August 27, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Coming to grips with the iPhone's design

Is one hand better than two?

For years, smart-phone designers have built products around the premise that people should only have to use one hand to look up a contact, scroll through e-mail, or answer a call. Think of a business traveler rushing through an airport, trying to check voice mail while searching for the gate and recaffeinating.

But Apple, as it is wont to do, headed in the other direction with the iPhone. If you've got long, flexible fingers you can use the iPhone with one hand, but most of us have to use two to do just about anything on the iPhone's touch-screen interface, as shown in the demonstration videos produced by Apple.

"Some fundamental ergonomic principles come at the cost of really cool-looking design."
--Bryce Rutter, CEO, Metaphase Design Group

The smart-phone industry is still very young, relatively speaking, so it's not like these design goals have been set in stone. But the iPhone is forcing the industry to rethink the one-handed method, if only because sacrificing that piece of design dogma has allowed Apple to make a breakthrough with the user interface on the iPhone, according to several consumer electronics design experts interviewed for this article.

"Right now, we are going through this phase where it's really open-ended," said Mark Rolston, senior vice president of creative for Frog Design. "Nobody's talking in the traditional vocabulary, they are all thinking about what we are trying to accomplish in terms of usage."

The smart phones that most people are familiar with--the Nokias, BlackBerrys and Treos--only require one hand for basic operation. Obviously, typing on the QWERTY keyboards used by most of those devices is a two-handed operation, but navigating through the menu, looking up a contact, and using countless other functions only requires a single hand.

"Everyone is still trying to make a one-handed product," Rolston said. "It's the easiest way to distinguish a truly portable device from a workstation. Handhelds are about doing something else (while using the handheld), they fit within the context of people's active lives."

To achieve those goals, one-handed phones have to have real buttons--famously dismissed by Apple CEO Steve Jobs--that give people the ability to feel their way around a keypad, said Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer of New Deal Design. "People are getting so visceral with their phones; they can pick up the phone in the middle of the night and know what button to hit."

News.com Poll

A show of hands
What's the better approach for smart-phone design?

The iPhone's two-handed method
Traditional one-hand design
Different phones, different designs
Blending the best of both



View results

Try doing that with the iPhone. The lack of tactile buttons--except for the home button--has forced Apple into a two-handed mode of operation because users need to have the phone directly in front of them, with their attention focused on the screen, to make sure they are hitting the right buttons, the designers agreed.

Apple declined to make executives from its iPhone group available for this article, so it's hard to know exactly what was going through the company's mind. But the designers interviewed for this story think they have an idea.

"What has happened is that as the complexity of phones and the multidimensional capability of phones has increased, the ability to have an easy interface with them has become more challenging," said Bryce Rutter, co-founder and CEO of Metaphase Design Group.

While all designers bemoaned the lack of physical buttons, they also said Apple's touch-screen approach is a breakthrough in terms of how people interact with their phones.

You don't need a button to move the screen on an iPhone. You just move the screen, dragging your finger across it to scroll around or zoom in and out. "Touch introduces all sorts of compromises, but you can directly interact with the screen," Rolston said.

One of those compromises is the need to use two hands to properly operate an iPhone. "Some fundamental ergonomic principles come at the cost of really cool-looking design," Rutter said.

Physical buttons would have required Apple to make compromises on the size and quality of the screen, and would take away some of the flexibility of the iPhone. Buttons drawn by software can be discarded when the user switches to another application, but on other smart phones, a healthy portion of the device is covered with buttons that only come into play when typing.

So, is this a problem for Apple? Will users be frustrated by the need to keep two hands on their iPhones at all times? Perhaps at first, but there are some likely outcomes.

CONTINUED: Accommodating the one-handers…
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89 comments

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Keep your hands on the wheel!
I don't hear or read about any complaints about Apple's iPhone
requiring two-handed usage. Maybe we should be concerned,
especially with the boneheads who want to text and surf while
driving. My thoughts - "Your in a car not a phone booth you idiots,
pay attention to your driving!"
Posted by oversightcommittee (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Absolutely. :-)
--- The iPhone sucks because I cannot drive my car and text. How crappy is that? LOL LOL I love it.

I think this article is the standard "Apple product are totally great in every way but one, so they suck terribly." This rapt concern about physical buttons reminds me of when cars started going to automatic transmissions. "You cannot push start a car with an automatic transmission. So it must be a terrible thing. You should never use it. It will not be reliable"

Of course today, most cars come with an automatic transmission and you have to special order a manual transmission. :-) Ain't life weird.???

en
Posted by eldernorm (220 comments )
Link Flag
iPod
My goodness! What is the problem with having to use 2-hands! Think teenagers driving and IM'ing while they run into the front end of an 18 wheeler and 3 of them die. Think about the rude dude/dudess in the staff meeting checking email, accepting or making phone calls and sending IM's while the boss is talking. Think about the rude person in the restaurant. Why is it a bad thing to make it hard for them to use a handheld whatever 'under the table'???? Turn it off and put in your pocket or purse. Whoever is calling or messaging or whatever will still be there when you come out of the restaurant. The world will still be turning.
The dam_ed things should be turned off in a restaurant, and a theater and a meeting room and................... we are whining because it requires 2-hands?
Unbelievable. For once the mega ego Steve has made a good choice. More power to him. I would prefer a wireless device that would need three hands! Or be smart enuff to know when it was in a restaurant, theater, meeting, moving vehicle of any type and turn off or at least go into silent mode.
Where were we before these things invaded? Think person shopping in WalMart and talking on a cell phone; "Which isle are you in now?"
Enough.
Posted by Katofohio (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
iPhone, iPod, iWireless anything
My goodness! What is the problem with having to use 2-hands! Think teenagers driving and IM'ing while they run into the front end of an 18 wheeler and 3 of them die. Think about the rude dude/dudess in the staff meeting checking email, accepting or making phone calls and sending IM's while the boss is talking. Think about the rude person in the restaurant. Why is it a bad thing to make it hard for them to use a handheld whatever 'under the table'???? Turn it off and put in your pocket or purse. Whoever is calling or messaging or whatever will still be there when you come out of the restaurant. The world will still be turning.
The dam_ed things should be turned off in a restaurant, and a theater and a meeting room and................... we are whining because it requires 2-hands?
Unbelievable. For once the mega ego Steve has made a good choice. More power to him. I would prefer a wireless device that would need three hands! Or be smart enuff to know when it was in a restaurant, theater, meeting, moving vehicle of any type and turn off or at least go into silent mode.
Where were we before these things invaded? Think person shopping in WalMart and talking on a cell phone; "Which isle are you in now?"
Enough.
Posted by Katofohio (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
and since your on the topic
lets install gps chips so that our family knows when we are in the bathroom so they don't accidently call us, and if your driving down the road 5miles over you can alert the police from your phone, letting them know your on the way....
Posted by sparticusx (10 comments )
Link Flag
Thumb wrestling with my iPhone
I've been struggling with the touch screen since I've had my
iPhone. I would say that at least 50% of my phone is poly-
chronic and the iPhone does really require your full attention.

One-handed operation and the overall discrepancy of scale of
the UI creates user challenges considering the tight cluster of
querty keys and then the giant easy-reader keypad. If I use the
phone with my right hand I can't really reach the "1" with my
thumb. A straight up palm grip renders your thumb useless so
you need to lock the phone into the flesh of your thumb.

The keypad could actually be smaller with the option for right or
left hand use and it could follow the arc of your thumb if the
keys had a slight radial alignment or just adapt to the user's
hand size.

I've been researching the use of haptic feedback and Samsung
has integrated this technology into a touch phone. Here's a link:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.time4.com/time4/microsites/popsci/howitworks/ce" target="_newWindow">http://www.time4.com/time4/microsites/popsci/howitworks/ce</a>
llphone_motor.html

I'd be interested in hearing why Apple didn't pursue this as it
"feels" like it could help.

I love the device overall.
Posted by gergle (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
NO TINY BUTTONS!
No tiny buttons - period.

As the author suggests, I think the iPhone is a step in the adaption
and development of a type of personal technology, but I can tell
you I'd much rather wrestle with the iPhones big virtual buttons,
that also have very good visual feedback that let's you know what
you just pushed, than the stupidly unuseable tiny buttons of the
Treo, Blackberry, et. al. I would not even consider a "smart" phone
for my personal use until Apple's iPhone got here.
Posted by rbiz (49 comments )
Reply Link Flag
iPhone Killer App - NO HANDS !
Isn't it obvious? The device has a microphone and an operating
system. What's lacking, and what would be a true KILLER APP for
the iPhone, is DICTATION SOFTWARE. (Like iListen, for example.)
This could let a user dictate an outgoing Email to be picked up on
a home computer later for filing or printing. Also, with one-button
initiation, there would no need for 2-handed operation, or even for
much finger work at all!
Posted by Al Feldzamen (32 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Right...
Dictation has always been done very well. example "Call grandma" and the result..."hello this is comcast tech support"....resulting in yelling at your phone...although im sure iPhone users are use to doing this. Besides the iPhone is so huge its bigger than some UMPCs (thats like a computer...ya know)
Posted by sparticusx (10 comments )
Link Flag
Or maybe...
Since it has a microphone and OS, how about being able to do an audio recording and then attach it to an e-mail message. That would be a lot more reliable than the speech recognition approach.
Posted by Norseman (1319 comments )
Link Flag
Yeah, right.
Continuing the quest to prove that the iPhone is all wrong, and
DOOMED! DOOMED! to a miniscule fraction of "the" market.
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Tiny Buttons Are Poor UI!
The iPhone design is the first "smartphone" designed for the
average person. Most people don't learn what all those tiny
buttons do, and don't "pick up the phone in the middle of the
night and know what button to hit." The average person are
stymied by the multilevel menus that those kinds of phone. They
never begin to learn all the functions of their phone because
they're too difficult to learn or access.

I'm extremely happy with the UI from my iPhone, and I've happily
discarded the "one hand" model designed for geeks who seem to
have nothing better to do!
Posted by Steve Werner (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No commitment needed
Apple hasn't asked anyone to commit to two handed typing. If you want to do it, try it out, and if it works for you, fine. If you, like me, want to use one hand for the operation of the phone, that works fine as well.

NO cell phone (or PDA, or tiny device of similar size) is well suited for SMS and similar tasks. It is a matter of making a compromise. The iPhone's compromise is better than most (if not all) that is out there. The rest of the UI is a MUCH better improvement over the mess out there in the industry that passes for a user interface.
Posted by justice007 (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
One hand works
I'm not convinced that the iPhone is a two-hand device. I use mine
about half the time with just one hand, although I can type faster
on the virtual qwerty keyboard with two hands. I have no problem
scrolling through my contacts with a flick of my thumb up or down
the list, then tapping the correct spot on a contact to dial. The one
problem area I've noticed, and this is with one or two hands, is
listening to my top voicemail- about a quarter of the time I tap the
"greeting" button instead, and have to cancel out to get back to
voicemail...
Posted by sandsunsurf (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The industry still doesn't get it...
"Being able to engage an iPhone at a restaurant without looking like a total idiot is really important," Rolston said. "You have to sneak it under the table, which requires a higher target precision."

This guy has completely missed the point of Apple products, from the iPhone and iPod, all the way back to the first iMac. This is the type of guy who still can't fathom why we're not all using beige computers with beige monitors and beige peripherals. Apple is not about utility. They're about style.

They're about making a product that looks so appealing that you don't want to hide it under the table at the restaurant. A product that the friend with whom you're having lunch would gladly stop whatever they're saying just to watch you use this utterly cool looking device for 30 seconds. Its been Apple's M.O. for years now. Its the reason they have fashion industry execs on their board of directors. Its what allowed Apple to take the mp3 player from geeky to chic in a matter of months. And its what will allow them to dominate the cell phone industry while the engineers continue to scratch their heads in their beige offices.
Posted by No_Man (77 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Gets It
I have been "getting it" for that last 17 years. That's how long I
have been using, buying and loving Apple products. But I want to
take your comments one step further... Sure they are pretty, but
don't forget they are also functional, user-friendly, and literally
indestructible machines. If I can't run it on a Mac, it's not worth
using. The technology of Apple will ALWAYS be decades ahead of
the others, the fact that it comes in a pretty package is just a bonus
for us.
Posted by shycelticwitch (1042 comments )
Link Flag
another product made for idiots
Apple has made a huge name for itself by making products that are easy for the technically challenged to use.

First the Mac, a computer for technophobes. Yep- it taught us all a few things about UI design.

Then the iPod, which taught us all that if Apple built something different, the sheep would gladly pay too much money for it. Yes, MP3 players and download software were a bit cumbersome for some people to understand, and Apple fixed that, while introducing us to yet another proprietary file format...

Now the iPhone- an oversized and overpriced telephone built for people too dumb to understand a cell phone.
Posted by Button Boy (71 comments )
Link Flag
iPhone compared to the Lisa and Newton in riskiness?
iPhone is a brilliant product. To compare it to the Lisa or the
Newton is absurd.

I have no complaints other than EDGE-onlyt, and for iPhone to be
the first iteration and have this much success should silence critics
as to whether Apple knows what it's doing or not.
Posted by johnbbr (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
i love my iPhone, but.....
There are several things that I would change. I'd start with the Edge network. Then hands free dialing. A flash for the phone would be nice (half of my pictures are blurry). A quick dial feature. Flash (although that is in the works). GPS to work with Google Maps. Although not a complaint, what would be really, really cool a if you could use your phone as the remote for your Apple TV or laptop. But this is definitely not the Newton.
Posted by heavydevelopment (109 comments )
Link Flag
Lisa and Newton as brilliant a product as iPhone.
It is perfectly fine to compare the iPhone with the Lisa and Newton, as both of these products where fantastic when they came out. All of them broke new technological ground but market failure only came much later. Never forget that the Lisa and Newton were also brilliant products just like the iPhone.
Posted by cbazza (90 comments )
Link Flag
cnet...did u try the iPhone?
I read this article and can only surmise the writer hasn't used an
iPhone for any length of time. Most likely just for a few minutes
in order to write this.

Myself and two kids have iPhones. The 13 year old operates it
with one hand for goodness sake. Let alone myself and the 17 yr
old.

Being a cell phone user since 1985. And a hand held user since
1986 I do have some experience. And coming off a Motorola
RAZR, which I used from the day of release, using this one
handed was not easy. Manly because it took s many numerous
clicks to get anywhere. So the hand and fingers constantly
needed to be adjusted to accomplish something. The iPhone is
infinitely easier to operate one handed. One click and you have
what you need. Yes look at the screen for the icon, but then
done. And I don't have large hands or long fingers. Average. To
quote from the article, "People are getting so visceral with their
phones; they can pick up the phone in the middle of the night
and know what button to hit." That is just not true other than
answering. Unless a flip to open. Whether a Blackberry or iPhone,
a user hs to using the screen. The quote is just plain false.
Another quote, "navigating through the menu, looking up a
contact, and using countless other functions only requires a
single hand" This is simple one handed using the iPhone. One
hand to slide to unlock, one click on phone icon. Done. Why is
that so much harder on an iPhone than any other phone? All one
handed.

Through all negative articles written by people about the iPhone,
which I include this one, their largest complaint is the iPhone is
not the same form factor as current "smart" phones. All these so
called tech writers, deride innovation. They prefer the status
que. So strange.

This article no different. It's not really an opinion or review of the
iPhone. It's promoted as first and foremost a critical flaw the
iPhone was/is not a copy of current "smart" phones. So it's not to
be taken seriously.

Use the iPhone Mr. Krazit. If you can't operate most features one
handed after a few days, it's not the phones fault.

Or, it could just be that advertising dollars come into play once
again. I don't see any Apple ads on this site. It might just be RIM,
Blackberry, Moto, Sony ad dollars need to be protected?
Posted by mozart11 (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Don't worry, I have used it
And I'm sorry, it's not the easiest phone to use one-handed. If you're right-handed, it's really hard to reach that thumb into the upper left corner to reach the "Text" or "Calendar" buttons. Opposite if you're left-handed.

Sure, it can be done, but it wasn't designed with one-hand usage in mind. Apple, in all their demonstration videos and commercials, shows the iPhone being used with two hands.

The point of this article is that companies have to make design choices, and tradeoffs, when they bring new things to market. Most traditional smart phone designers would have wanted Apple to stay on the one-handed track, but they chose this approach, which allowed them to introduce the touch screen interface that has wowed almost all iPhone users. The tradeoff was that they had to make it a two-handed device.

But that's not necessarily a flaw. It's a design choice; they couldn't do the touchscreen and "one-button" approach if they adhered to the traditional one-handed design. So they did this, and now the whole industry is rethinking the one-handed method because of how people have responded to the touchscreen.
Posted by Tom Krazit (436 comments )
Link Flag
Wait a sec
You spent $600+ on a phone you gave a 13 year old?

Thats just... I can't think of a word that isn't offensive to finish that
thought.
Posted by rapier1 (2722 comments )
Link Flag
one hand?
Did those famous designers everf consider those of us who possess only one hand?
Posted by Donald K Isburgh (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
news to me
I've been using the iphone singlehandedly since i got it, so i
really don't understand the premise of your article...
Posted by ebernet (56 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I type just fine with one finger.
I see no problem.
Posted by inachu (963 comments )
Reply Link Flag
One handed use - smart?
Even if it were accurate that two hands were required to use the majority of the iPhones features, as one other poster pointed out. One handed usage is about being able to use a smart phone while driving. That is hardly smart.
Posted by swray (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not while driving
While many people do use their phones while driving, that's not the intent of 1handed use.

1handed use has benefits in all other areas of being mobile. Laptops are mobile. PDAs are mobile. Tablets are mobile. But all these require the end user to use 2hands, or find an optimal position or situation before full operation can be done with the device.

1handed use reigns supreme navigating large masses of people, packed commuter transports, shopping malls, social events, carrying books/bags etc., while soakiing in the tub/jacuzzi, smoking, eating, moving, running, jogging. Every situation where you're truly mobile and need to multi-task.

I wrote a long reply to this article trying to explain it all in as short a manner as possible. It's complicated and I would have liked to have added more.
Posted by ounkeo (5 comments )
Link Flag
Same as Blackberry and most Smartphones!
This is basically ridiculous. Blackberry users are seen all over the
place with their BOTH thumbs a wagging!
Posted by digiprod--2008 (36 comments )
Reply Link Flag
one hand
I don't have one yet but in terms of getting one, this story just killed that possibility. I frequently use my phone when I only have one had available to dial or to scroll contacts and send. Two hands is not an option, and evidently, neither is the iphone.
Posted by zclayton2 (130 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Still one-handed w/ important buttons on bottom...
True to the article, Apple made a design choice to not have buttons, but I would add that they didn't really compromise simple cell phone actions at all since most of the major buttons are along bottom which are (mostly) thumbable and since software derived, can be made more thumbable to suit each user.

If you want to make a call, on home tap bottom left with thumb then choose favorites, recent or keypad. 'End call' is at bottom. All within thumb-reach.

While you would have to have pretty long thumbs to find contacts or even to dial keypad as it currently is, the beauty of the software button interface is that Apple can come up with options like alphabetical sort along bottom as an index, just like how to dial contacts in Verizon's interface where you 'spell' the name with numbers/letters and the OS autofills to find contact:

[ 1 ] [ 2 ] [ 3 ] [ 4 ] [ 5 ]
space abc def ghi jkl
[ 6 ] [ 7 ] [ 8 ] [ 9 ] [ 0 ]
mno pqrs tuv wxyz go

start dialing 2638 until 'cnet' contact is displayed, then click go. You can swap 1=go,0=space for lefties.

Again, the beauty is that with software keys Apple(or an ambitious developer) can redesign and offer this.

Or they could make the keypad more accessible by dropping it 'keyboard' position on the bottom with all numbers along bottom within thumb reach.

AND they can even make the size of the keys and placement customizable for lefties, righties, biggies, tinies!

AND for texting you can adjust the visual size of the letter keys on the keyboard based on frequency of use. And the software, once left/right preference is noted, could even morph the active areas to be angled toward palm on left or right.

Anyway, point is the article is right in indicating that Apple made a more flexible and ultimately personalizable design choice that enables 1,000s of future apps that DON'T depend on keyboard or keypad, developers can put buttons/keys whereever their UI designers decide.

ANd not enabling you to send text messages to your girlfriend while having dinner with your wife may not be a bad thing.

oh4real
Posted by oh4real (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Easy to use one handed
For me the iphone is far easier to use one handed than with two
hands. Using it in my right hand is comfortable and natural.

I expect this is because I've been using a graphing calculator one
handed for years. The size is different, and 'key' layout is very
different, but muscle memory still makes it easier to for me to
type using the side of my thumb than by using both hands.

I do almost everything one handed on my iPhone; make calls,
type, play games, etc. The only time I use both hands is when
web browsing, where I'm often holding the phone in landscape
mode, and/or using pinching to zoom in on something.
Posted by Harknail (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
One-handed iphone experience
When I read this article, I tried holding the iPhone in my hand,
and typing with my thumb. This actually does work if you have
a bit of patience. It would probably work quite well if I put in
some practice, but truthfully I think we have two hands for a
reason and am happy to make life easier on myself with them.
This was true even on my previous phone, a T-Mobile Sidekick,
which I also used with both hands.

However, almost all other one-handed use of the phone worked
great. I was able to scroll through long documents with my
thumb, and pick messages with my thumb. So if for some
reason my left arm was chopped off or something, I could still
use my iPhone. But to be honest, I think the world would be
better off using the many opportunities we have to sit waiting for
our flight, bored out of our minds, to keep up on our
correspondence, instead of trying to write something coherent
with one hand tied behind our backs.

i think articles like this miss the point. The iPhone is clearly a
much-loved device to which owners feel an emotional
connection. i think Apple is laughing all the way to the bank
instead of worrying.

D
Posted by David H Dennis (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I'll agree with Apple when...
I'll agree with Apple design when the day of tactless keyboard on desktop appears to the mass, and it also widely accepted.

C'mon, we're about 30 years on PC, and still cannot get rid of the physical keyboard, since our finger tips, still needs to feel the feedback of each typed keys.

I don't need to look at the keyboards while typing, neither I do when typing on my E61 (Nokia's Berry).

I've tried for an hour at Apple Store, playing with iPhone, and I cannot type smoothly as I do on my E61.

My feeling iPhone's iPod function, the cover flow or page or album, it's the only coolest thing, when compared to traditional iPod.

And maybe the web broswer, but, ever notice how uneasy it is, when you cannot switch the running programs, like how you do in a Nokia's phone?

The funniest thing is when you look at the iPod, the click wheel, does indeed can be operated with one hand. Not like iPhone.

All PDA, like Windows Pocket or whatever, and/or Palm's PDA needs two hand to fully operated like input data or so using a stylus, but can be use on single hand to browse data.

I'll say, blackberry, treos, are going to stay, for many many years.

Even when computing power and software are strong enough for voice input, keyboards will remain there, I'm talking about real keyboards, and nothing like suretype, see? RIM has not focus on those crazy keyboards, because they're not the standard.

You don't want to dictate your phone to input data while sitting next to a stranger, don't you?
Posted by georgetang (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The best iPhone review
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=iphone" target="_newWindow">http://www.thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=iphone</a>

I generally like Apple products but the iPhone is something I would have expected MS to produce. Big, clunky, overpriced, and under-featured.
Posted by The_Decider (3097 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ridiculous!
Well, apparently, the difficulty of using the iPhone's virtual keyboard has been drastically overstated. Users are adapting and loving it, so now we need to find something else to gripe about. Oh no, accessing some iPhone features may require the use of two hands..like for typing! OMG!

Fortunately, it only takes one hand to throw my bug-ridden Windows Mobile-powered Treo POS across the room!
Posted by The_Raven (50 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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