worldwide in 2018, representing roughly 47 percent of the total revenue for the gaming industry in the year. That number could reach $81.3 billion by 2020, the Newzoo data suggests.

Roughly half of the U.S. plays mobile games, and they’re spending significant dollars on those games in app stores. App Annie suggests that roughly 75 percent of the money spent in app stores over the past decade has been spent on mobile games. And consumers are expected to spend roughly $129 billion in app stores over the next year. The data and analytics firm suggests that mobile gaming will capture some 60 percent of the overall gaming market in 2019, as well.

All of that bodes well for the industry as a whole, and points to why Jam City is looking to consolidate. And the company isn’t the only mobile games studio making moves.

The publicly traded games studio Zynga, which rose to fame initially on the back of Facebook’s gaming platform, recently expanded its European footprint with the late-December acquisition of the Helsinki-based gaming studio Small Giant Games.

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VLC prepares to add AirPlay support as it crosses 3 billion downloads

Posted by | Android, apple tv, Apps, CES 2019, chromecast, internet television, Nintendo, roku, Software, venturebeat, VLC, webcams | No Comments

VLC, the hugely popular media playing service, is filling one of its gaps with the addition of AirPlay support as it has just crossed an incredible three billion users.

The new feature was revealed by Jean-Baptiste Kempf, one of the service’s lead developers, in an interview with Variety at CES and it will give users a chance to beam content from their Android or iOS device to an Apple TV. The addition, which is due in the upcoming version 4 of VLC, is the biggest new feature since the service added Chromecast support last summer.

But that’s not all that the dozen or so people on the VLC development team are working on.

In addition, Variety reports that VLC is preparing to enable native support for VR content. Instead of SDKs, the team has reversed engineered popular hardware to offer features that will include the option to watch 2D content in a cinema-style environment. There also are plans to bring the service to more platforms, with VentureBeat reporting that the VLC team is eyeing PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Roku devices.

VLC, which is managed by nonprofit parent VideonLAN, racked up its three billionth download at CES, where it celebrated with the live ticker pictured above. The service reached one billion downloads back in May 2012, which represents incredible growth for a venture that began life as a project from École Centrale Paris students in 1996.

VLC. The hero of our time. https://t.co/B4Qqq4DvLa

— Zack Whittaker (@zackwhittaker) January 11, 2019

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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Scratch 3.0 is now available

Posted by | computing, Education, Gaming, Minecraft, Mobile, platform game, Software, Startups, TC | No Comments

The only kids’ programming language worth using, Scratch, just celebrated the launch of Scratch 3.0, an update that adds some interesting new functionality to the powerful open-source tool.

Scratch, for those without school-aged children, is a block-based programming language that lets you make little games and “cartoons” with sprites and animated figures. The system is surprisingly complex, and kids have created things like Minecraft platformers, fun arcade games and whatever this is.

The new version of scratch includes extensions that allow you to control hardware, as well as new control blocks.

Scratch 3.0 is the next generation of Scratch – designed to expand how, what, and where you can create with Scratch. It includes dozens of new sprites, a totally new sound editor, and many new programming blocks. And with Scratch 3.0, you are able to create and play projects on your tablet, in addition to your laptop or desk computer.

Scratch is quite literally the only programming “game” my kids will use again and again, and it’s an amazing introduction for kids as young as pre-school age. Check out the update and don’t forget to share your animations with the class!

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See you in Vegas next week!

Posted by | CES, CES 2019, donkey kong, events, Gadgets, Nintendo, pitch-off, shenzhen, Software, TC | No Comments

It’s on like Donkey Kong! We’ll be seeing you next week, on January 9, 2019 at 6:00 PM, where we’ll mingle and run a full TC pitch-off with a bunch of great hardware companies. I’ve added 40 extra tickets, so hurry!

The event will be held at Work In Progress, 317 South 6th Street. Special thanks to those amazing folks who opened their doors to us during one of the busiest weeks in LV.

I’ve contacted the companies that will be pitching. If anyone drops out, I’ll choose some more, so there is still a chance to pitch.

See you soon!

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Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, banked a $3 billion profit in 2018

Posted by | 2018 Year in Review, Android, Apps, Beijing, China, computing, epic games, fortnite, fortnite battle royale, game publisher, Gaming, Google, Google Play Store, Kleiner Perkins, lightspeed, Nintendo, sensor tower, smartphone, Software, Tencent, the wall street journal, unreal engine, wall-street-journal | No Comments

Epic Games had as good a year in 2018 as any company in tech. Fortnite became the world’s most popular game, growing the company’s valuation to $15 billion, but it has helped the company pile up cash, too. Epic grossed a $3 billion profit for this year fueled by the continued success of Fortnite, a source with knowledge of the business told TechCrunch.

Epic did not respond to a request for comment.

Fortnite, which is free to play but makes money selling digital items, has popularized the battle royale category — think Lord of the Flies meets Hunger Games — almost single-handedly, and it has been the standout title for the U.S.-based game publisher.

Founded way back in 1991, Epic hasn’t given revenue figures for its smash hit — which has 125 million players — but this new profit milestone, combined with other pieces of data, gives an idea of the success the company is seeing as a result of a prescient change in strategy made six years ago.

This past September, Epic commanded a valuation of nearly $15 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal, as marquee investors like KKR, Kleiner Perkins and Lightspeed piled on in a $1.25 billion round to grab a slice of the red-hot development firm. However, the investment cards haven’t always been stacked in Epic’s favor.

China’s Tencent, the maker of blockbuster chat app WeChat and a prolific games firm in its own right, became the first outside investor in Epic’s business back in 2012 when it injected $330 million in exchange for a 40 percent stake in the business.

Back then, Epic was best known for Unreal Engine, the third-party development platform that it still operates today, and top-selling titles like Gears of War.

Why would a proven company give up such a huge slice of its business? Executives believed that Epic, as it was, was living on borrowed time. They sensed a change in the way games were headed based on diminishing returns and growing budgets for console games, the increase of “live” games like League of Legends and the emerging role of smartphones.

Speaking to Polygon about the Tencent deal, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney explained that the investment money from Tencent allowed the company to go down the route of freemium games rather than big box titles. That’s a strategy Sweeney called “Epic 4.0.”

“We realized that the business really needed to change its approach quite significantly. We were seeing some of the best games in the industry being built and operated as live games over time rather than big retail releases. We recognized that the ideal role for Epic in the industry is to drive that, and so we began the transition of being a fairly narrow console developer focused on Xbox to being a multi-platform game developer and self publisher, and indie on a larger scale,” he explained.

Tencent, Sweeney added, has provided “an enormous amount of useful advice,” while the capital enabled Epic to “make this huge leap without the immediate fear of money.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 12: Gamers ‘Ninja’ (L) and ‘Marshmello’ compete in the Epic Games Fortnite E3 Tournament at the Banc of California Stadium on June 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Epic never had a problem making money — Sweeney told Polygon the first Gear of Wars release grossed $100 million on a $12 million development budget. But with Fortnite, the company has redefined modern gaming, both by making true cross-platform experiences possible and by pulling in vast amounts of money.

As a private company, Epic keeps its financials closely guarded. But digging beyond the $3 billion figure — which, to be clear, is annual profit not revenue — there are clues as to just how big a money-spinner Fortnite is. Certainly, there’s room to wonder whether analyst predictions this summer that Fortnite would gross $2 billion this year were too conservative.

The most recent data comes from November when Sensor Tower estimates that iOS users alone were spending $1.23 million per day. That helped the game bank $37 million in the month and take its total earnings within Apple’s iOS platform to more than $385 million.

But, as mentioned, Fortnite is a cross-platform title that supports PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, PC, Mac, Android and iOS. Aggregating revenue across those platforms isn’t easy, and the only real estimate comes from earlier this year when Super Data Research concluded that the game made $318 million in May across all platforms.

That is, of course, when Fortnite was fresh on iOS, non-existent on Android and with fewer overall players.

We can deduce from Sensor Tower’s November estimate that iOS pulled in $385 million over eight months — between April and November — which is around $48 million per month on average. Android is harder to calculate since Epic skipped Google’s Play Store by distributing its own launcher. While it quickly picked up 15 million Android users within the first month, tracking that spending off-platform is a huge challenge. Some estimates predicted that Google would miss out on around $50 million in lost earnings this year because in-app purchases on Android would not cross its services.

There are a few factors to add further uncertainty.

Fortnite spending tends to spike around the release of new seasons — updated versions of the game — since users are encouraged to buy specific packages at the start. The latest, Season 7, dropped early this month with a range of tweaks for the Christmas period. Given the increased velocity at which Fortnite is picking up players and the appeal of the festive period, this could have been its biggest revenue generator to date, but there’s not yet any indicator of how it performed.

More broadly, Fortnite has undoubtedly lost out on revenue in China, which froze new game licenses nine months ago, thereby preventing any publishers from monetizing new titles over that period.

Tencent, which publishes Fortnite in China, did release the game in the country but it hasn’t been able to draw revenue from it yet. The Chinese government announced last week that it is close to approving its first batch of new titles, but it isn’t clear which games are included and when the process will be done.

Already, the effects have been felt.

Games are forecast to generate nearly $40 billion in revenue in China this year, according to market researcher Newzoo. However, the industry saw its slowest growth over the last 10 years as it grew 5.4 percent year-over-year during the first half of 2018, according to a report by Beijing-based research firm GPC and China’s official gaming association CNG.

Fortnite and PUBG — another battle royale title backed by Tencent — have perhaps suffered the most since they are universally popular worldwide but unable to monetize in China. It seems almost certain that those two titles will receive a major marketing push if, as and when they receive the license and, if Epic can keep the game competitive as Sweeney believed it could back in 2012, then it could go on and make even more money in 2019.

Epic Games is taking on Steam with its own digital game store, which includes higher take-home revenue rates for developers.

But Epic isn’t relying solely on Fortnite.

A more low-key but significant launch this month was the opening of the Epic Games store, which is aimed squarely at Steam, the leader in digital game sales.

While Fortnite is its most prolific release, Epic also makes money from other games, Unreal Engine and a recently launched online game store that rivals Steam. Epic’s big differentiator for the store is that it gives developers 88 percent of their revenue, as opposed to Value — the firm behind Steam — which keeps 30 percent, although it has added varying rates for more successful titles. Customers are promised a free title every two weeks.

Either way, Epic is betting that it can do a lot more than Fortnite, which could mean that its profit margin will be even higher come this time next year.

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Firefox Focus adds support for enhanced tracking protection and Google’s Safe Browsing service

Posted by | Android, Apps, Firefox, firefox focus, free software, Google, google-chrome, Mozilla, Safe Browsing, search engine, Software | No Comments

Firefox Focus for Android and iOS is Mozilla’s privacy-centric mobile browser. Today, the organization stepped up this promise of keeping its users’ data private by adding to the browser a few new features that expand on this by adding a new privacy feature, as well as a few other new tools.

The main new addition here is support for Enhanced Tracking Protection. This feature first launched in Firefox for the desktop. It allows you to block cookies and trackers with a bit more granularity than was previously possible. Until now, Focus blocked all cookies by default. Now, however, you can choose to either continue doing that — but with the risk of sites breaking every now and then — or opt to allow third-party cookies or only third-party tracking cookies. Mozilla uses Disconnect’s Tracking Protection list to power this feature.

“This enables you to allow cookies if they contribute to the user experience for a website while still preventing trackers from being able to track you across multiple sites, offering you the same products over and over again and recording your online behavior,” Mozilla explains.

Mozilla also today announced that Firefox Focus now checks all URLs against Google’s Safe Browsing service to ensure that users don’t click on known phishing links or open other fraudulent sites. While using a Google tool may seem a bit odd, given that Firefox and Chrome are competitors, it’s worth noting virtually every browser makes use of Safe Browsing (and that Mozilla pulls in a lot of revenue from its search engine deal with Google).

In addition, iOS users who opt for Firefox Focus will now be able to get search suggestions, too, just like their friends on Android . There’s a privacy trade-off here, though, as everything you’re typing is sent directly to the likes of Google for offering you those suggestions. Because the focus of this browser is privacy, the feature is turned off by default, though.

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Popular avatar app Boomoji exposed millions of users’ contact lists and location data

Posted by | Android, california, database, General Data Protection Regulation, privacy, Security, social media, Software, spokesperson, web browser | No Comments

Popular animated avatar creator app Boomoji, with more than five million users across the world, exposed the personal data of its entire user base after it failed to put passwords on two of its internet-facing databases.

The China-based app developer left the ElasticSearch databases online without passwords — a U.S.-based database for its international customers and a Hong Kong-based database containing mostly Chinese users’ data in an effort to comply with China’s data security laws, which requires Chinese citizens’ data to be located on servers inside the country.

Anyone who knew where to look could access, edit or delete the database using their web browser. And, because the database was listed on Shodan, a search engine for exposed devices and databases, they were easily found with a few keywords.

After TechCrunch reached out, Boomoji pulled the two databases offline. “These two accounts were made by us for testing purposes,” said an unnamed Boomoji spokesperson in an email.

But that isn’t true.

The database contained records on all of the company’s iOS and Android users — some 5.3 million users as of this week. Each record contained their username, gender, country and phone type.

Each record also included a user’s unique Boomoji ID, which was linked to other tables in the database. Those other tables included if and which school they go to — a feature Boomoji touts as a way for users to get in touch with their fellow students. That unique ID also included the precise geolocation of more than 375,000 users that had allowed the app to know their location at any given time.

Worse, the database contained every phone book entry of every user who had allowed the app access to their contacts.

One table had more than 125 million contacts, including their names (as written in a user’s phone book) and their phone numbers. Each record was linked to a Boomoji’s unique ID, making it relatively easy to know whose contact list belonged to whom.

Even if you didn’t use the app, anyone who has your phone number stored on their device and used the app more than likely uploaded your number to Boomoji’s database. To our knowledge, there’s no way to opt out or have your information deleted.

Given Boomoji’s response, we verified the contents of the database by downloading the app on a dedicated iPhone using a throwaway phone number, containing a few dummy, but easy-to-search contact list entries. To find friends, the app matches your contacts with those registered with the app in its database. When we were prompted to allow the app access to our contacts list, the entire dummy contact list was uploaded instantly — and viewable in the database.

So long as the app was installed and had access to the contacts, new phone numbers would be automatically uploaded.

Yet, none of the data was encrypted. All of the data was stored in plaintext.

Although Boomoji is based in China, it claims to follow California state law, where data protection and privacy rules are some of the strongest in the U.S. We asked Boomoji if it has or plans to inform California’s attorney general of the exposure as required by state law, but the company did not answer.

Given the vast amount of European users’ information in the database, the company may also face penalties under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which can impose fines of up to four percent of the company’s global annual revenue for serious breaches.

But given its China-based presence, it’s not clear, however, what actionable repercussions the company could face.

This is the latest in a series of exposures involving ElasticSearch instances, a popular open source search and database software. In recent weeks, several high-profile data exposures have been reported as a result of companies’ failure to practice basic data security measures — including Urban Massage exposing its own customer database, Mindbody-owned FitMetrix forgetting to put a password on its servers and Voxox, a communications company, which leaked phone numbers and two-factor codes on millions of unsuspecting users.


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Fortnite gets into Christmas mode with snow, planes and ziplines in season 7

Posted by | computing, epic games, fortnite, Gaming, Minecraft, player, Software, TC | No Comments

Fortnite, the world’s most popular game, is getting into the festive period after it released its much-anticipated Season 7 update, which includes lots of Christmasy touches.

The new season sees an iceberg smash into the island where the battle royale smash hit is located — that means there’s frozen terrain in the form of places like Frosty Flights and Polar Peak, as well as falling snow, snow-covered trees and slippery ice.

The most notable update to the playing style is the arrival of X-4 Stormwing planes, which you can take for a ride in the skies. Beyond helping you get around quicker, they’re also complete with weapons for shooting down other planes or taking aim at enemies on the ground. The game now also includes ziplines, another useful addition that’ll change how players get around the map.

The festive touches also include wrapping for weapons and vehicles, while there’s a Sergeant Santa skin that’s up for grabs.

Outside the regular battle mode, Epic Games has added a Minecraft-like “creative” mode that gives each player their own island that can be customized. This, to me, is one of the best introductions to date, as the new game mode gives players a new way to battle privately with friends.

Creative is initially limited to players who buy the season 7 battle pass, but it’ll be available to all Fortnite gamers after December 13.

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Google is killing off Allo, its latest messaging app flop

Posted by | Android, Apps, Assistant, computing, Google, Google Hangouts, imessage, machine learning, messaging apps, slack, SMS, Software, technology, Verizon, WhatsApp | No Comments

It’s official: Google is killing off Allo.

The messaging app was only launched in September 2016, but it was pretty much flawed from the word go, with limited usage. Google was, once again, painfully late to the messaging game.

The company said it had ceased work on the service earlier this year, and now it has announced that it’ll close down in March of next year.

“Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app,” Google said in a blog post. “We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.”

Google said it wants “every single Android device to have a great default messaging experience,” but the fact remains that the experience on Android massively lags iOS, where Apple’s iMessage service offers a slick experience with free messages, calling and video between iPhone and iPad users.

Instead of Allo, Google is pushing ahead with RCS (Rich Communication Services), an enhanced SMS standard that could allow iMessage-like communication between Android devices.

But “could” is the operative word. The main caveat with RCS is that carriers must develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, while the many Android OEMs also need to hop on board with support.

As I wrote earlier this year, with RCS, Google is giving carriers a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. But the decision is tricky for carriers, who have traditionally tightly held any form of income until the death. That’s because they won’t directly make money from consumers via RCS, though it allows them to keep their brand and figure out other ways to generate income, such as business-related services.

Verizon has already signed up, for one, but tracking the other supporters worldwide is tricky. Another problem: RCS is not encrypted, which flies in the face of most messaging apps on the market today.

Elsewhere, Google is keeping Duo — the video chat service that launched alongside Allo — while it continues to develop Hangouts into an enterprise-focused service, much like Slack .

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JioSaavn becomes India’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Android, apple music, Asia, China, computing, Dhingana, digital audio, digital media, executive, funding, Fundings & Exits, india, Internet, JioSaavn, Media, New York, Pandora, pandora radio, rdio, reliance jio, saavn, Software, Spotify, Tencent, tencent music, tiger global, Times Internet, Walmart | No Comments

India finally has its answer to Spotify after Reliance Jio merged its music service with Saavn, the startup it acquired earlier this year.

The deal itself isn’t new — it was announced back in March — but it has reached its logical conclusion after two apps were merged to create a single entity, JioSaavn, which is valued at $1 billion. For the first time, India has a credible rival to global names like Spotify and Apple Music through the combination of a venture capital-funded business, Saavn, and good old-fashioned telecom, JioMusic from Reliance’s disruptive Jio operator brand.

This merger deal comes days after reports suggested that Spotify is preparing to (finally) enter the Indian market, a move that has been in the planning for more than a year as we have reported.

That would set up an interesting battle between global names Spotify and Apple and local players JioSaavn and Gaana, a project from media firm Times Internet, which is also backed by China’s Tencent.

It isn’t uncommon to see international firms compete in Asia — Walmart and Amazon are the two major e-commerce players, while Chinese firms Alibaba and Tencent have busily snapped up stakes in promising internet companies for the past couple of years — but that competition has finally come to the streaming space.

There have certainly been misses over the years.

Early India-based pioneer Dhingana was scooped by Rdio back in 2014, having initial shut down its service due to financial issues. Ultimately, though, Rdio itself went bankrupt and was sold to Pandora, leaving both Rdio and Dhingana in the startup graveyard.

Saavn, the early competitor to Dhingana, seemed destined to a similar fate, at least from the outside. But it hit the big time in 2015 when it raised $100 million from Tiger Global, the New York hedge fund that made ambitious bets on a number of India’s most promising internet firms. That gave it the fuel to reach this merger deal with JioMusic.

Unlike Dhingana’s fire sale, Saavn’s executive team continues on under the JioSaavn banner.

The coming-together is certainly a far more solid outcome than the Rdio deal. JioSaavn has some 45 million songs — including a slate of originals started by Saavn — and access to the Jio network, which claims more than 250 million subscribers.

JioSaavn is available across iOS, Android, web and Reliance Jio’s own app store

The JioMusic service will be freemium, but Jio subscribers will get a 90-day trial of the ad-free “Pro” service. The company maintains five offices — including outposts in Mountain View and New York — with more than 200 employees, while Reliance has committed to pumping $100 million into the business for “growth and expansion of the platform.”

While it is linked to Reliance and Jio, JioMusic is a private business that counts Reliance as a stakeholder. You’d imagine that remaining private is a major carrot that has kept Saavn founders — Rishi Malhotra, Paramdeep Singh and Vinodh Bhat — part of the business post-merger.

The window certainly seems open for streaming IPOs — Spotify went public this past April through an unconventional listing that valued its business around $30 billion, while China’s Tencent Music is in the process of a listing that could raise $1.2 billion and value it around that $30 billion mark, too. JioSaavn might be the next streamer to test the public markets.

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