Rooting Android: The War Between Carriers and Consumers

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NOTE: This post is mostly an opinion piece. It is based on my observations.

Carriers have long insisted that manufacturers comply with their demands regarding phones, and that hasn’t changed with the influx of Android-powered smartphones. We have all experienced the disappointment of seeing the bloatware preinstalled on our shiny new Androids and the pungent stench of our carrier’s greed emanating from the nagging prompts which originate from the bloatware. Most of the time, the carriers demand that their apps are placed in the /system/app directory, thereby making them impossible to remove. Luckily for the owners there’s a way to remove them in the form of “rooting,” or gaining superuser access to their device. Not so fortunate for them is the way the devices are locked down so as to prevent the owners from doing so.

This is the story of the war between the carriers and customers. A story of greed, corruption, and the bastardization of Android’s open nature.

 

Encrypted bootloaders, or, “why Motorola is no longer regarded as hacker-friendly”

Among the worst offenders in this war is Motorola. The original Droid was not locked down, but in their later devices they reversed this decision, leaving customers burned on devices they could never truly own. Since the Droid X, Motorola’s been using encrypted bootloaders on all their devices. And to add insult to injury, they’ve brought their MotoBlur Android skin back. Sure, you could use a custom launcher and ignore the MotoBlur launcher but it doesn’t fix the stock apps’ customizations or the bloat.

To make matters worse, Motorola is often the first to implement new technologies on their devices. They’ve paired the Tegra 2 dual-core processor with a qHD display and, just because they can, they threw in a fingerprint scanner to top it all off on their latest Atrix 4G handset. Unfortunately they’ve crippled it with their MotoBlur skin which, incidentally, is the most likely cause of the Gingerbread update’s delay. Oh yeah, it doesn’t come with the latest version of Android. In 2011.

If they’d left the bootloader alone and not added their encryption to it, the third-party devs could have fixed their mistakes. We’re now stuck with a buggy, sub-par, and outdated ROM running atop one of the most capable pieces of mobile hardware out there. We could have had CyanogenMod 7 running on the Atrix 4G. Granted, the presence of the WebTop environment does complicate things, but is it really necessary to lock the device down so thoroughly? The only reasoning I can find behind all this is simple greed.

Rooting and flashing a custom ROM can extend the life of an Android well beyond what would be considered normal. People can keep Androids going on custom ROMs for as long as third-party developers support their phone. This means that customers are less likely to get an early upgrade which, for the carrier, means less money from new hardware and less incentive to renew a contract. For the manufacturer, it means less phones sold and less money earned. Encrypting the bootloader so users can’t flash anything but official Motorola ROMs means that users cannot update their devices until Motorola says. And if Motorola were to just “delay” that Gingerbread update indefinitely, there would be no way to simply flash an AOSP build of Android.

Imagine if a PC manufacturer made it impossible to install anything but their version of Windows. You couldn’t install a newer version of Windows or switch to Linux if you wanted. People would be absolutely livid and would avoid the manufacturer like the plague. And yet Motorola (and soon, I suspect, other manufacturers) gets away with doing exactly the same thing. Where is the outrage?

 

Lies, greed, and more lies

The carriers and manufacturers have long tried to convince us that the reason they’re waging war against people who want the devices they pay for to belong to them is because they’re “protecting the customers.” I have one question for them.

Protecting us from what, exactly?

The customers who need protection aren’t going to bother with flashing custom ROMs or even rooting their phones. The people who want to root, flash ROMs, and customize their phones are likely going to know what they’re doing when it comes to their phones. Inexperienced folks will avoid anything risky and are likely to stay on stock. This means that their argument that customers need protection is a blatant lie; a construct of poorly-conceived rhetoric designed to trick the average consumer into believing that their motives are pure.

The reason why they’re doing this is quite simple. It’s because people who do choose to root their phones are the same people who like to remove their useless bloatware and ignore their carriers altogether. No bloatware means no money from commissions and no relevance for the carrier.

Truth is, carriers are scared to death of becoming irrelevant.

Think of what Apple did with the iPhone. AT&T wasn’t allowed to install their bloatware on the iPhone and as a result people completely ignored AT&T. This turned them into a dumb pipe for data, voice, and texts.

 

“Open” and what it means

Android is open. This is a common marketing term. Unfortunately, it’s only true before the carriers and hardware manufacturers get their hands on Android.

Because Android is so open to customizations and modifications, carriers and manufacturers can shape it to fit their needs. This means bloatware, and lots of it. This is bad for the consumers but great for them. Again, it’s all about the money.

Android, by default, allows the user to customize and modify their device in any way they please, which includes removing any app they want—even if the app resides in the /system/app directory. The carriers can’t have that, so they lock it down and do everything they can to make sure that “open” means “open to us, but not to our paying customers.” This bastardization of the term has led to an immense amount of confusion. People pick up an Android expecting to be able to do whatever they want with it only to find that the carriers and manufacturers, who are usually bullied into bending to the carriers’ whims, have ruined Android’s open nature in the name of “protecting the customer.”

 

Tethering

Tethering is one of the main reasons to root. Carriers do offer tethering options but they charge way more than they should. Why should customers have to pay for a connection they already have simply because they want to use that connection with a different device? Imagine if a home broadband provider decided to charge you extra because you wanted to connect more than one computer through your home connection. People would be up in arms about it, the FCC would be all over them, and they would be boycotted. Why, then, do wireless broadband providers get away with the same thing?

I know that laptops use more bandwidth than smartphones, but the fact of the matter is that paying extra for a connection you already have is absolutely asinine. And I highly doubt anyone wants to stream videos through a relatively slow 3G connection. Though people with LTE- or WIMAX-capable phones may beg to disagree. But this is not an argument for charging extra for 4G tethering; the point of having a 4G connection is so that you can push more data through your connection faster.

You can’t get mad at your customers for wanting to use the service that they pay for.

 

Do not believe the rhetoric

Your worst enemy in this war is rhetoric. Their PR departments are pushing their agendas with all the tenacity of a movie villain bent on world domination. If you want to send them a message don’t buy devices that they’ve ruined with their greediness. Tell everyone you know what their true motives are. Everyone is entitled to own the devices that they pay for and nobody should have to pay for a device they can never truly own.

 

Education is the key to winning this war.

 

About the Author

Fandroid


  • AnimateDroid

    unfortunately most of our community, even the rooters and ROMers, will continue to buy it anyway because they will just assume that 3rd Party Devs will make it all great for them.. and then whine like a little baby against the Devs when “it’s taking too long”

  • AnimateDroid

    it’s often forgotten that while the Rooting community is constantly reminded that we’re an insignificant “less than 1%” consumer pool, yet they keep turning around and going thru such lengths and anti-Root campaigns as if we’re about to destroy their company

  • Booboothebear

    i like the way they lock the phones up and try to make them unrootable. it only proves how dedicated our root community is to breaking that lock and making the idiots that put it there look and feel stupid. google should also go to hell for standing by collecting money while its product gets tossed around like a rag doll

  • Holyspirit180jg

    I have mad respect for the 3rd party devs, you guys are the life blood of android and smartphones, i dont even think i would own an android phone if there wasnt a way to root it, keep it up guys.

  • RootFTW

    Seems simple enough, Non-Rootable = Non-Customer.

  • dr4stic

    A few points… while it’s nice to see an editorial come through this site for once, I have to point out a couple of problems with the the piece:

    In the “Lies, greed, and more lies” section you attack the notion that protection means protecting people from shooting themselves in the foot. While I agree that it is a fake argument, you ignore the idea that they may be trying to protect us from each other. People that break the protections on their phones have a tendency to tether, and there are a number of people out there that get really abusive of it. The carriers that are the worst offenders to this policy are the ones with the worst networks… One need only look at the absolutely crappy performance of AT&T’s network in NYC after the introduction of the iPhone. Even non-data capable phones suffer from this over/constant-use of the network due to “smart” phones. They could make an argument that by making us pay extra for the right to abuse this service would help to expand the network to accommodate such use.

    In the “Tethering” section you mention that you doubt people want to stream movies on their tethered connection. While I wouldn’t want to do it, you’d be surprised how many people would be willing to do it. Also, don’t limit yourself to live-streaming… think about downloading DVD’s or other things on bittorrent. I have a grandfathered in unlimited data option for my N1 with AT&T and with casual use I do about 1-200M of data at best… meanwhile there are people out there that reach their 2G and 5G limits and then get their connections throttled… you gotta wonder what the hell they’re doing with their phones.

    Is any of this right? Does any of this piss me off? Hell yes. I think carriers should be forced to advertise EXACTLY what they are providing, not an idea of what they’re providing. DATA should be defined by the FCC as any information passed on a network, not a specific protocol or the contents of the protocol. And like the sprint guy says on the commercial, unlimited should mean UNLIMITED. If I was only gonna be getting 3Gig or 5Gig of data, then tell me up front, I’m personally OK with that. On my home DSL line, I pay for a specific amount of speed, I can deal with knowing how much data I’m gonna pay for.

    I also think people also have to realize that mobile networks are much harder to gauge for use than traditional hardwired networks. With hardwired networks, you have an idea of how many users at a MAXIMUM are gonna saturate a given area, and so cost vs. performance can be calculated and an idea of the level of over-subscription necessary to make a profit can be made. When your users move from tower to tower, it gets a little harder. When a bunch of well-off neighborhoods suddenly get smartphones all over the place and inundate the tower that no one actually wants to have to see, then you get crappy service. Top that off with wireless needs and technologies that change every few years (EDGE to 3G to 4G, in all it’s flavors) and the requirement that you support ALL of the technologies going forward, and you can see the absolute management mess that occurs. There are a bunch of variables to why the carriers all suck, you can’t just close your eyes and ignore them all.

    Is that all an excuse? It shouldn’t be, but it is. It’s at least a little understandable, but then again they rape us for overages and all sorts of other charges and I think if there were less bonuses and executive lunches at the top levels, we’d be able to enjoy mobile networks that work.

    • Proprietary_Android

      I think one of the biggest reasons for all this is the lack of competition.

      We have lots of competition for ISP. You can go cheap with ad supported dial-up, pay a little for decent dial-up, a bit more for DSL, even more for faster cable, and go all out for WiFi if it’s available in your area.

      The carriers really have no competition. The cheap cellphone companies buy from the main carriers so ultimately it goes back to the four carriers so how much cheaper can they really get?

      • dr4stic

        I agree… a little :-)

        I don’t think it’s competition so much as cooperation. I think if the carriers were forced to play nice (in terms of fees) for competitors and data/voice roaming traffic, you wouldn’t have such high fees.

        I think also if telco’s were forced to treat phones as computers and not as customized devices (especially given that they’re more expensive than laptops), users should be able to do what the hell they want with them. I think if a user buys a phone at cost, unsubsidized, then the carrier shouldn’t be allowed to force anything on it.

        Don’t forget, AT&T used to lease home telephones to people, and would happily collect fees, well into this millenium so long as age-old customers didn’t notice the fee was still on their phone bill. My mom pointed that out to a 75 yr. old man on his phone bill some 7-8 years ago who was still paying a leasing fee for a phone that he bought many decades ago and has been lost for quite some time.

        Any company wants to be unique. They want a reason to charge their customers through the nose. I think that’s why we have voice going over 4-5+ different bands in the US, and data over just as many, if not more. So you end up with devices specific to certain markets and thus the end user thinks (often rightly so) that they can’t move their devices from one network to another. The carrier’s desire to be unique is purely for profit.

        We need the government to step in and force the carriers to play nice. If not with each other, then at least with us.

        • Proprietary_Android

          In other words, we need the FTC to do what the EU has done. . . then the devices would be sold unlocked and “universal” for all carriers. I’m sure if the FTC tried to do that that congress would stop them because they are all bought and paid for.

      • dr4stic

        I agree… a little :-)

        I don’t think it’s competition so much as cooperation. I think if the carriers were forced to play nice (in terms of fees) for competitors and data/voice roaming traffic, you wouldn’t have such high fees.

        I think also if telco’s were forced to treat phones as computers and not as customized devices (especially given that they’re more expensive than laptops), users should be able to do what the hell they want with them. I think if a user buys a phone at cost, unsubsidized, then the carrier shouldn’t be allowed to force anything on it.

        Don’t forget, AT&T used to lease home telephones to people, and would happily collect fees, well into this millenium so long as age-old customers didn’t notice the fee was still on their phone bill. My mom pointed that out to a 75 yr. old man on his phone bill some 7-8 years ago who was still paying a leasing fee for a phone that he bought many decades ago and has been lost for quite some time.

        Any company wants to be unique. They want a reason to charge their customers through the nose. I think that’s why we have voice going over 4-5+ different bands in the US, and data over just as many, if not more. So you end up with devices specific to certain markets and thus the end user thinks (often rightly so) that they can’t move their devices from one network to another. The carrier’s desire to be unique is purely for profit.

        We need the government to step in and force the carriers to play nice. If not with each other, then at least with us.

      • Anonymous

        There won’t be true competition until most of the U.S. carriers use the same wireless protocol or until the OEMs produce phones which have dual GSM/CDMA chips which can be switched by the user.
        In Europe, virtually all the telcos use the same protocol, so you can swap out sim cards. Here, what’s the point? Choose between AT&T and T-Mobile and lose 3G when you switch?

        Swell.

  • Proprietary_Android

    In the end what I as end user am concerned about is, can I get a “clean install” on my device, how long will the OS for my device be supported, how much customization can I do, etc. . .

    In other words. . . open, closed, etc. . . doesn’t matter in the end to the end user because if the device is more closed than a device with a proprietary OS than what does the end user care.

  • Anonymous

    I have seen all aspects of this spectrum. My first Android phone was the Droid 1. I then moved to the Droid X. As the article mentioned it went from open Bootloader to Locked. Since I have left Verizon and T-Mobile both I have had G2, Vibrant and now Atrix. I don’t see a big slow down with the new MotoBlur. I never even used it. After boot up, I signed into my GMAIL to gain Market access to ADW Launcher.

    The Atrix is a fast phone as it should be. Bloatware on the phones I have had didnt make a lick of difference. Now, I would like to have full bootloader access. A CoWorker and I discuss the rootable and locked bootloaders frequently. We both agree if you have a phone rooted and unlocked from the factory will help eliminate issues.

    My personal thought is the knuckle heads that can’t follow step by step instructions are the cause of this. They try to root and do other things bricking phones. Then because they don’t use Search in a variety of forums they won’t search to see the phone can usually be recovered.

    Carriers can fight tethering by putting a notice out after two months of over 5GB usage or what ever number. I have rooted all my devices and do tether my iPod Touch and iPad. In my two plus years of tethering I have never eclipsed 5GB. First off VZW 3G is way to slow to want to tethering other than email and quick websurf. Second I am home enough that 18MB trumps my AT&T or VZW service.

  • Anonymous

    With all due respect, I think a number of your thoughts miss the mark.

    1) You missed a huge reason for not allowing rooting: returns. Granted, a majority of “bricking” occurs when rooting the phone in the first place (which would not happen with unlocked phones), but even without that there is still a chance of bricking phones by flashing new ROMs. Plus, without the more difficult root process, every idiot would be loading custom ROMs and doing it improperly, thus more than making up for the lower number of bricked phones caused by rooting. Bottom line: manufacturers will do everything possible to lower the rate of return on their phones.

    2) Regarding tethering, if you insist on pushing the agenda that “I bought my connection, now deal with it,” then don’t be angry when the last bastions of unlimited data (Sprint and some regional carriers) all switch to tiered data plans. Stop thinking about wired and wireless data delivery the same. They’re not. The more data that is pushed over a network, the more capacity it requires. Adding capacity to a wireless network is VASTLY more expensive than adding capacity to a wired network (cable, DSL, etc.). Plus, at home, the standard consumers of data are your computer and your TV. Their larger screens require more data to be pushed to get high quality video to them. So, of course hooking your tablet or phone to that network is a pittance compared to the total traffic the network pushes. If you want to tether your phone to use as the pipe for Netflix HD streaming to your TV, you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) expect your wireless carrier to have no problem with that. Go study ERLANGS, the cost of spectrum in the US, and the cost of adding “carriers” to a wireless site, and then re-visit this topic. The only solution is tiering. If you buy 2GB of data a month from your carrier and you want to use all of that streaming a 2-hour HD movie to your TV over a 4G connection, the carrier truly shouldn’t care.

    I like where your head is at, but I think you’re brushing off issues that are much larger than you think they are.

  • KnowFear

    I totally agree. A phone should always have the availability to be accessed. I don’t know how many times the folks at XDA and other sites have successfully “repaired” a stock phones issues with simple access to the bootloader. The G1 is still kicking only because of the 3rd party developers that have supported it. Otherwise that phone would have been extinct a long time ago. Which is exactly what the manufacturer and the carrier want. They want you to feel it is necessary to purchase a new phone every time your upgrade comes available. That’s how business works.

    I also see their reasoning for locking down a bootloader as well. While yes, those who would be flashing and customizing may be 1% or less of the available market, that is still a tremendous amount of hardware. Add to the fact that there are at least 1/4 of those folks that have no idea what they are doing, and cannot comprehend anything other than brightly colored drawings. Now what you have is a bunch of idiots that feel like they deserve warranty service for screwing up their phones. The manufacturer should NEVER have to replace a phone because someone screwed it up trying to get something they had no idea what to do with.

    On the issue of tethering. Yes I have tethered many times. It is usually for simple things like checking emails and facebook while in a hotel. I would never pay 30 extra dollars a day to an already expensive hotel for access to their wifi which is slower than my 3g phone. Yes, some people DO go overboard with it. Cancelling your home internet simply because you are trying to save money and then complaining that you are getting throttled is the asinine part. Unlimited data IS still unlimited data. You still have all the access available. But you don’t have unlimited bandwidth. I still think throttling is fair. If you feel it’s necessary to download torrents and movies over a 3g/4g network, then you deserve to be throttled down.

    That’s my .02 cents on the subject.

  • Anonymous

    I hesitated to comment initially, expecting to be lambasted, but since some cooler heads have already covered many of these points, now I am late.

    I understand, appreciate and even agree with some of the frustrations of dealing with the carriers, their strategies and such, but at the same time, some of your points, go a bit wayward, and are just as “PR” sounding as those you complain about.

    First of all, now that HTC also seems to be locking their bootloader, Sony has done so, why is it still Motorola the *one* that is not “hacker friendly”? The fact of the matter is, that the carriers are demanding this, and the makers are complying. True, Motorola may have been 1st biggest problem in this arena, but they are not the “exception.”

    Your arguments of “3rd parties could have fixed issues” may be all well and nice in a geeks world, but it is nothing the average consumer can take advantage of, and is not something a carrier is interested in anyway. Motorola, HTC, et al all view their customizations as their “differentiator” That means they don’t want you to be able to remove the fruits of their labors.

    While a SmartPhone is certainly a more capable computing device than a PC of not really all that many years ago, it is still NOT a PC. And by the way, if they COULD find a way to lock down a PC, they will do so. Just look at what Apple is doing with their App Store and making it part of their MAC OSX Gummi Bear (or whatever the next version is called), they are going to try and make it work essentially the same way, so that users don’t “have to get their hands dirty” (read: have less access).

    If only their was a phone that was sold away from the carriers. Void of discounts, but also void of any carrier interference. Certainly, all the phone geeks that demand unlocked devices would flock to that device and send a clear and decisive message to carriers, right? Oh, wait.. we had one… the Nexus One. I’m pretty sure that the terms that went along with that experiment were along the lines of “flop”, “failure”, and “disappointing”

    If there was a clear message sent… it was that this market is just as small as manufacturers believe it is.

    Now, add to that, and I don’t care whether you like their logic or not, your terms of service with the provider says you cannot tether. Don’t like it? Get another service. Stealing service and circumventing what you are supposed to pay for is not acceptable because you don’t believe they should charge you for it. It is still a theft of service. Period.

    Do, I think that it should be different? Yes. I agree with the logic that 5GB is 5 GB, regardless of how you use it. That still doesn’t mean I can not pay for it, just because I don’t think they deserve it.

    One last think, please stop using words like confusing when it comes to “open” You hit the nail right on the head, the OS is open, the device is NOT. Nobody is confused by this. People like us, know it and don’t like it. Others, don’t know it… but also don’t care. The general public thinks open means they can install what they want (which to an extent is true, and better than Apple on that point alone).

    Those of us that want complete control over their phones and the ‘right” to install ROMS and do other low level things to our phones will for the foreseeable future continue to be a tiny fraction of the market, and we wil continue to be viewed as “unsavory hackers” and other negative terms so long as we continue to act like the same people that think Linux desktops should take over the world, “smart, but financially insignificant.” As far as they are concerned, you cost them more than they make from you, so if you walk away… they are perfectly happy with that decision.

    There are things that need to be done to make the world more consumer friendly, but few if any of them are part of the manifesto as you have set it out.

    • KnowFear

      In regards to the Nexus One being a “flop”, “failure”, or “disappointing”, I have to disagree. The Nexus One was ahead of its time and set a new bar in a lot of aspects. The only thing I felt was a failure (and the same could have been said about the G-1) was the utter lack of advertising.

      If Google had used the marketing strategy of say Motorola with the Droid…there is no telling how many more phones would’ve been sold.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t disagree in some respects that it was “ahead of its time.” But it was ahead of its time, much in the same way Nokia has been in the U.S. Ahead of its time, right through its demise.

        The words were not mine, but from every major tech outlet. The fact is that the NexusOne did so poorly the CDMA version never even saw the light of day.

        The point remains the same though, the fact is the market for the “experts” that don’t need support and are willing to forgo subsidies to have a phone that can be modded to their hearts content, is quite small. We are the exception, not “the norm.”

        • Ronald Pottol

          The point of the N1 was to be a flagship device, which it was, for starters, x2 as much ram as any other Android at the time.

        • Anonymous

          True. It was also touted as being “unemcumbered by the carriers” and while not exactly specifically stated, being dubbed the “Google Phone” it was a clean experience that you knew was going to get updates first. And still people did not buy.

    • rst_ack

      I think OpenMoko’s Freerunner was the first great, Linux-based smartphone that not only allowed modification, but encouraged it! Unfortunately, that particular device never really took off for the masses. I believe it was due to the fact that it was so open and people saw it as a tech-only device and shrugged off the notion of open. Android is great, but the license needs to have a new revision.

      • Anonymous

        Yeah, the fact that a $99 option for the device being a debug board makes calling the Freerunner a “tech only device” a fair thing to do. And while I like the concept behind it… I am not sure you can call the Freerunner a “great” phone in any context.

  • thaghost

    all of this goes to show that we should be grateful to the community who puts in a lot of work to root phones and build roms…THANKS!!!!

  • Ronald Pottol

    I wish they put their efforts into a restore feature. Hold the right buttons down on power on, and it asks you if you want to restore your phone to as shipped condition, at which point it reads from a read only source, and wipes the phone, and because all this is functionality not affected by rooting, no more bricked phones. Seems like a win to me.

  • 313dash

    Hey let’s boycott Motorola period and watch they’ll change their act. If you bought the phone you should be able to do as you please. With the phones out now we may not have to upgrade for a longtime because of the specs. Plus, I’m a Htc fan anyway.

  • Tehninjo0

    Wow! I couldn’t have said it better myself! You hit the nail on the head in so many ways! What sticks out to me is the what if scenario regarding PC manufacturers. You wrote:

    “Imagine if a PC manufacturer made it impossible to install anything but their version of Windows. You couldn’t install a newer version of Windows or switch to Linux if you wanted. People would be absolutely livid and would avoid the manufacturer like the plague. And yet Motorola (and soon, I suspect, other manufacturers) gets away with doing exactly the same thing. Where is the outrage?”

    Unfortunately the acceptance of exactly this seems in the foreseeable future. Look at tablets for example: Windows 7/Ubuntu based tablets dwarf in comparison to the iPad and Android based devices.

    What is more: both i-devices and android based ones operate in de facto closed app-based ecosystems rather than open application-based ecosystems. As the single source business model for apps flourishes consumers are likely to become accepting thereof in other contexts as well. In other words: once you can live with your tablet being app rather than application based it is only a matter of time until you will accept the same for your desktop/laptop computer (e.g. Chromium OS based laptops slated to hit the market soon).

  • kish

    This is really a great topic. Thanks to the OP. This is not just an option but is much real to the present day situation, as i believe.

    The fu***ng carriers and manufacturers can make a seperate partition for their bloatware and lock it as heavily as they can. Why the should mess up with the google androids open nature. We cant even have rigjhts on the open operating system atleast . And not even access to root-only apps.

    To all the fu***ng carriers and manufacturers, “DON’T MESS UP WITH THE ANDROIDS OPEN NATURE”. U will never have our money again. Now a days, people are not so illiterate to buy a locked device. So, unlock all the past, present and future android devices. Otherwise u r going to be fu**ed.

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