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iPhone App Maker Justifies Charging Blind Customers Extra for VoiceOver Accessibility

December 23, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A recent version 2.0 update to Awareness!, an iOS app that enables the user of an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch to hear important sounds in their environment while listening through headphones, features six available in-app purchases, including one that enables VoiceOver accessibility for the company’s blind customers.

Awareness! The Headphone App, authored by small developer Essency, costs 99 cents in the iTunes Store. VoiceOver support for the app costs blind customers over five times its original price at $4.99.

Essency co-founder Alex Georgiou said the extra cost comes from the added expense and development time required to make Awareness! Accessible with Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader.

“Awareness! is a pretty unusual App. Version 1.x used a custom interface that did not lend itself very well for VoiceOver,” he said. “Our developers tried relabeling all the controls and applied the VoiceOver tags as per spec but this didn’t improve things much. There were so many taps and swipe gestures involved in changing just one setting that it really was unusable.”

Essency’s developers tackled the accessibility challenge by means of a technique the blind community knows all too well with websites like Amazon and Safeway that offer a separate, incomplete accessibility experience requiring companies to spend additional funds on specialized, unwanted customer-service training and technical maintenance tasks.

“The solution was to create a VoiceOver-specific interface, however, this created another headache for our developers,” Georgiou said. “It meant having the equivalent of a dual interface: one interface with the custom controllers and the other optimized for VoiceOver. It was almost like merging another version of Awareness! in the existing app.”

As an example of the need for a dual-interface approach and a challenge to the stated simplicity of making iOS apps accessible, Georgiou described a portion of the app’s user interface the developers struggled to make accessible with VoiceOver:

“Awareness! features an arched scale marked in percentages in the centre of a landscape screen with a needle that pivots from left to right in correspondence to sound picked up by either the built in mic or inline headphones. You change the mic threshold by moving your finger over the arched scale which uses a red filling to let you know where it’s set. At the same time, a numerical display appears telling you the dBA value of the setting. When the needle hits the red, the mic is switched on and routed to your headphones. To the right you have the mic volume slider, turn the mic volume up or down by sliding your finger over it. Then you have a series of buttons placed around the edges that control things like the vibrate alarm, autoset, mic trigger and the settings page access.”

Georgiou said maintaining two separate user interfaces, one for blind customers and another for sighted, comes at a high price.

“At the predicted uptake of VoiceOver users, we do not expect to break even on the VoiceOver interface for at least 12 to 18 months unless something spectacular happens with sales,” he said. “We would have loved to have made this option free, unfortunately the VoiceOver upgrade required a pretty major investment, representing around 60% of the budget for V2 which could have been used to further refine Awareness and introduce new features aimed at a mass market.”

Georgiou said this dual-interface scheme will continue to represent a significant burden to Essency’s bottom line in spite of the added charge to blind customers.

“Our forecasts show that at best we could expect perhaps an extra 1 or 2 thousand VoiceOver users over the next 12 to 18 months,” he said. “At the current pricing this would barely cover the costs for the VoiceOver interface development.”

Georgiou said payment of the $4.99 accessibility charge does not make the app fully accessible at this time.

“It is our intention that the VoiceOver interface will continue to be developed with new features such as AutoPause and AutoSet Plus being added on for free,” he said. “Lack of time did not allow these features to be included in this update.”

Georgiou said the decision to make Awareness! Accessible had nothing to do with business.

“From a business perspective it really didn’t make sense for us to invest in a VoiceOver version but we decided to go ahead with the VoiceOver version despite the extra costs because we really want to support the blind and visually impaired,” he said. “It was a decision based on heartfelt emotion, not business.”

Georgiou said accessibility should be about gratitude and he would even consider it acceptable for a company to charge his daughter four to five times as much for something she needed if she were to have a disability.

“Honestly, I would be grateful and want to encourage as many parties as possible to consider accessibility in apps and in fact in all areas of life,” he said. “I would not object to any developer charging their expense for adding functionality that allowed my daughter to use an app that improved her life in any way. In this case, better to have than not.”

Georgiou said he wants to make it clear he and his company do not intend to exploit or harm blind people.

“I first came into contact with a blind couple when I was 10 years old through a Christian Sunday school (over 38 years ago),” he said. “They were the kindest couple I ever met and remember being amazed at the things they managed to do without sight. I remember them fondly. I could not imagine myself or my partner doing anything to hurt the blind community.”

A common thread in many of Georgiou’s statements seems to ask how a small company strikes a balance between doing the right thing and running a financially sustainable business that supports their families.

“I don’t think you understand, we’re a tiny company. We’re not a corporate,” he said. “The founders are just two guys who have families with kids, I’ve got seven!”

Georgiou said he understands how accessibility is a human right that ought to be encouraged and protected.

“I recognize that there is a problem here that can be applied to the world in general and it’s important to set an acceptable precedent,” he said. “I think I’ve already made my opinions clear in that I believe civilized society should allow no discrimination whatsoever.”

In spite of accessibility as a human right in the civilized world, Georgiou said he believes this consideration must be balanced with other practical business needs.

“When it comes to private companies, innovation, medicine, technology, etc., It’s ultra-important all are both encouraged and incentivized to use their talents to improve quality of life in all areas,” Georgiou said. “The question is who pays for it? The affected community? The government? The companies involved?”

17 opinions on “iPhone App Maker Justifies Charging Blind Customers Extra for VoiceOver Accessibility

  1. It might have been cheaper for the developer if he would have followed Apple’s guidelines in the first place. That way they wouldn’t have had to develop two seperate apps.

  2. Considering that this is a very special application and doesn’t use a standard interface, I can understand where they might have to charge something for voice over access. Remember this is a very small company and development costs really have to be considered here. I understand both sides being a sighted programmer in the past and now being a blind person trying to use many types of assistive technology that all seem to have added costs involved. I do believe blind people deserve and should demand equal access to applications just like sighted people have access to. I also understand though that this comes at a cost sometimes. There is no such thing as a free lunch, even for blind people.


  3. I understand that there are costs involved, but why charge anywhere from 5 to 12 times as much to a blind person when the cost can be “shared” around the entire customer base. Charging a blind person for their right to access at 5 times the market rate is unconscionable. But then, I see it all the time like the $79.00 microwave at walmart that costs $499 (and all it had is a change in the smooth panel keypad and the addition of a $15.00 speech synth chip). there are other examples, but this one points out the fleecing we have to put up with.

    btw, I am blind (now total for 5+ months) and I run across this problem a lot more.

  4. I very much agree with Rick. It seems that following Apple’s guidelines would not work in this case because the app in question has a totally unique interface, with completely custom controls. It might work a bit better though if the app were to cost, say, $2 instead of $1. The cost of accessibility could be shared among everyone who purchases the app. Apple actually practices this themselves; everyone pays something like $15 for accessibility, which adds up to be worthwhile for Apple and its customers. It is not an extreme amount for one person to pay, but shared among everyone who purchases the product. That might be something to consider.

  5. Um, ok. This is another of those cases where sighted people pay less than we do, which is sad. I so disagree with the developer’s statement… Not to mention, applevis gave away promo codes. Now users although got the app still have to pay for it, and that’s even more than for the original price.

  6. I suspect this came about because of the insistence on a very custom interface for the app. Once you go down that route, making a separate interface (whether for accessibility or other reasons) will be costly.

    I suspect you could fulfil the same functionality with a more standard interface (I bought the app to see). If you start with the assumption of using standard controls, and put effort in up-front on creating one interface for all, you’d probably end up with a $2 app for all.

    I’m not an iOS coder, but one example might be: rather than using something that looks like a dial, you could use a vertical volume indicator, that is programatically based on a slider.

    I could be wrong, but I’m about 70% sure you could make it a one-interface app without impacting the functionality for current users (although it might look different).

  7. I just want to know what sorts of costs we’re talking about here. As a developer myself I totally understand that developing a separate application alongside the main application is extremely annoying. But if these developers are two people doing this as a sort of hobby, not a corporation, they can’t be paying a staff of developers. So unless there’s some cost I’m overlooking here thse people are deciding how much they think they deserve to make for the extra effort. I’m really not sure what to think. Why not share it over the entire customer base? Because our community is too small? The developers obviously care enough about the blind to go out of their way to do this because trust me, it’s very inconvenient.

    If the developers tell us what these mysterious costs are I might feel a little better.

  8. One thing to keep in mind is that this developer is not a huge corporation like the blind community is used to fighting. That is where the iTunes app store has changed things. It allows any average Joe to develop an app and try to make a dollar or two at it. I strongly suspect that what lead to all of this is constant hounding and pressure on these 2 guys to make it accessible. So I have asked this question before and got no response from the people that pressured this to happen. Were there any alternative apps that were looked into that do the same thing? Also blind people need to keep this in mind. Although there are productivity apps for the I devices, the intention of this particular app is not one of them. It is merely a toy that originally was meant as a way to listen to music with headphones while giving the ability to also hear the environment around you while listening to music. I also ask this. How many of the people that hounded and pressured these two guys to make their app accessible actually bought the app to see how well they did, or did they just bitch that the price was set too high, and decided to cause a bigger scene? I am ashamed of the blind community for making such an example of 2 guys that did take the time to learn what accessibility was, what voice over was, and to make an app for the blind. While I do agree that they did set their price too high for such a toy, I do not agree with the people who pressured them into making the app accessible, then snubbed their nose at them by not even trying the app, nor working with them on the accessibility matters during development. The blind community far too often just assumes that the sighted world knows that accessibility exists, and they demand too much without the willingness to teach first. So I say, shame on you blind community, shame on you, and go look for an alternative, because they exist, you just have not looked.

  9. Hi All,
    I’ve been following your comments (and various other news groups across the web) and feel now is the right time to make a ‘statement’.

    Firstly I’d like to congratulate Darrell for picking up on the ‘story’ here, its mostly accurate apart from a few typical journo like misquotes such as:
    “Georgiou said accessibility should be about gratitude and he would even consider it acceptable for a company to charge his daughter four to five times as much for something she needed if she were to have a disability.”

    Like anyone would say you should be grateful for accessibility!

    If anyone wants to read what really I said, contact me and I’ll send an exact copy of the email correspondence Darrell based his story on.

    Sorry Darrell, you did not need to color this one, it only detracts from the interests you are trying to protect?

    If I may reply to some of the concerns I’ve seen posted about our app Awareness.

    Although we were encouraged to make Awareness more accessible we were never hounded to do so and did not need much encouragement either.

    When we (my partner and I) heard a particular podcast (don’t want to namedrop) we were actually overjoyed that we had created something that improved the quality of life for some of our users.

    I would call that moment inspirational and it would not have mattered in the slightest who those users were, visually impaired or not.

    I must stress it most definitely was not sympathy or pity!

    It’s the emotion only an inventor can feel when they have created that improves or can improve lives.

    Awareness was never meant as a gimmick or novelty, it has a useful function in today’s headphone loving society and according to some feedback has already saved at least 1 life.

    essency is a small company, founded by 2 ex recording engineers on the tightest budget and is supported by 2 other music loving professionals who work for next to nothing and a promise.

    In other words we’re not a corporate with unlimited funds.

    We are not programmers, we hire a team of developers who did a fantastic job for us, they way overshot on delivery time but stayed committed until completion and did not charge an extra penny for the extra months they spent on the project.

    The interface is beautiful, emulating a classic VU meter that could not have been built without custom controllers.

    When specifying and building Awareness I admit we were ignorant when it came to accessibility, we realize that was wrong and have learned a lot since!

    However even if we had known about accessibility back then we would not have changed the standard interface.

    To us, its ideal, visually it has a high impact, and has an air of familiarity amongst users while introducing a new concept, this is no easy feat.

    At the same time if we had been aware of the accessibility issues back then, we would not have excluded a VoiceOver option by choice.

    If the budget permitted it, we would’ve opted for one of 2 things, either a separate dedicated app or a dedicated UI optimised for VoiceOver.

    Both options would’ve added some extra expense to the project but at the same time the advantage of a VO optimised interface allows us to develop the interface and focus specifically on the needs of visually impaired users without the hindrance or restraint caused by having one general display where looks are important.

    Had we stuck to the first business model the issue of costs would not have arisen, there were no In App Purchases and there was just one flat price.

    In such a cutthroat market, this didn’t work for us so we chose to go down the In App Purchase route, this allowed us to compete at the lowest price with a solid app that users can customize to their liking and only pay for the features they use.

    The optimised UI for VoiceOver was expensive, when we worked it out, it will not pay for itself for well over a year, maybe 2.

    We decided to bundle the VoiceOver interface with all the other In App Purchases that worked with VoiceOver (4 extra features) and charge $4.99.

    If you added the individual costs of the other bundled features they work out at $4.96, in effect you’re actually paying 3 cents for the VoiceOver interface.

    However I do not argue the fact that this still amounts to new Awareness users paying $4.99 if they wanted the VoiceOver optimised interface (previous owners of Awareness do NOT have to pay for the VoiceOver interface).

    This is where perhaps we have reached a pivotal point in time that could have set a precedent that either helps or hurts you (or any other disabled community).

    Sadly this point seems to be lost amongst the ‘shouting’ so excuse me if I take the opportunity to put the following to you.

    In the following scenario what do you think should happen?

    Small self financed start up comes across an add on to their invention that aids or improves a disabled persons life.

    It takes a significant investment to create and bring adapted invention to ‘market’.

    Should small self financed company divert its limited resources to adapt invention?

    Are they obliged to? If so by what? E.g. human rights, accessibility laws etc.

    is small self financed start up entitled to see a return on investment?

    if answer to above is yes, how?

    If answer to above is no, how should the project be financed?

    In this specific case adding the cost to the overall price of the product could (would) place the company at a competitive disadvantage, so this is not the answer but then, what is?

    The dangers:
    If small self financed start up is even perceived to be profiting excessively from the blind community it may set a precedent where other developers may take advantage by possibly introducing an unfair premium on their products/apps.

    If small self financed start up cannot recoup costs, it may be pushed under, then product disappears too. Also other small companies may not take the gamble.

    If small self financed start up is discouraged from engaging you, not only are you discouraging other small companies, you are discouraging innovation aimed directly at you that may otherwise not exist.

    Big companies may not be interested unless there’s big bucks involved somewhere along the line.

    As far as I’m concerned this is the – story– that should have been picked up on.

    essency have already decided on its next action regarding this, which may make all of this irrelevant – for now – however this issue may be something that you should consider to define what is acceptable and provide some framework or guide for small companies who may wish to address your ‘market’ in the future.

    If I may, I’d like to leave you with a thought or two.

    As someone who believes in equality, true democracy and total freedom of speech, I do not criticize or harbor bad feelings towards anyone who expresses their genuine beliefs.

    Throughout all of this, as some of you have found, essency has had an open door and willing ears to listen to critique.

    All who have emailed their concerns have been replied to in a civil manner, even the abusive ones.

    We have always been ready not to just listen but to act on improvement and advance.

    Have any of you really thought about just how useful Awareness actually is for disabled users?

    Some of our users are deaf in one ear, they now have the ability to wear headphones without totally shutting themselves out. You of all must realize how important this is to them.

    Some of your community has taken the action of leaving one star reviews on the App Store in what I personally feel is a misguided form of protest (probably also an abuse of the Apple review system).

    How would they feel knowing that they may have denied even one disabled person the pleasure of listening to music or an audio book in private without totally shutting down their sense of hearing?

    Something that some of you already enjoy with Awareness.

    Personally I don’t find any situation where the minority want to affect the majority very democratic or beneficial to their cause, especially when there’s been an open and welcoming door all along.

    We will definitely listen and take the necessary action to improve and rectify mistakes but we will never bow down to mob rule and I hope neither will any of you.

    Judge us as we are.

    Thank you for hearing me out.

    Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and happy new year.


  10. A couple of key points in response to Mr. Georgiou:

    First, if there are inaccuracies with the paraphrasing and quoting of the copy covering gratitude and how you would handle the accessibility needs of your daughter were she to have a disability, they would be unintentional and not “colored” or otherwise malicious in any way as has been insinuated by your comment. Disability-rights activists tend to view key issues like accessibility as human rights, not charities or crumbs we should get because we’re just grateful for what anyone will let us have. Your quotes about gratitude were a prime target for consideration and discussion of this critical problem.

    If anyone would like to see an exact copy of the e-mail sent me covering that content, I would be happy to send it along, providing Mr. Georgiou gives me permission for such a release of the primary source material.

    On a personal note, irrespective of your other comments and the excellent, valid points you have brought up in this discussion, I believe your continued emphasis on gratitude is harmful and counter to the idea you have also said you believed in that accessibility ought to be a human right and there should be no discrimination. I don’t believe, sir, that you can have things both ways. It makes no sense to say, on one hand, that there should be no discrimination while saying, on the other, that people with disabilities should just accept whatever they get with gratitude.

    Accessibility activists like myself can and often do express appreciation and thanks when agencies, companies, organizations and individuals do the right thing by making their technology accessible to blind and people with other disabilities. When we do this, however, we are not expressing gratitude in any way. Instead, we’re expressing heartfelt thanks for the effort taken to facilitate doing what is already the right thing to do by making the choice to be inclusive and welcoming rather than exclusive and cruel.

    Second, I fear there may be a huge confusion with the description and pricing of the VoiceOver in-app purchase option that was never clarified despite our several back-and-forth correspondence and those I know you had with others in the blind community.

    The information in the iTunes Store about the available in-app purchases for Awareness! Currently states the following:

    Top In App Purchases
    2AutoSet Plus$1.99
    3dB Noise Meter$0.99
    5VoiceOver UI$4.99

    This description indicates there are six separately-available in-app purchases with a total price tag of $10.94 for all six. It says absolutely nothing about the other five features being included with the $4.99 VoiceOver update. The iTunes Store description leaves any reasonable customer with the idea that a blind person who wants to use every feature of Awareness! Must start by paying 99 cents followed by a grand total of another $10.94, not just $4.99!

    I sure wish it had been clear much sooner in this back-and-forth that we’re talking about a much-less-significant added cost for blind users! I and others with my beliefs about accessibility might still have engaged you in this discussion, but its character could have been incredibly different and much more positive as you would have certainly received a much more understanding reception from me for what that may have been worth.

    I have a couple of other points to make, but they’re not as important right now, and it’s time for all of us to enjoy Christmas Day. I’ll circle back to them in the next few days.

    Mr. Georgiou, I do deeply appreciate the open-door exchange of ideas and your willingness to communicate candidly with the blind community about your legitimate, real-world issues as a small software developer. This aspect of your participation in the dialogue definitely works in your company’s favor, helps to salvage your customer-service reputation and public goodwill and should, in time, mend the fences with all your customers, whether or not they must deal with disabilities.

    Best regards and merry Christmas,

    Darrell Shandrow

  11. I too would like to thank Mr Georgiou for engaging with us in a discussion about the app. I am aware that we could be simply ignored. I haven’t tried this app as yet, but if the other features were bundled with the voice over accessibility part of the app,I may consider it. From readingt the itunes description, it did appear that users were being charged 99 cents for most features and then there was a 4 dollar something charge for voice over. So, it did appear we were being charged quite a bit extra to be able to use the app. As I have previously stated, I do appreciate the fact that you are willing to engage in a disscussion about these issues.

  12. Hello Mr Shandrow,

    I hope you had a good Christmas.

    Thank you.

    I accept that the inaccuracies referred to in my response were not intended or malicious but in any event I feel they are inaccurate.

    However it would be of no benefit to anyone to argue this out, I’m happy for you to send a copy of the e-mails from me to you regarding the content of your story to anyone who wishes to see them. That way they can come to their own conclusion.

    You say my ‘quotes’ about gratitude “were a prime target for consideration and discussion of this critical problem”.

    I would like to clarify my use of the term ‘gratitude’.

    I understand where you’re coming from and you must frequently come across cases of ignorance for you to be so sensitive on the matter of ‘gratitude’.

    However I now realise that you are talking about people who expect gratitude as opposed to people who give it.

    I’ve never previously considered that gratitude of any kind could be taken as offensive.

    For example, I say thank you to the postman for delivering my mail even though he is duty bound to do so.

    I say thank you to the shop assistant who serves me even though its their job.

    I would be grateful to anyone who helped any of my kids in any situation.

    This attitude has been built into my nature, its the way I am. So when you ask me about how I would feel if…etc. as you have done in the correspondence between us, the gratitude I express in the questions you’ve posed is NOT the same as you have taken it to mean.

    You have raised some important points that can affect how or even if developers market products to the blind community and people with other disabilities.

    I look forward to hearing the other points you wish to make.

    Kind Regards


  13. The developer should simply charge $2 for both versions and supplement the accessibility version with sighted users since it will most likely sell more copies that way. No one would question the price then. Simple as that.

  14. Late to the party, but as an independent iOS developer and a long-time owner of small businesses, I understand — at least in part — Mr. Georgiou’s decision to charge extra for the VoiceOver added interface. Essentially it boils down to the fact that ensuring the app was accessibile wasn’t considered _before_ it was built.

    Even with the custom animated user interface in the standard version, if it had been designed with accessibility in mind the addition of VoiceOver capability would not have been the burden it turned out to be, requiring a complete, additional.

    Mind you, even if VoiceOver hadn’t been considered from the start, a well-structured MVC-compliant design would have made the creation of the additional interface a fairly simple task. MVC stands for “Model-View-Controller,” essentially a programming methodology that keeps the key components of a software design separate, resulting in the user interface (the “View”) being a distinct section of code that isn’t intermingled with the application’s logic (the “Controller”) or its data (the “Model”). This kind of implementation makes it comparatively easy to update the UI or to add and maintain an additional one that’s more VoiceOver friendly.

    Educating developers — and those who hire developers, as in this case — about considering accessibility from the start has become a real interest of mine, as well as making it as easy as possible to convert what you’ve already built,. In addition to the developer-focused accessibility presentation here in Phoenix this week (initiated by Justin Mann), I’m planning to create a major section of our new website to teaching developers what they need to know. And hopefully, inspiring them to take the small amount of additional effort to do so.

  15. So I just bought it, and the additional VoiceOver support. I went looking for this because although I’m not much for the controversial / political business, I was genuinely curious about what this app does. By way of comparison, my wife got me one of those ‘Listen Up’ devices you slip into one ear for Christmas. You focus around by moving your head to pick up on sound.
    This, on the other hand, lets me just move my iPod in a general direction, with stereo headphones in, just like a sighted person with a set of binoculars. Maybe not identical, but the ramifications are pretty profound. I noticed it’s pretty sensitive to the backgrounds and textures of the sounds, which is as important for us as the sounds themselves, just like a sighted person looking at an image set against a backdrop; whether you know it or not, the backdrop plays a major part. So now I’m going to end up conducting some pretty interesting experiments with this: what kind of distance info does it provide? What sort of data does it return via sound?
    No, I have not rated this in the app store yet, but after I have used it for awhile, I will definitely add any info I get into the comments for the rating.
    And guys, this was at the time an extra 4 bucks, not an extra 400. Now they have it so you can buy the VoiceOver as just one add-on. That is the only one I got now because the app itself has so much in it just by itself, I’ll be learning that first.
    Because it comes through headphones, we get everything a headphones view has – and by simply focusing, moving the device around, we can sonically zoom into and out of various zones, or areas, if you will.
    I went out on my front walk, turned on the application, and was able to zoom in on a building across the street because of the existing sound or wind or whatever that bounces off. If you can see and think this is out there, do it with your eyes shut and you’ll hear it. I then proceeded to home in on one of the neighborhood birds. I noticed it changed focus very quickly, you can hear yourself moving it if you’re not careful, but still I could home in on the bird in the tree chirping, normally almost out of earshot but well within range for this device.
    So is it possible we can use it to establish patterns, as an extension of what we already do spatially with sound? Already we benefit by ourselves from a certain amount of sonic imagery, but we can’t do what bats do: emit high frequencies and get the feedback from nearby objects. But, radically, no matter what the app store says, I’m thinking this app could. Not by emitting the frequencies, but us learning just how to tune the sliders and such, and, more to the point, focus, the way a sighted person does with a set of field glasses.
    Notice how the sound changes just in the air as you move the device. So is this an inkling of what could be for us the closest thing to very rudimentary distance vision? I think anyone who has messed with this app for awhile ought to add feedback as it relates to pattern recognition: can you tell with it where a wall starts and stops, etc. The mic on the iPod Touch 4th Gen sure does seem to be sensitive.
    I’m not suggesting walking down the street holding your device in the air, not yet anyway till we know about drop-offs which I for one will test, but certainly to get a feel for the general layout of a large area that exceeds your ability to hear surroundings, like a park or something, or give you the right feedback to find your way back from someplace, the uses of this app seem to be pretty expansive.

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