iPhone 4S, Nexus S and the disappointment of the 2 year update cycle

iPhone 4S, Nexus S and the disappointment of the 2 year update cycle
The tech world moves in strange ways. It seems as if there can be long periods where things move fairly slowly, then in no time at all, everything jumps up a level. On a competitive level, we always assume that the best will be up against the best, but that's not always true, especially with the update cycle in play with mobile devices. To break tech website taboo and use a sports metaphor, we want to see the number one starters facing off against each other, but it has felt for the last couple of years that not everyone is bringing their best, and we think it may just be a simple rotational problem. 

Whether the comparison is fair or not, and we've talked about that issue as well, tech enthusiasts and media heads tend to pit the iPhones against the Google Nexus devices. It makes sense because we can't easily pit the iPhone against whatever is perceived as the best Android device, because that is constantly changing, plus there are issues with added features from manufacturer overlays, etc. Nexus devices are made to be pure and to be Google's version of a carrot to lead Android partners towards certain features. In that way, the Nexus can often serve as an example for the whole Android ecosystem both in current technology (Nexus hardware) and future technology (Nexus software, ie the major Android OS update. So, for the sake of simplicity, we'll just use the iPhone and Nexus as examples in this argument. 

We as consumers are often put on 2 year contracts through our wireless carriers, and this constant, and regular cycling has an impact on the upgrades that all manufacturers decide to make. Each company will still decide the end rate of innovation, based on its goals for profit over cost-of-development, but each company must decide how to best present upgrades for users who are in this cycle. 

The disappointing announcements

In their own ways, both the iPhone 4S and the Nexus S were disappointments when announced. Many people were disappointed with the recent announcement of the iPhone 4S. We broke down the whole announcement, but it boiled down to a few things:

  1. People expected a hardware redesign and didn't get one
  2. There was no real standout killer new feature
  3. The overall feel of the announcement was more subdued and slow

Ultimately, the iPhone 4S is still a solid device, but just not what people expected. This was very similar to what happened last year with Google's announcement of the Nexus S and Gingerbread, which disappointed for a few reasons including: 

  1. Lack of a significant hardware upgrade
  2. Lack of expected features (SD card slot, HSPA+ on T-Mobile)
  3. No killer feature in Gingerbread

Some of the disappointments were somewhat unavoidable. For instance, people were hoping that the Nexus S would be the first device on the market with a dual-core CPU, but those didn't start hitting the market until February of this year, and Google wanted the Nexus S to be released for the holiday season of last year. Also, the lack of an SD card slot was annoying, but not terrible because of the large internal storage available. More understandable were the hopes for a qHD screen, but Google kept to its mission of pushing AMOLED, both in the hardware, and in the majors feature of Gingerbread, which were a darker theme made to give OLED-screen devices better battery life, and a new file system to encourage larger internal storage in future devices.

The trouble with all of these criticisms is that they leave out a big part of the update process for both the iPhone and Nexus devices: the contract cycle. 

The turnover cycle

The main thing that we do wrong when judging these updates is to compare each with the last device released. So, we compared the Nexus S with the Nexus One and didn't see enough improvement; and similarly, we compared the iPhone 4S with the iPhone 4, and were disappointed because we wanted more of an improvement. This is the wrong way to go about it because, like it or not, the standard 2-year mobile contract from many major carriers dictates the update cycle of these phones. 

Unlike other manufacturers and other platforms, the iPhone and Nexus devices are released once a year, but still have to hit a 2-year turnover cycle. In general, updates are progressing at a speed which pushes users to upgrade after two years, both because of the contract turnover, and also as a built-in mechanism to allow for better updates. Unlike the PC world, where software updates have to be compatible with much older hardware, mobile platforms can more easily make hardware that is 3+ years old obsolete, and expect users to upgrade. 

Because of this, we should be comparing the iPhone 4S with the iPhone 3GS, because those are the users whose contracts are coming to an end, and will be looking to upgrade. The iPhone 4S wasn't designed for iPhone 4 users, because they are at most halfway through a 2 year contract. That's why there was no big hardware update, because Apple doesn't expect many people to break contracts to update to the iPhone 4S, and if you don't already have an iPhone 4, you probably don't care as much that the hardware didn't change (unless you were really holding out for a bigger screen.) 

On the other side, we shouldn't have been comparing the Nexus S to the Nexus One, because even though most Nexus One owners weren't on contract, most weren't going to pony up another $500 (or more depending on where you live) less than a year after buying a phone to upgrade to the Nexus S. The Nexus S was made more to draw in users whose contract was nearing an end, like those with the HTC Magic, and those users were more than happy with the Nexus S given what they were upgrading from. 

Managing expectations

Managing expectations is a theme that we've touched on a few times recently, but it's a very important idea to keep in mind. A one-year turnaround for major releases is almost unheard of in the world of technology, because it is incredibly difficult to conceive, design, and build a new set of compelling features every year, even for companies as big as Apple and Google. And, of course Google has help building the hardware for its Nexus phones, while Apple manages the entire process.  The 2-year turnover cycle is making it so each year there is an upgrade, but the upgrade is targeted to an older set of users than we tend to think, and right now the cycles are in conflict. 

As always, we have to remember also that Apple is a hardware company first, so its major updates are always design oriented, while Google is a software company, so its major updates are more software based. Apple's upgrade cycle right now is putting the major redesign and big updates on even years: the iPhone 3G in 2008, the iPhone 4 in 2010, and the iPhone 5 (which will likely have the hardware redesign, and true 4G radio that we want) in 2012. Whereas, Google's major updates have come on odd years (or close enough) since the Nexus One was targeting holiday season 2009 and Froyo was a huge system-wide performance update thanks to the JIT compiler, and now we're getting the Nexus Prime in 2011 with Ice Cream Sandwich. So, whereas the Gingerbread update was lacking killer features last year, the rumors have a lot of new features on tap for Ice Cream Sandwich from the well-known, like the Honeycombesque UI to unifying tablets and phones, to the lesser known, which are rumored to be a lot more hooks into the system allowing developers to do a lot more cool stuff especially in hooking into Google's online services including possibly the fabled Google Drive (aka Docs rebranding). 

If these features do turn out to be true, the Nexus Prime may be seen as a success even though its hardware update isn't too much different than the iPhone 4S, which brought a similar dual-core CPU, and what's rumored to be the same GPU as the Prime. Although the Prime is packing the major display update that the iPhone brought last year with the first so-called retina display. Of course, therein lies the trouble with the comparisons that are obviously going to be coming next week. Apple has been splitting the hardware updates, with a redesign one year and bigger speed boost the next, but Google is bringing a redesign every year, but pushing all of the features with this redesign. The comparisons to the last generation have skewed the perception of each release, but in the end both devices have screens with similar pixel density, dual-core CPUs, possibly the same GPU, and likely similar cameras (assuming the Prime camera is close to the Samsung Galaxy S II). The big difference comes in that the Nexus Prime is expected to have 4G radios in all the models, and we do have to wait and see what ICS has to offer before really making the argument over software feature comparisons.


Ultimately, it seems that the best options may be exactly what Apple and Google are doing, which is to build for the future one year, and give the pay-off. Apple has a major redesign, then works on more "future" products, like iCloud and how that hooks into iOS. And, Google adds the JIT compiler which makes all phones faster with Froyo, then pushes "future" tech like the EXT4 file system in Gingerbread, and now is back to current with ICS looking to bridge all phones with all tablets. 

The iPhone 4S was somewhat of a disappointment, just like the iPhone 3GS, because when it comes to Apple, people expect a new design, but given the 2-year contract cycle, it makes no sense for Apple to put out a new design every year. Similarly, the Nexus S was somewhat of a disappointment, because it didn't push the hardware or software forward enough, but it seems like the Nexus Prime may do both. The trouble is that next year, it's very likely that the roles will be reversed, and we'll see the major iPhone redesign that we expect, whereas Android Jelly Bean may not have as much to offer as Ice Cream Sandwich has planned, and the hardware for both phones is likely to be similar with quad-core CPUs and all the other bells and whistles that will be standard by the fall of next year. 

When that time comes, we shouldn't be comparing the iPhone 5 to the 4S, or the next Nexus device to the Nexus Prime, because that's not how the update cycle works. The iPhone 5 will be designed for iPhone 4 users, and the next Nexus will be designed for those coming off of Nexus S contracts. The ebb and flow of update cycles is pushing at different times for each company right now. Many consumers and media heads are more interested on a year-over-year upgrade for devices, but Apple and Google, just like all manufacturers, are more concerned with 2-year update cycles. We need to learn that this pattern may actually be for the best right now, because it gives those coming off contracts a worthy update while not angering those in the middle of their contracts with an update that's too big. If we don't like the pattern, the fault lies with the carriers' insistence on 2-year contracts, not with upgrade speed or quality from manufacturers.

(Side note: thanks to all the late-night commenters (by US Eastern time clock), you guys were instrumental in the editing of this article.)

Related phones

iPhone 4s
  • Display 3.5 inches
    960 x 640 pixels
  • Camera 8 MP (Single camera)
    0.3 MP VGA front
  • Hardware Apple A5, 0.5GB RAM
  • Storage 64GB,
  • OS iOS 9.x
Nexus S
  • Display 4.0 inches
    800 x 480 pixels
  • Camera 5 MP (Single camera)
    0.3 MP VGA front
  • Hardware Samsung Exynos 3, 0.5GB RAM
  • Storage 16GB,
  • Battery 1500 mAh
  • OS Android 4.1.2



128. Mark unregistered

Great read. this is the best thing I have read about phones. Now I get it!

116. nexus s unregistered

etx4 filesystem on nexus s is fast , it is not a failure, you dont need keep flashing kernel/rom to get it stable or watsoever, out of the box it is fast ,compared to the its brother alike , galaxy s i9000

115. IcanBEATali

Posts: 29; Member since: Sep 24, 2009

The thesis behind this article is solid, but I think it is misguided. You would have to assume that phones are being developed only for customers that the manufacturers already have. Granted, there is something to be said about customer loyalty, but you are ignoring the rest of the market. Apple and any other manufacturer needs to have their products in as many hands as possible. The greater number of people using your phones the more apps, advertising, and all sorts of other things you will have the chance to produce revenue on; if market share didn't matter, people wouldn't be keeping up with who has what percent share. We know apple is keeping tabs, seeing as how they used these numbers during the announcement. That said, it seems fair to say that growing your market share is significantly important. If you are developing your phones for those customers you ALREADY have that may be eligible for an upgrade, you aren't growing. So now, the prospective customer is looking at phones, this is the person that all manufactures want. Because this person is going to help someone further penetrate the market. This customer needs a new phone, but wants the best, they aren't going to stick to a nexus device or an HTC device just because they had one before. They are going to look around and see what the latest and greatest is, then purchase it. I don't think contact cycles matter much at all, seeing as how two different 3gs users may have upgrades over a year a part from each other. By a manufacturer not pushing the envelope with new ideas, they will lose at least one of the two customers because there will be a better option available for that person. You don't only sell phones the first month they are released, so its not a two year cycle for the consumers. Without looking at numbers, I would wager that the companies putting out devices that are cutting edge as fast as they can, have grown in market share the most. As had been pointed out several times already, apple its behind the eight ball

117. IcanBEATali

Posts: 29; Member since: Sep 24, 2009

Continued... From the start because they need to provide the top of the line device at all times since there is only one option. The idea that Google is innovating in two year cycles is silly at best though. The nexus line may be the base line provided by Google for other companies to build from, but it doesn't exist for the same reason that the iPhone does. There may be correlation because of the Google name on that device, but its not meant to be a phone for the masses, so to draw direct comparisons to the iPhone is more luck than fact. Development of the two lines are different from the roots up. At the end of the day, apple is no longer the leader. Which will not only cost them at least SOME new customers, but will inevitably cost them some of the customers you claim in this article they are trying to protect. Its a very good article, and a very good read generally speaking. Job well done.

107. mrjlwilliams unregistered

This article is lame. You guys could have just spoke of the iPhone, because that's what its really about. The nexus s is not a disappointment, however the iPhone is. Don't add Google in this, just because the iPhone is doing bad.

114. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Speaking as an Android fan, and Nexus One user, the Nexus S was viewed as a disappointment to a lot of people, myself included. Maybe the phone was rushed (it certainly seemed that way), but it felt like Google missed a lot of good decisions with that phone.

118. roldefol

Posts: 4745; Member since: Jan 28, 2011

Could it be that the Nexus S just came out during the wrong time for hardware? End of 2010 was the end of the line for single-core and 4" HVGA in top of the line devices. Sure, by using the Galaxy S for the new Nexus they got a top of the line device for the time it was released, but dual-core, qHD phones were just around the corner. Could Google have just waited a couple of months and released in 1Q11? It's not as if Nexus devices really lend themselves to the "holiday rush".

106. henrickrw

Posts: 408; Member since: Sep 16, 2011

Sure. Way better phones like my GS2 :-)

105. Noel unregistered

What the article missed to point out is that Apple is now obviously behind in innovation against its competitors. Let's face the truth that even after the release of Iphone 4S, there are better phones out there released months ago.

113. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

I covered that in depth last time in analyzing the iPhone 4S announcement. No real need to repeat it here because that's not the point of the article.

103. Cyd07

Posts: 83; Member since: Oct 03, 2011

Very good article. We speak about cellphones market. Notice : market. So the goal of manufacturers is not to improve technology "for the sake of humanity", but for you and me to buy phones. And the article didn't favor Apple. If you want, it minimize the disappointement with the Iphone 4s. But it's real : users with 3GS would be more than happy with a 4S, and thanks to Apple updates, they can live two years with it. Personnally, I'm more and more convinced that I could live two years from now with a Nokia WP7 single-core, thanks to the believe Microsoft will upgrade all the phones for about 2 years (but if the Prime is affordable for me - laughs in the room - and has a great solid design and is enough compact, I will probably take one). Come back to my main point : the article didn't favor Apple : it minimize the disappointment for Apple, but the article says explicitely that this year is the year of the big update for Android, with the Prime. Wouldn't we say it convey the idea that if you want now the latest hardware and software updates whatever the OS, you should take the Nexus Prime ?

97. EnderWTF unregistered

This article makes a good point, but it should have mentioned the OG Droid. Although the nexus one was the 'reference' phone for froyo, it was the OG Droid that sold like hotcakes on Verizon. Its those users coming to the 2 year mark that earned verizon the ICS exclusive. Its also those customers that Apple misses out on with the 4s(myself included, OG droid is the most satisfying piece of technology i have ever owned). I might have jumped ship for a badass new iphone 5, but i just laughed at the 4s announcement and went back to looking for leaked images of the prime. 720p curved amoled FTW!

100. belovedson

Posts: 1061; Member since: Nov 30, 2010

your absolutely right on the og droid. but for whatever reason moto often is ignored. i wont go near a moto. i think the crap phones of the past especially the razor, krazer, and the m? or was it s?...anyways whatever series line have left a bad taste in many of the users. those who are now in the late 20's on up. i remember i had a razor along with my mom and my dad had this piece of junk brick clamshell of flip phone made by moto. the razor was the reason i got into modding the software. :) seriously alot of people got that phone because of its design. call quality was crap, signal was jeez, build quality was ok, battery life was ok, screen was shiet. i believe many of use will not go back to moto. shelling out 100's of dollars for a phone that crapped out on you every couple of months sucked and finding everyone around with similar experiences was an eye sore. yet many people continued to buy that piece of junk

93. urthatguy

Posts: 19; Member since: Jun 22, 2011

i want an iphone 4s. the camera seems pretty bad ass. I am bored of android and all the glitches and bugs. I know you have a super droid but my experiences leave nothing to be desired, this from a few android phones i have owned. Anyway android is everywhere now. Soon it will not be as cool as what it is now. Maybe i should go for wp7, i do play alot of xbox

98. belovedson

Posts: 1061; Member since: Nov 30, 2010

its seems the people who are having problems with android fit the apple demography better. customization of the android phones requires using the search button in xda, and it requires reading and comprehension skills, and the ability to do some minor coding. if you can't do this move to the apple scene, you won't find the customization features of android, but you will find a tight os stock and more reliable and stable platform for you to enjoy i totally forget about wp7 its a great platform. but i have a feeling the coding behind it is weak sauce compared to ios and android, at least this is the assumption i make based on anything windows pre 7.

102. Thump3rDX17

Posts: 2160; Member since: May 10, 2010

yeah, i'll probably go WP7 if i'm not impressed with ICS.

112. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

WP7 is a really nice system. I just wish Microsoft would let the hardware iterate faster.

123. Thump3rDX17

Posts: 2160; Member since: May 10, 2010

yeah, i totally agree with you there. WP7 has amazing potential.

84. belovedson

Posts: 1061; Member since: Nov 30, 2010

this article is just bad. michael apple is at least a generation behind the tech that's already made available for android. for example androids coming out with hd screens by next week apple doesn't have anything to compare. retina. pooh who cares. most people would rather have a hd screen. seriously? apple has the a5 and now they are working on a a6. whoop dee doo. the 2nd generation dual core chips that will come into production here shortly will crush the dual core of the a6 or be in comparison when it comes out. going back to screens. Samsung demoed a flexible screen and claimed production availability by next year. we are talking about technology that is ground breaking. now lets discuss gpu. Nvidia has a quad core gpu coming out by the end of this year. by early next year we will be seeing 2nd gen quad cores while apple may or may not come out with it's first gen which will be couple months newer yet barely comparable to the 1st gen gpu's made available here in a couple months. i mean we can go on and on. apple has some catching up to do.

85. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Apple's screen size may not be as big as some may want, but the pixel density on the iPhone screen is still a bit higher than the HD screens on Android. So, at the very least, Apple can wait another year before upgrading that. A6 is rumored to be quad-core, not dual. Same for the GPUs you're talking about, those are coming our late this year and into next year, which means Apple can wait to address that next year if it so chooses. And, it's Apple's choice where the line is between revenues and development cost. But, I'm not arguing the speed or quality of the upgrades, just part of the process that feeds into the decisions all manufacturers make which is in planning around these two year cycles.

90. belovedson

Posts: 1061; Member since: Nov 30, 2010

Wow an intelligent response. Isn't it safe to say the only reason the pixel density on the iphone screen is still higher because the technology behind the bigger screened android phone done have the ability to inject pixels into an rgb? overlay. Sorry I forget the abbreviations and how exactly the terms are made up. As far as i know Samsung has the best tech regarding ability to manufacture screens and they have been for quite some time. They just how havent been able to manufacture hd screens using oled tech until recently? I don't think apple has that ability through its manufacturer to produce an equivalent behind closed doors. many consider the retina screen to be the best. i only find it better at producing clearer fonts. i dont think a clearer font surpasses the vibrant colors offered by oled technology. but that's beside the point. samsung in the meantime whether its the prime or sg3 have the ability to match vibrant image with clear retina equivalent texts. apple in the meantime has nothing in comparison. i mean a bigger screen with retina is still lesser screen than oled retina. nvidia came into the mobile scene a little late. im surprised amd/ati hasn't followed suit and where exactly is intel. i can care less for Alpha especially when intel and amd rule the cpu scene overall. yes i understand they are not part of mobile tech, but you would think with all their rnd and development spent in the desktop, and laptops they would have heavy influence in the mobile scene. i think it's just a matter of when and when it happens it again favors android. all apple have are speculations and rumors. i remember when the iphone 4 came out and at the time the guts felts of the phone felt weak to me the cpu, gpu in comparison to what android already had at the time nexus 1. i have a feeling when the iphone 5 comes out, its going to be ugly. because apple's best of 2012 will be comparible to androids best late 2011 the a6 whether its a dual or quad are coming into production. it's hard to believe the transition from single a5 to a6 will be dramatic enough that they are comparible to 2nd gen dual cores that are already approaching the market. beginning with the prime i mean if it has the 1.5 exynos.

95. belovedson

Posts: 1061; Member since: Nov 30, 2010

great half my page dissappeared. anyways i basically said apple is going to have one hell of a fight once 5 comes out for us power users every development of the android os has been dramatic. on froyo i was getting at least 5 force closes a day. now im getting less than once a week. ice cream in theory should approve upon that. android is beginning to mature, less fragmantation, better and tighter coding for the os, less force closes, and more stability. on top of the new and exciting tech being implemented in android may trouble apple once apple comes out with the 5. i am making some heavy assumptions but we shall see.

111. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Hah! Were you not expecting an intelligent response? I got a weird image of me having used up all my smarts in writing the article, then fumbling through the comments. Anyway, the colors aren't as nice on an iPhone as on an AMOLED (I even prefer the colors on my Nexus One to the iPhone 4), but the increased clarity is big, and to pack that kind of pixel density on a 3.5" screen is really impressive. As I mentioned in my last piece covering the iPhone 4S announcement, I wouldn't expect Apple to lead the market on features from here on out. There's no way that Apple can keep up on a feature by feature basis given how fast the Android ecosystem iterates. From here on out, it is the same game as with Macs, Apple will be sticking to core competencies of design, unified systems, ease of use, and marketing. Macs are never the most powerful, or packed with the most features compared with Windows phones, but people dig the experience, and the quality design. It'll be the same with iPhones. iPads can still be the market leader for a bit, but we'll have to see how that plays out.

124. belovedson

Posts: 1061; Member since: Nov 30, 2010

thanks Micheal i read that article. i understand Apple will be sticking to core competencies of design, unified systems, ease of use, and marketing. it works effectively too i think for the long run apple will continue to succeed. i think seattle is a pretty technologically minded city. just about every person i encounter has either an iphone or android. it seems to me a majority of iphone users really have no idea or desire to get the most of the technology made available to them. iphone users assume iphones are the best based simply that it has itunes and a retina screen. i rarely meet iphone users who are tech geeks. there idea of gaming is angry birds, or some tower game, or farming game. many of the iphone using gadget owners have no technology sense. unfortunately the public comprises most of these monkeys. it's unfortunate because i feel like an idiot trying to explain to some hardcore apple user that in order to get any real work done you need a pc. and pc's simply don't break down all the time like they assume it does. i find myself attempting to explain things like cpu, gpu, cooling, removing dirt behind fans that effect both pc's and mac's. for whatever reason i find alot of mac users who assume macs do not have this problem. am i the only person who are around such meatheads?

101. isheep unregistered

agree that's why i bash this article the minute i saw it, to make sure my comment on top.... (at first) i feel michael trying to hold iphone 3gs user not to switch to android by justifying apple mistake. and since i've been reading PA for maybe around 3-4 years (note: Mostly i'm a GSMArena reader, because I don't really like the PA tone... it's too isheep for me), so i choose to post with the name isheep.

67. GixxerRider311 unregistered

Why do people keep fighting over what's better? BOTH iPhone and Android devices are good and they have something that makes them unique. I like the iPhone because Apple makes high quality products and at least on the music department its so much easier to listen to music because it's so much easier to transfer music to it, I also like Android because it's more of an open source OS which makes it easy to modify and they have a variety of devices to choose from.

76. Thump3rDX17

Posts: 2160; Member since: May 10, 2010

you don't watch a lot of football do you?

77. maxican16

Posts: 364; Member since: Sep 29, 2011

@Gixxer: Definitely agree that both have their pros (and cons), and to each his/her own. But as far as transferring music (or files, pics, movies.. anything), I plug my Android into my laptop and it becomes a USB drive - copy and paste. Heck, I can even do it wirelessly via DLNA, bluetooth or some other means. No itunes upgrades to worry about, no synching issues. Plug and play or wireless. Easy. =]

64. maxican16

Posts: 364; Member since: Sep 29, 2011

Nice article Michael! And I like how you're involved in the comment section (as painful as it often times may be:). While I agree with your thoughts in relation to what we've seen in the past, I believe things will progress differently in the future. The smartphone industry has exploded in the past few years, with companies seeing record profit gains year-over-year. Google has built the Android landscape such that any OEM has the potential to become the next Nexus manufacturer (provided the "Googarola" mentality doesn't prevail). Android has the advantage of pulling in a different OEM every year to showcase its new software iteration. And the OEMs view that opportunity as a chance to gain marketshare/respect by putting their best foot forward. That coupled with the current pace of hardware advancement gives the Nexus line the capability of having THE cutting edge hardware year after year. I have never owned a Samsung device, but I am expecting big things (and hopefully soon will). I suppose there may eventually be a point of diminishing returns with hardware, but not for some time. Go TEAM Android, yes indeed. =]

81. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

I hope it does change, but that's more because I hope it can force a move from the long contracts to maybe one year contracts or more unsubsidized models (at least in the US.)

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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