Ride-hailing was hit hard by COVID-19. Grab’s Russell Cohen on how the company adapted.

September 18, 2020 No Comments

A contactless delivery performed by a Grab delivery driver

A contactless Grab delivery

Ride-hailing services around the world have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Grab was no exception. The company is one of the most highly-valued tech startups in Southeast Asia, where it operates in eight countries. Its transport business suffered a sharp decline in March and April, as movement restriction orders were implemented.

But the company had the advantage of already operating several on-demand logistics services. During Disrupt, Russell Cohen, Grab’s group managing director of operations, talked about how the company adapted its technology for an unprecedented crisis (the video is embedded below).

“We sat down as a leadership group at the start of the crisis and we could see, particularly in Southeast Asia, that the scale of the challenge was so immense,” said Cohen.

Grab’s driver app already allowed them to toggle between ride-hailing and on-demand delivery requests. As a result of COVID-19, over 149,000 drivers began performing on-demand deliveries for the first time, with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand seeing the most conversions. That number included tens of thousands of new drivers who joined the platform to make up for lost earnings during the pandemic.

The challenge was scaling up its delivery services to meet the dramatic increase in demand by consumers, and also merchants who needed a new way to reach customers. In March and April, Cohen said just under 80,000 small businesses joined its platform. Many had never sold online before, so Grab expedited the release of a self-service feature, making it easier for merchants to on-board themselves.

“This is a massive sector of the Southeast Asian economy that effectively digitized within a matter of weeks,” said Cohen.

A lot of the new merchants had previously taken only cash payments, so Grab had to set them up for digital payments, a process made simpler because the company’s financial unit, Grab Financial, already offers services like Grab Pay for cashless payments, mobile wallets and remittance services.

Grab also released a new package of tools called Grab Merchant, which enabled merchants to set-up online businesses by submitting licenses and certification online, and includes features like data analytics.

Modeling for uncertainty in the “new normal”

Part of Grab’s COVID-19 strategy involved collaborating with local municipalities and governments in different countries to make deliveries more efficient. For example, it worked with the Singaporean government to expand a pilot program, called GrabExpress Car, originally launched in September, that enabled more of Grab’s ride-hailing vehicles to be used for food and grocery deliveries. Previously, many of those deliveries were handled only by motorbikes.

The situation in each of Grab’s markets–Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—is still evolving. Some markets have lifted lockdown orders, while others continue to cope with new outbreaks.

Cohen said ride-hailing is gradually recovering in many of Grab’s markets. But the company is preparing for an uncertain future by modeling different scenarios, taking into account potential re-closings, and long-lasting changes in both consumer and merchant behavior.

“Unpredictability is something we think a lot about,” Cohen said. Its models include ones where deliveries are a significantly larger part of its business, because even in countries where movement restrictions have been lifted, customers still prefer to shop online.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the adoption of digital payments in several of Grab’s markets. For example, Grab launched its GrabPay Card in the Philippines three months ago, because more people are beginning to use contactless payments in response to COVID-19 concerns.

In terms of on-demand deliveries, the company is expanding GrabExpress, its same-day courier service, and adapting technology originally created for ride-pooling to help drivers plan pickups and deliveries more efficiently. This will help decrease the cost of delivery services as consumers remain price-conscious because of the pandemic’s economic impact.

“Purchasing behaviors have changed, so for us, when we think about the supply side, the drivers’ side, that means we’ve got to make sure our fleet is flexible,” he said.

Startups – TechCrunch

How to get the most branding bang out of your B2B IPO

September 16, 2020 No Comments

There’s definitely a lot of talk about SPACs these days. But the tried-and-true IPO is still the long-term liquidity goal for most tech startups. CEOs dream of ringing the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or seeing their face splashed across Nasdaq’s giant video screen in Times Square. Late last month, five high-profile tech companies filed on the same day to go public through traditional IPOs, presumably gunning to get out before the November election.

There is obviously a ton of operational, financial and regulatory preparation that goes into a successful initial public offering. But one aspect of IPO planning that often gets short shrift, particularly at B2B-focused companies chasing relatively niche buyer audiences, is branding and communications. As the head of marketing and communications for a big investment firm, I see this all the time. I believe companies who skimp here are throwing away significant equity value.

Simply put, a highly public financing event like an IPO is an enormous branding opportunity for most companies. It’s a free pass for companies to tell their stories to a huge, global audience and rack up high-level press coverage — both at the time of the IPO and in the future, since many publications (like my former employer, the Wall Street Journal) often focus on coverage of larger, publicly traded companies.

Why do so many companies fall down in this area? I think a lot of it has to do with the broader shift toward data-driven, online marketing and away from branding at many companies. Because highly technical companies in areas like hybrid-cloud computing or DevSecOps (yes, that’s a thing) often struggle in their early days to get journalists interested in their stories, they never make communications a priority inside the company. This comes back to haunt them when, all of the sudden, they’ve filed an S-1 and their exec team has zero experience explaining the company’s story in clear, persuasive terms to a general audience.

But smart companies can avoid this trap. Here are five ways you can get the most branding bang out of your tech IPO, no matter how arcane your company’s business is.

Don’t procrastinate

This is honestly the most important point to take away here. Successful PR and communications around an IPO are a result of long-term planning that starts at least 12 to 18 months before you file your offering document with the SEC. Once you think an IPO is in the offing, take a hard look at both your (1) marketing/communications staffing and (2) your existing digital footprint.

Startups – TechCrunch

Airtable’s Howie Liu has no interest in exiting, even as the company’s valuation soars

September 14, 2020 No Comments

In the middle of a pandemic, Airtable, the low-code startup, has actually had an excellent year. Just the other day, the company announced it had raised $ 185 million on a whopping $ 2.585 billion valuation. It also announced some new features that take it from the realm of pure no-code, and deeper into low-code territory, which allows users to extend the product in new ways.

Airtable CEO and co-founder Howie Liu was a guest today at TechCrunch Disrupt, where he was interviewed by TechCrunch News Editor Frederic Lardinois.

Liu said that the original vision that has stayed pretty steady since the company launched in 2013 was to democratize software creation. “We believe that more people in the world should become software builders, not just software users, and pretty much the whole time that we’ve been working on this company we’ve been charting our course towards that end goal,” he said.

But something changed recently, where Liu saw people who needed to do a bit more with the tool than that original vision allowed.

“So, the biggest shift that’s happening today with our fundraise and our launch announcement is that we’re going from being a no-code product, a purely no-code solution where you don’t have to use code, but neither can you use code to extend the product to now being a low-code solution, and one that also has a lot more extensibility with other features like automation, allowing people to build logic into Airtable without any technical knowledge,” he said.

In addition, the company, with 200,00 customers, has created a marketplace where users can share applications they’ve built. As the pandemic has taken hold, Liu says that he’s seen a shift in the types of deals he’s been seeing. That’s partly due to small businesses, which were once his company’s bread and butter, suffering more economic pain as a result of COVID.

But he has seen larger enterprise customers fill the void, and it’s not too big a stretch to think that the new extensibility features could be a nod to these more lucrative customers, who may require a bit more power than a pure no-code solution would provide.

“On the enterprise side of our business we’ve seen, for instance this summer, a 5x increase in enterprise deal closing velocity from the prior summer period, and this incredible appetite from enterprise signings with dozens of six figure deals, some seven figure deals and thousands of new paid customers overall,” he said.

In spite of this great success, the upward trend of the business and the fat valuation, Liu was in no mood to talk about an IPO. In his view, there is plenty of time for that, and in spite of being a seven-year-old company with great momentum, he says he’s simply not thinking about it.

Nor did he express any interest in being acquired, and he says that his investors weren’t putting any pressure on him to exit.

“It’s always been about finding investors who are really committed and aligned to the long term goals and approach that we have to this business that matters more to us than the actual valuation numbers or any other kind of technical aspects of the round,” he said.

Startups – TechCrunch

AT&T customers can now make and receive calls via Alexa

September 13, 2020 No Comments

Amazon this morning announced it’s teaming up with AT&T on a new feature that will allow some AT&T customers to make and receive phone calls through their Alexa-enabled devices, like an Amazon Echo smart speaker. Once enabled, customers with supported devices will be able to speak to the Alexa digital assistant to start a phone call or answer an incoming call, even if their phone is out of reach, turned off or out of battery.

The feature, “AT&T calling with Alexa,” has to first be set up under the user’s Alexa account.

To do so, users who want to enable the option will need to go to the “Communication” section in their Alexa app’s Settings. From there, you’ll select “AT&T” and then follow the on-screen instructions to link your mobile number.

Once linked, AT&T customers will be able to say things like “Alexa, call Jessica,” or “Alexa, dial XXX-XXX-XXXX” (where the Xes represent someone’s phone number).

When a call is coming in, Alexa will announce the call by saying, “Incoming call from James,” or whomever is ringing you. You can respond, “Alexa, answer,” to pick up, then speak to the caller via your Alexa device.

There are a few different ways to control when you want to receive incoming calls.

You can create an Alexa Routine that specifies you’ll only receive your calls through Alexa during workday hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., for example. You could also make a routine that allowed you to disable AT&T calls on your device when you said a trigger phrase, like “Alexa, I’m leaving home.” Plus, you can manually turn off the feature when you’re leaving the house by switching on the “Away Mode” setting in the Alexa app.

The new feature is made possible by AT&T’s NumberSync service that allows users to make and receive phone calls on smartwatches, tablets, computers and, now, Alexa devices. There’s no cost associated with using the feature, which is included with all eligible AT&T mobile plans.

Amazon says AT&T Calling with Alexa is available on post-paid plans for those customers who have a compatible HD-voice mobile phone, like an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy device, among many others.

While only AT&T customers in the U.S. can take advantage of the feature, they’re able to place outgoing calls to numbers across Mexico, Canada and the U.K., as well as the U.S.

Amazon declined to say if it plans to offer a similar feature to customers with other carriers, but says it will respond to user feedback to evolve the feature over time.

This is not the first feature designed to make Alexa devices a tool for communication.

Amazon has already tried to make its Alexa devices work like a cross between a home intercom and a phone. With features like Drop-In, users can check in on family members in other parts of the home. Or they could use Announcements to broadcast messages, like “Dinner’s ready!” Meanwhile, calling features like Alexa-to-Alexa Calling or Alexa Outbound Calling have allowed users to make free phone calls to both other Alexa users and most mobile and landline numbers in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Mexico through Alexa devices or the Alexa app.

However, these features didn’t support incoming calls or calls to emergency services, like 911, so they weren’t full phone replacements.

Arguably, it may also be hard to get users to change their habit of using their cell phone in favor of an Alexa device, given that many people tend to keep phones nearby at all times, even when at home.

By offering a way to tie an Alexa device to a real phone number, however, users may be more inclined to try calling through Alexa.

The feature could also benefit the elderly, who couldn’t get to their phone in time, in the event of an emergency, or those with other special needs or disabilities that make walking over to a cell phone to answer a call more difficult.

Unfortunately, there’s still a major roadblock to using this service: spam calls. So many calls today are unwanted robocalls and spam. Having them announced over Alexa could become more of an annoyance than a help, unless users already subscribe to an advanced call blocker service.

Amazon says the new feature is live today across the U.S.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Vintage Electric Roadster Review: An Ebike That Offers Pure Joy

September 11, 2020 No Comments

This café-racer-inspired ebike is an incredible ride, but it’s more than a touch expensive for these trying times.
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Voice assistants don’t work for kids: The problem with speech recognition in the classroom

September 9, 2020 No Comments

Before the pandemic, more than 40% of new internet users were children. Estimates now suggest that children’s screen time has surged by 60% or more with children 12 and under spending upward of five hours per day on screens (with all of the associated benefits and perils).

Although it’s easy to marvel at the technological prowess of digital natives, educators (and parents) are painfully aware that young “remote learners” often struggle to navigate the keyboards, menus and interfaces required to make good on the promise of education technology.

Against that backdrop, voice-enabled digital assistants hold out hope of a more frictionless interaction with technology. But while kids are fond of asking Alexa or Siri to beatbox, tell jokes or make animal sounds, parents and teachers know that these systems have trouble comprehending their youngest users once they deviate from predictable requests.

The challenge stems from the fact that the speech recognition software that powers popular voice assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google was never designed for use with children, whose voices, language and behavior are far more complex than that of adults.

It is not just that kid’s voices are squeakier, their vocal tracts are thinner and shorter, their vocal folds smaller and their larynx has not yet fully developed. This results in very different speech patterns than that of an older child or an adult.

From the graphic below it is easy to see that simply changing the pitch of adult voices used to train speech recognition fails to reproduce the complexity of information required to comprehend a child’s speech. Children’s language structures and patterns vary greatly. They make leaps in syntax, pronunciation and grammar that need to be taken into account by the natural language processing component of speech recognition systems. That complexity is compounded by interspeaker variability among children at a wide range of different developmental stages that need not be accounted for with adult speech.

vocal pitch changes with age

Changing the pitch of adult voices used to train speech recognition fails to reproduce the complexity of information required to comprehend a child’s speech. Image Credits: SoapBox Labs

A child’s speech behavior is not just more variable than adults, it is wildly erratic. Children over-enunciate words, elongate certain syllables, punctuate each word as they think aloud or skip some words entirely. Their speech patterns are not beholden to common cadences familiar to systems built for adult users. As adults, we have learned how to best interact with these devices, how to elicit the best response. We straighten ourselves up, we formulate the request in our heads, modify it based on learned behavior and we speak our requests out loud, inhale a deep breath … “Alexa … ” Kids simply blurt out their unthought out requests as if Siri or Alexa were human, and more often than not get an erroneous or canned response.

In an educational setting, these challenges are exacerbated by the fact that speech recognition must grapple with not just ambient noise and the unpredictability of the classroom, but changes in a child’s speech throughout the year, and the multiplicity of accents and dialects in a typical elementary school. Physical, language and behavioral differences between kids and adults also increase dramatically the younger the child. That means that young learners, who stand to benefit most from speech recognition, are the most difficult for developers to build for.

To account for and understand the highly varied quirks of children’s language requires speech recognition systems built to intentionally learn from the ways kids speak. Children’s speech cannot be treated simply as just another accent or dialect for speech recognition to accommodate; it’s fundamentally and practically different, and it changes as children grow and develop physically as well as in language skills.

Unlike most consumer contexts, accuracy has profound implications for children. A system that tells a kid they are wrong when they are right (false negative) damages their confidence; that tells them they are right when they are wrong (false positive) risks socioemotional (and psychometric) harm. In an entertainment setting, in apps, gaming, robotics and smart toys, these false negatives or positives lead to frustrating experiences. In schools, errors, misunderstanding or canned responses can have far more profound educational — and equity — implications.

Well-documented bias in speech recognition can, for example, have pernicious effects with children. It is not acceptable for a product to work with poorer accuracy — delivering false positives and negatives — for kids of a certain demographic or socioeconomic background. A growing body of research suggests that voice can be an extremely valuable interface for kids but we cannot allow or ignore the potential for it to magnify already endemic biases and inequities in our schools.

Speech recognition has the potential to be a powerful tool for kids at home and in the classroom. It can fill critical gaps in supporting children through the stages of literacy and language learning, helping kids better understand — and be understood by — the world around them. It can pave the way for a new era of  “invisible” observational measures that work reliably, even in a remote setting. But most of today’s speech recognition tools are ill-suited to this goal. The technologies found in Siri, Alexa and other voice assistants have a job to do — to understand adults who speak clearly and predictably — and, for the most part, they do that job well. If speech recognition is to work for kids, it has to be modeled for, and respond to, their unique voices, language and behaviors.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Peloton said to be launching new, cheaper treadmill and higher-end stationary smart bike

September 8, 2020 No Comments

Peloton is reportedly getting ready to add to its product lineup with two new products at either end of its pricing spectrum, according to Bloomberg. The workout tech company is planning both a cheaper, entry-level smart treadmill, and a higher-end version of its stationary exercise bike, with an announcement set to take place as early as sometime next week, in time for its quarterly financial earnings.

The new products would come alongside a price drop for its existing exercise bike, to a price point under $ 1,900, according to the report. While the new “Bike+” will retail for more than the current price of the existing model, the price drop will help Peloton stoke the high demand for its products resulting from the closure of gyms and social distancing measures instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peloton’s new “Tread” treadmill will retail for less than $ 3,000, according to Bloomberg’s sources, which is a considerable discount versus the $ 4,295 asking price for the existing model. That one will remain on sale as a premium offering, and the new version will reportedly more closely resemble a traditional home treadmill in terms of materials and construction, allowing for the cheaper asking price.

The new, upscale Bike+ model will also reportedly feature a repositionable smart display, which will help it serve as the centerpiece of a more comprehensive home gym that includes strength training and other kinds of guided workouts. Peloton’s hardware products are what helped distinguish it in the exercise market, but it has built another strong business on subscription plans and app-guided workouts, which are available with or without its home gym equipment.

The new treadmill will likely go to market before the upgraded smart bike, in terms of availability, according to the report. Peloton’s main blocker for customer base expansion is probably its relatively high point of entry, in terms of its in-house hardware, so that makes a lot of sense if the company is looking to capitalize on general consumer appetite for at-home fitness solutions during the COVID-19 crisis.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

OrCam Technologies co-founder Amnon Shashua to speak at Sight Tech Global

September 6, 2020 No Comments

If the measure of progress in technology is that devices should become ever smaller and more capable, then OrCam Technologies is on a roll. The Israeli firm’s OrCam MyEye, which fits on the arm of a pair of glasses, is far more powerful and much smaller than its predecessor. With new AI-based Smart Reading software released in July, the device not only “reads” text and labels but also identifies people by name and describes other important aspects of the visual world. It also interacts with the user, principally people who are blind or visually impaired, by means of an AI-based smart voice assistant.

At the upcoming Sight Tech Global virtual event, we’re pleased to announce that OrCam’s co-founder and co-CEO, Professor Amnon Shashua, will be a featured speaker. The event, which will take place virtually on December 2-3, is focused on how AI-related technologies will influence assistive technology and accessibility in the years ahead. Attendance is free and pre-registration is open now.

Shashua is a towering figure in the technology world. He is not only the co-founder of OrCam but also Mobileye, the company that provides the computer-vision sensors and systems for automotive safety and autonomous navigation. Intel acquired Mobileye for $ 15.3 billion in 2017, the single-largest acquisition of an Israeli company ever. This year, Shashua received the Dan David Prize (Future Category) for his work in artificial intelligence.

Shashua started OrCam at the prompting of his aunt, who was losing her sight and hoped that her technologist nephew could apply his prodigious talents as a scientist and AI expert to help. With that goal in mind, he started OrCam in 2010 with co-founder Ziv Aviram . The firm has gone on to raise $ 130.4 million dollars from investors, including Intel, and sell the OrCam MyEye device to tens of thousands of users in over 50 countries. At $ 3900 per device in the U.S., the OrCam MyEye is far from affordable for most people, but the firm says the device price will come down as production increases.

At the start of a new era for assistive technology, OrCam’s approach with the lightweight, offline-operating OrCam MyEye is nothing if not thought provoking (the device was recognized as a TIME Best Invention of 2019). Will miniaturization of sophisticated sensors and electronics lead to unobtrusive sensor arrays as the foundation of assistive tech? Will the AI-based natural-language processing lead to an all-purpose, customizable personal assistants that work with abilities as needed?

“In OrCam’s roadmap,” says Shashua, “the ultimate AT must have the right balance between computer vision and natural language processing. For example, the “smart reading” feature recently launched harnesses NLP (natural language processing) in order to guide the device to which text information to extract and communicate to the user. NLP allows the user to specify precisely what he/she needs to know. For example, the “orientation” feature recently launched allows the user to prompt the device to describe the objects in the scene and to provide audible guidance to those objects. We see the “orientation” feature growing with respect to vocabulary, with respect to search (e.g., “notify me when you see a Toilet sign”), and with respect to obstacle avoidance (where is the free-space in the scene). The technological challenge in bringing these desires into reality critically depends on the progress of compute and algorithms.

“By ‘compute,’” says Shashua,  “I mean the ever-growing trend to miniaturize processing power enables more sophisticated algorithms to reside on smaller and battery-powered footprint. By “algorithms” I mean the ever-increasing sophistication of deep-tech to mimic human intelligence. Combining the two creates a powerful impact on the future of assistive tech for people who are blind and visually impaired.”

Shashua received a B.Sc in mathematics and computer science from Tel-Aviv University in 1985 and his M.Sc in computer science in 1989 from the Weizmann Institute of Science. He received a Ph.D in brain and cognitive sciences in 1993 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), while working at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Sight Tech Global is a virtual event on December 2-3 and attendance is free. Pre-registration is open now. 

Sight Tech Global welcomes sponsors. Current sponsors include Verizon Media, Google, Waymo, Mojo Vision and Wells Fargo, The event is organized by volunteers and all proceeds from the event benefit The Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Silicon Valley.

Mobile – TechCrunch

Daily Crunch: Apple delays ad-tracking changes

September 4, 2020 No Comments

Apple announces a surprising delay, Facebook bans new political ads for the week before the U.S. election and SpaceX is testing its Starlink internet system. This is your Daily Crunch for September 3, 2020.

The big story: Apple delays ad-tracking changes

At this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced that in iOS 14 (currently in public beta), app developers would have to ask users whether they wanted to be tracked for ad purposes.

The move seems like a straightforward win for privacy, but some developers and advertisers have been pretty worried — Facebook, for example, predicted that this could render its Audience Network ad network completely ineffective. So Apple announced today that it’s delaying the changes until early next year.

“We want to give developers the time they need to make the necessary changes, and as a result, the requirement to use this tracking permission will go into effect early next year,” Apple said in a statement.

The tech giants

Facebook to block new political ads 1 week before Nov 3, adds more tools and rules for fair elections — Campaigns can still run ads to encourage people to vote, and they can still run older political ads.

Nintendo’s latest trick is turning the Switch into an RC controller for an AR Mario Kart game — The idea is that you can control real RC cars in your home.

Amazon launches an Alexa service for property managers — The company’s goal is to Alexa a tool for smart home management, even for those without their own Amazon account.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX confirms Starlink internet private beta underway, showing low latency and speeds over 100Mbps — While the current private beta is limited to SpaceX employees, the company said that the public Starlink beta is still on track to kick off later this year.

Optimizely acquired by content management company Episerver — In a statement, Episerver CEO Alex Atzberger said this is “the most significant transformation in our company’s history – one that will set a new industry standard for digital experience platforms.”

India’s Zomato raises $ 62 million from Temasek — The food delivery startup announced in January that Ant Financial had committed to provide it with $ 150 million, but apparently the firm has yet to deliver two-thirds of that capital.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

9 top real estate and proptech investors: Cities and offices still have a future — Optimism still runs high for startup hubs as well as supercities like New York and San Francisco.

Media Roundup: Patreon joins unicorn club, Facebook could ban news in Australia — Are you interested in the media business? Do you appreciate my news-gathering skills? Then this is the roundup for you!

What happens when public SaaS companies don’t meet heightened investor expectations? — The lesson for startups is clear: You’d better be damn impressive.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Spirit Airlines starts testing biometric check-ins — It’s starting at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

NSA call records collection ruled illegal by US appeals court — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the NSA’s “bulk collection” of call records violated the law, but the judges fell short of ruling the program unconstitutional.

Disrupt 2020 Labor Day flash sale — Starting today, you can save $ 100 off the price of a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Mobile – TechCrunch

The FBI Botched Its DNC Hack Warning in 2016—but Says It Won’t Next Time

September 3, 2020 No Comments

Facing looming election threats and a ransomware epidemic, the bureau says it has revamped its process for warning hacking victims.
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