I Owe Bill Gates An Apology

Brian S Hall / July 8th, 2013

I have changed my view of no person, whether living or dead, more so than I have changed my view of Bill Gates. Where once I hoped he failed, hoped his company would fail, believed him responsible for stifling competition, innovation, cheered when my very own government was working against him, now I accept him for what he really is: the man who has most transformed the world during my lifetime.

I owe Gates an apology.

No one, not Steve Jobs, not Mark Zuckerberg, not Hewlett nor Packard, has had a more profound global impact on people and business, on the spread of technology or the continued pre-eminence of America’s globe-spanning computing innovation, than has Bill Gates. Despite innumerable obstacles, Gates succeeded with his once-mad vision of placing a PC on every desktop.

Now, he has a new mission, one far more audacious, far more transformative. It is plainly stated through his well-funded
foundation:

“We believe every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”

POLIO_OralVaccineNigeria_1000x380_revised

Sadly, we are far from realizing this vision. Yet, with Gates bringing his skills to bear on this rather base human failing, I honestly believe we will move radically closer to turning the hope that every person deserves a healthy, productive life, into actual reality.

Think how computing changed and improved and spread from 1980 – 2000, only now, those changes applied to people and medicine and learning and access and work.

If, as Steve Jobs said, Bill Gates “just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas,” then perhaps in trying to solve the world’s biggest problems, this is a good thing. Gate’s tactics may have found their logical pursuit.

Gates – still the world’s richest man – no doubt understands how profoundly billions of lives can be changed for the better by radically improving the code that now now dominates our world. In public classrooms, where our nation’s children are not realizing their fullest potential, and in villages thousands of miles away, where their children are dying, the tools to alter this reality are either at hand or very soon will be. We have an amazing opportunity to remake the world.

Think Gates can’t change the world a second time? Maybe. Although, if it was 1975 again – nearly 40 years in our past, before most of the people on this planet were even born – and by some odd coincidence you actually saw this machine, a Altair 8800, could you have divined how it foretold the future? Gates could.

664px-Altair_8800_Computer

Embrace, extend, extinguish – the modus operandi of Microsoft under Gates, and now eagerly adopted by today’s Google – laid everything to waste, it seemed. Netscape, Lotus, Apple (nearly), Wordstar – and all the many companies and products and people we no longer can even recall.

Yet it’s this same mental prowess, this same hyper-competitive drive, likely tempered by age, that could allow Gates to show us how to extend computing power, applied data, and a ruthless fealty to results, to extinguish some of the planet’s most chronic, life-limiting maladies.

If the world can be radically improved, it will take a fundamental re-working of the existing algorithms of modern life – all the nasty realities we presently tolerate or ignore, or simply fail to see. Gates was as good at crafting an algorithm, as good at writing code, as he was a unrelenting business tycoon. The world needs him.

This time, I am on Gates’ side, without apology.

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.
  • FalKirk

    “Think how computing changed and improved and spread from 1980 – 2000”

    Think of how computing stagnated from 1995 to 2010.

    Steve Jobs once said: “If, for some reason, we make some big mistake and IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter a computer Dark Ages for about twenty years. [1985]

    Steve Jobs had the right idea but the wrong company. Microsoft, not IBM, won the PC wars. They deserve all the credit in the world. But their subsequent monopoly stifled computer innovation for 20 years.

    What Microsoft did was great. But in exchange for that greatness, they extracted a terrible price.

    • arcana112

      Computing stagnated?? Have you been living under a rock? Social? Big Data? Cloud Computing? Mobile? I could go on but i won’t. I will just say that computing is much more than an OS and a desktop screen…

    • S0MA

      the same jobs that was flippant about ‘big tech’ like IBM and then went on to purchase powerPC cpus from ‘big blue’ for ALL the desktops?

      the same jobs that said intel was inferior and then decided that maybe, they should switch entirely to said ‘inferior’ cpus?

      anything jobs ever did or said was to benefit himself; he was the most belligerent egotistical maniacal salesman to ever curse the surface of this planet. THANKFULLY he is dead. anyone that thinks proprietary cables is STILL good idea is worthy of damnation. meanwhile we still have great men like mrGates that still perpetuate good works with their success. the works of MS during hits peak do not justify the means by any accord, but they shed light on whom can be called ‘enlightened’

      jobs first order of business upon returning to a stunted apple was to forgoe ALL philanthropic expenditures. a position he was adamant in maintaining even after apple returned to profitability.
      the idea that these two men can even be mentioned unironically in the same sentence is astonishing.

      Jobs = dead douchehat

      Gates = global malaria fighter

      that is how history will remember these two men

      • Here is not an anti-Apple guy, but a psycho. “Thankfully he (Steve Jobs) is dead”. Seriously? Only someone filled with hate can wish for death to another human being.

        Bill Gates is a great man? Are you kidding me? Bill Gates was at the helm of Microsoft in the years when the U.S. government tried to dismember the company due to the terrible business practices of Microsoft. At its peak power, Microsoft neither recognize nor accept any competition, and how they treat their competitors was stealing what they (the competitors) had developed, or crush them with their immense economic power. Do not fool yourself, if there is a company that has done damage to the industry and the people, that company is called Microsoft, and your beloved Bill Gates was the butcher.

        “Meanwhile we still have great men like mr Gates that still perpetuate good works with their success.” “Gates = global malaria fighter” My God, how much stupidity in one single person! There’s no doubt you are a real ignorant. Bill Gates uses his foundation to evade the payment of millions of dollars in taxes and to appear in photographs as “the great benefactor of the poor”, when in fact he knows that what the poor need is not charity, but work; Microsoft could create thousands of jobs in third world countries, but it doesn’t because that does not generate sympathy; it’s better to take pictures of yourself with sick children and deceive fools like you.

        You’re good my friend, continues down that path. After a while you’ll say that the coyote is the best friend of the roadrunner.

    • qka

      Gates is a latter day robber-baron buying his way to heaven, in the great American tradition of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, et al. Yes, the products of their philanthropy are admirable, especially to later generations. However, the social cost of their generating their fortunes at the time is too often forgotten by those later generations.

      • Hosni

        Gates became a major philanthropist when Microsoft came under attack by antitrust regulators in the US and Europe. At the time, many observers considered it part of a PR campaign to rehabilitate the company’s image and head off big penalties including breaking-up the company.

        • Joe_HTH

          How wrong they were, because if that were the case, he would have ended his philanthropy after the antitrust trial was over.

      • Joe_Winfield_IL

        I don’t think you’re being fair at all with this analysis. Gates was very young when he realized he had accomplished all of his professional goals (44 when he gave up CEO title, 50 when he walked away entirely from day-to-day functions). He could have stayed on board at MSFT indefinitely, working tirelessly to crush all new competitors. He also could easily have glibly lived out his days enjoying his vast fortunes. But instead he chose to immediately pour himself into the most noble of goals. More on the foundation later…

        It’s also worth noting that the computing revolution, as it really happened, was not a pre-determined outcome. We like to look at all the negative that happened as a result of Microsoft’s particular brand of competitive behavior, but we are ignoring the sheer volume and speed of adoption that MSFT’s practices enabled. Internet Explorer sucked, and it ruthlessly cut the legs out from the pioneering Netscape. But it also put a browser, for free, into the hands of hundreds of millions of computer users far faster than would have otherwise happened. Bill Gates has a utilitarian worldview, where the ends justify the means in service to the “greatest good for the greatest number” ethos. Today, we see Google employing exactly the same justification for virtually every product it releases. When a leader views all decisions through the utilitarian lens, almost anything is justifiable; “fairness” isn’t given much weighting in the decision process. Ruthlessness rules the day if the end result is “good” as defined by the decision maker. The results can be amazing when businesses ignore fallout in sight of the end goal.

        My point is that we can’t pick and choose. We can’t look at the innovation that Microsoft stifled while ignoring the innovation that it rapidly accelerated and disseminated to the masses. I’m not defending Microsoft/Gates/Google for this type of business, just pointing out that it is not necessarily a net negative to the creative process.

        Now, back to the charity work. Gates and his brilliant wife are using exactly the same thought process to work on big problems that he used to build Microsoft. He is not simply writing a check on his deathbed in an attempt to absolve his sins, not even close. Nor is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation an elaborate tax dodge. The Foundation aims to solve seemingly intractable problems, such as Polio and Malaria eradication, potable water supply, sub-saharan agriculture, etc. The Foundation chooses projects to fund based purely on the potential outcome – the greatest good for the greatest number. They are not afraid to step on toes, nor are they pandering for political gain. They waste very little money on overhead. They do not throw money at problems they believe cannot be remedied.

        In addition to the actual adiminstration of the Foundation, Bill Gates is evangelizing the notion of giving among his cohort of ultra-wealthy individuals. The Giving Pledge now has over 100 wealthy families (mostly billionaires) signed up, many of whom had no stated intention of charitable giving until pressured by Gates to take the pledge. Most famously, Warren Buffet has changed his thoughts regarding donating his vast wealth. He has specifically said that the Gates family won him over.

        Do a bit of research, and you may be inclined to change your opinion. Or you can just ignore any outside data because you already “know” the truth.

      • Joe_HTH

        You’re a fucking idiot. Steve Jobs was a bastard who horded his billions. That makes Bill Gates infinitely better than Steve Jobs.

        • qka

          Another moron heard from

          • Joe_HTH

            You are the only moron.

      • Joe_HTH

        LOL! So giving away tens of billions of dollars to charity, and pledging almost all of your wealth to charity when you die, is what you call buying your way into heaven? Have you ever stopped the think that maybe Bill Gates doesn’t even believe in God or heaven? What social cost was there for Gates generating his fortune? None that I can see, other than he made himself and a lot of other people wealthy.

        You sound jealous.

    • Jason Thomas Carter

      You read this article and that is what you had to say?

      • Defendor

        Better than your series of one line trolls against nearly everyone who had more thoughtful replies.

        • Jason Thomas Carter

          Nah… There was plenty of thought in my one liners. You guys made the choice to focus on 20 year old GARBAGE and ignore the greatness of the man. Dude went on a Safari with his wife and had an awakening… and you want to talk of TRS-80, get off the planet already.

    • tailhook

      “Think of how computing stagnated from 1995 to 2010.” Lets!

      In 1995, we used pagers. Cell phones went from a brick to the smartphone. The smartphone then begat the tablet. Neither could have been made without the innovation from 1995-2010.

      In 1995, laptops were briefcase sized. In 2010, they weren’t :P.

      In 1995, a Pentium computer was top of the line. People had just retired 486’s.

      In 1995, BBS’s and 28K modems were top of the line. From 1995-2000 we went from that, to broadband cable in most of the big cities.. which then went nationwide.

      In 1995, 1.44meg 3.5″ floppy disks were the top-of-the-line in transferring information.

      In 1995, Doom 2 was the top of the line in videogames. MMORPG’s weren’t even invented yet.

      In 1995, the lead console was the venerable Playstation.

      In 1995, people still used Cameras. With film. That they took to companies to make photos out of. 1995-2010 saw the rise of all sorts of digital photography.

      In 1995, CRT televisions were king. Tubes. 1995-2010 saw the introduction and mainstream acceptance of plasma and LED, along with HDTV.

      In 1995, VHS and VCR’s were king. DVD? 1995 would mark its introduction to the market.
      To say *ANYTHING* in computing from 1995-2010 ‘stagnated’ is simply being silly and something I would expect out of a run-of-the-mill troller, not one of the mods of a site. Tech moved faster than it ever had before, and over the 15 years from 2010-2025 you’re going to see even more of a difference.

      Because technology doesn’t stagnate, it continually builds upon itself.

      • FalKirk

        None of your examples addresses Microsoft’s contributions (or lack thereof) to computing over the years in question.

        Perhaps instead of saying: “Think of how computing stagnated from 1995 to 2010”, I should have said “Think of how Microsoft stagnated from 1995 to 2010.”

        • tailhook

          Fair enough. That sounds more reasonable.

          But I wouldn’t say it was from lack of trying. Pretty much anything other than development beyond their core lines and XBOX has pretty much gone belly up. They were working phones and tablets long before the iPhone and iPad.
          Trying to predict the Next Big Thing tends to be a pretty big crapshoot. Its all about recognizing it, and getting there before everyone else. You can plow billions into R&D all you want, if the ultimate end product doesn’t fit in the evolution of tech and fill a legitimate need at the right time, it’ll get sidelined.

          Like that stupid 3D visual gizmo they came up with that you can look into the screen and use your hands to move windows in 3 dimensions. Interesting! But largely irrelevant as it won’t fit the market. Nor will the whole room camera thingamagig that the new XBOX One has.

          If I were placing bets, I’d say the next big leap forward will be websites as appsites that backend to the internet. And i don’t mean the stupid.. lets display our website as an app. Actually rebuilding from the ground up.

          There is a very good chance the web will be gone in 10-15 years. Anything you can do with a website, you can do with an app… and a hell of a lot easier and with a lot more power. At the same time you can then add stuff like voice recognition, AI, full on 3D animation, a soundtrack, interactive content, etc.

          Siri and Google Now are the early incarnations of this. Why have a website for Microsoft when you should be able to just say ‘Launch Microsoft’, then ‘Install Visual Studio Express’. No navigation of a mish-mash of documents, it simply starts downloading and installing.

        • Joe_HTH

          You’re an ignorant fool. Microsoft had tablets and smartphones on the market years before anyone had even ever heard of Apple. Microsoft’s failing back then was always design, not innovation or forward thinking.

          The fact is Microsoft missed mobile. That’s really the only mistake they made. The fact is Microsoft has 17 billion dollar businesses. Apple survives off of two products, the iPhone and the iPad, and the iPhone makes up over two-thirds of their business and the iPad has been declining in sales quarter over quarter. Apple can’t even run their own backend. They need Microsoft and Amazon to do it for them.

          You need to educate yourself.

  • Marc Elson

    Although the Gates Foundation did a lot to help people who needs it, it isn’t as spotless as we could believe.
    In 2007, the L.A. Times did a thorough investigation of this foundation, and found that many of its investments were in companies which contradict there philanthropic goals.

    It’s a long read, but I think it’s worth the time: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-na-gatesx7jan07-sg,0,2046572.storygallery

    • S0MA

      so because the foundation puts emphasis on certain diseases, it diverts attention from other basic treatments…
      yeh, you got yourself a real villain there.
      6yo article is a sad joke and an atrocious attempt to divert from logic.
      might as well make light of how we spend billions on food aid to other countries whilst ignoring our own homeless population here in the US…

      • Hosni

        Some US programs give food away in poor countries, which in turn depresses food prices in local markets and drives farmers out of business … which then intensifies the nation’s food problem in the following season.

        Those food programs are supported by US farmers and food processing companies (for the purpose of increasing their own profitability), but when food supplies flow overseas it drives up food prices in US markets … and lowers living standards among America’s poor.

        I’m not arguing against the policies, but illustrating their (now) widely recognized unintended consequences. I believe some critics have pointed out that Gates’s charitable activities have resulted in unintended consequences, too. In my mind that doesn’t justify criticizing Gates, but neither does it “divert from logic” as you claim. It merely illustrates that it is difficult to do anything big without creating disturbances elsewhere in society.

  • Defendor

    I disagree completely.

    On the need for an apology:
    No one need apologize for condemnation of Microsoft tactics in the 1980-1990’s. They were worthy of condemnation and that hasn’t changed. We may on balance decide that Bill Gates, is a good man doing good works today. But good deeds today, do not change the nature of past misdeeds. No apologies are necessary for condeming them or those who carried them out.

    On his most profound effect on business/computing:
    The rise of Microcomputers in our lives, and business, was inevitable before Microsoft rose to prominence, much less dominance. By 1977 we had Apple II, Commodore PET, TRS-80. We were on an inevitable trajectory by then. The only thing Microsoft/Gates did, was make sure they were the major beneficiary of the inevitable. Without Microsoft we would still be in a similar position today, the only real difference would be which ecosystem would win.

    • Thanks. I think you have a point re if an apology is necessary. My view of Gates was biased by my views on Microsoft. For me, an apology is necessary.
      As for the rise of computing being inevitable, I absolutely disagree, however. Imagine the auto industry without a Henry Ford, for example. I think Gates pushed us all in the right direction and hope he can do the same now on issues such as global poverty and bad schooling.

      • Defendor

        I disagree on Ford as well. Another inevitable trajectory at that point, the automotive assembly line was inevitable as well, and if Ford didn’t do it first, someone else would have.

        When you have industries with many competitors all striving in the same direction, the one who emerges on top, isn’t solely responsible for the existence of that industry as it stands today. The outcome was essentially inevitable, there were plenty of alternative players that could have filled in the roles, if any Individual/company, wasn’t available.

        • I think you raise an interesting discussion.
          Zuckerberg created Facebook within a certain cultural (and technological) milieu. If not him, possibly someone else.
          I think, however, that not crediting people like Gates limits just praise of individual genius, effort and inspiration.

          • Defendor

            On the contrary, I think we greatly overvalue, whoever grabs the title “first” or “biggest” when they have many contemporaries that missed only a lucky break and nearly everyone is standing on the shoulder of a predecessor, or contemporary.

            Nearly every educated adult on earth will have heard of Charles Darwin, and associate his name with Evolution Theory, but almost no one has heard of his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently arrived at the theory of evolution and natural selection. A publication by Wallace prompted Darwin to get his own work out there.

            Darwin was relatively well off, and had much greater social stature. Today he gets all the accolades, while Wallace, a pauper for most of his life is mostly marginalized.

            In science, and even more in competetive industry, the evolutions and revolutions in discover/technology were largely inevitable before most of the credited individuals showed us anything.

          • James King

            I love you for this Defendor. Your insights are normally pretty great (even when I disagree) but this hit the nail on the head.

            This brings to mind Tesla, one of history’s greatest minds who died in poverty. Edison and Marconi reaped the accolades but history has vindicated Tesla.

          • Yes, but Edison and Marconi did great stuff.

          • James King

            The argument can be made that Gates has done great things. But I think Defendor’s point was that the person or entity who is “first” or most associated to an innovation gets a disproportionate amount of credit. We tend to marginalize the work of others who may have actually been the originators or key innovators of certain ideas but could not popularize them for any number of reasons. Luck plays a huge role in success but is often the quality that is most minimized when referencing the role of someone in a success or great development.

            I once used the analogy of a great chef to explain the value of luck in success: if you give a great chef the proper ingredients, he will likely make a fantastic dish. But if s/he gets poor ingredients or has missing ingredients, his/her skill is likely to not matter. Even a great chef is exponentially less likely to make a fantastic dish if s/he is missing key ingredients.

            A person who achieves great success deserves a great deal of credit for their efforts. But the reality is that there are far more things in that person’s life that are beyond their control from which they may have derived a benefit. For instance, if my facts are correct, Bill Gates father lent him $75,000 to buy QDOS. I don’t know many people who have a spare $75K lying around but some people actually do. Sergey Brin and Larry Page supposedly borrowed $25,000 from family and friends to develop the Google search engine. Gates reportedly has a 185 IQ and Brin and Page were Ph.D students. Page’s father was one of the preeminent computer scientists and his mother is also a renown computer scientist. Bill Gates father was a pretty successful lawyer; much of Gates success came from the concept of “licensing” software, the idea of selling the permission to use the software rather than selling unlimited rights. These are brilliant people who benefitted from having a great set of ingredients.

            But, as Defendor pointed out, there are other great chefs out there who don’t have the benefit of having great ingredients. We minimize these ingredients because they detract from the mythology of those who reach the top of the mountain. There is a desire to make these people larger than life. In the end, people tend to lose perspective. People like Gates very much deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished. But they didn’t achieve their success in a vacuum. And, if they had failed, the combination of skills to opportunity would have manifested for someone else eventually. It’s inevitable.

          • Defendor

            I love Techpinions because we can have deeper conversations, without being crushed by trolls.

            Telsa vs Marconi vs Edison is indeed another great example.
            http://www.pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_whoradio.html

            But Tesla, at least today gets a lot credit, and I am thinking also of the countless people who moved the state of the art that aren’t well known at all.

            Especially in industry, there are very few examples of standout, genius level breakthroughs. Ford/Gates are merely beneficiaries of inevitable progress that was upon us. Take them out of the picture and I don’t think history would really be any different.

            There are true ahead of their time geniuses that I think moved us ahead. I would put Tesla in that camp, especially for his development of Alternating Current generators/motors/transmission/transformers. I think we legitimately might have lagged by a generation without him.

            The computer industry was already in the midst of exploding when Gates entered the picture. It’s trajectory was already unstoppable. I really see no great leap forward from his efforts, no contribution to the scientific/artistic advances in the field. Gates was primarily a very shrewd and VERY ruthless business man, that made sure his firm got the biggest piece of the pie in an exploding market.

          • James King

            Agreed. (My apologies for the late response)

      • Scott Sterling

        I think your generosity is commendable, but you’re mixing two different things together. Just because you like what he’s doing now (me too), that has no bearing on any evaluation of what he did at Microsoft.

        There’s no doubt that he used ruthless-to-illegal tactics and built software products which, while accomplishing certain functional objectives, were of mediocre-to-poor quality.

        Here’s hoping his current endeavors relieve more misery than the misery Microsoft brought to the experience of computing.

        • Good point. Though I think I was far too long in acknowledging Gates good works.

          • Scott Sterling

            Yep, he’s doing good stuff.

      • Joe_HTH

        You’re an Apple shill. You should apologize more for that.

    • Jason Thomas Carter

      You are a sick person. Rather than mention polio or malaria or access to fresh water you start spouting off TRS-80 crap.. Glad you are on this planet.

  • S0MA

    a rare article; both eloquent and apologetic, whilst being factual in highlighting relevant issues.
    kudos

    • Avi

      yes it is rare. Why don’t you start taking pot and then you would also write such rare stuff.

      • Jason Thomas Carter

        Yeah, because smoking pot is rare.

  • Avi

    you seem to be taking too much pot now-a-days

  • Dougal Watt

    Gates efforts in school reform are laughable, and anything but positive, as is most of the global education reform movement. This idiotic obsession with test results, performance pay for teachers, naming and shaming etc is one of the reasons the US has such a lowly ranked education system. Instead of this claptrap designed to profit from eduction through privatisation (which research shows delivers as good or worse educational outcomes), his foundation should look to Finland to understand what makes a successful educational system. Sadly I don’t think there’s any appetite to do this in the US as they espouse a collaborative decentralised model that’s just not amenable to profit taking by corporates like Gates.

    • Pay for performance! My God. The man’s a monster. What next – judging people based on results?

      • Dougal Watt

        You mean performance and results like what you scored on some simplistic test that measures at most three of the 30-40 dimensions of learning that really matter, but you can’t be bothered to assess because, actually, in practical reality you can’t because they’re so complex and subjective?

        Or performance pay systems, like we all assume businesses operate to measure employee performance? Oh but it turns out that in reality they overwhelmingly measure and reward only simple things at nothing like the level of complexity teaching outcomes for children requires, because research has time and again shown that you can’t measure complex behaviour, and if you try, you disincentivise the very thing you’re trying to incent.

        Yes, that pay for performance, those results.

        And while you’re at it, why not read about the worlds most successful education system in Finland – they used to test to death and try ranking teachers and paying accordingly, and because this resulted in crap outcomes, they threw it out and started from scratch. This link gives a good quick overview:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/05/15/what-if-finlands-great-teachers-taught-in-u-s-schools-not-what-you-think/

        By all means, let’s pay for results – at a system level, because at the micro level (classrooms, students, teachers) actual teacher performance is really only 10-20% of what matters in terms of outcomes. Poverty is the single biggest influence on educational outcomes, but politicians and business don’t want to address that because then we would hold their feet to the fire. Fix that, don’t create problems that don’t exist by trying to destroy a system and replace it with a worse one.

        • Joe_HTH

          Oh God stop it. Nobody said Gates was perfect or that he was never wrong. He’s even admitted to being wrong on a number of issues.

  • Joe_HTH

    “If, as Steve Jobs said, Bill Gates “just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas,”

    ROTFLMAO! Jobs had no shame, because he ripped off Xerox. That’s where the GUI came from.

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