Start Up No.966: the UK’s retail space crash, Alexa: play Apple Music, Facebook’s role in French riots, and more


If it were a Tumblr blog, it would be facing imminent closure. CC-licensed photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.


Today’s suggested charity is BookTrust: give £10 and a child in social care will receive books for Christmas.


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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Retail decline, in maps: England and Wales lose 43m square metres of shop space • The Conversation

Paul Michael Greenhalgh:

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Across the UK, retailers are struggling to survive. This is down to several factors: years of austerity and low wage growth has meant that households have less spending power, the cost of imported goods has risen – as has the national minimum wage – and the trend of “bricks to clicks” means more consumers are shopping online, from the convenience of their home, than in store.

This is not just bad news for retailers. Empty shop fronts blight the high street in towns and cities across country. Research I conducted, together with the R3intelligence team at Northumbria University, found that retail is in decline across most of England and Wales, with just a few areas bucking the trend.

By comparing the government’s own data on business rates – based on values from 2008 to 2015, and made available in the 2010 and 2017 rating lists – we have been able to analyse changes in the number and value of retail properties across England and Wales over that period. The map below shows how the average “rateable” value of retail floorspace – which is its estimated value on the open rental market – has changed in each local authority.

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Mike Ashley, of Sports Direct, suggested on Monday that companies with over 20% of sales online should pay an extra tax; otherwise, he says, the high street will be dead by 2030.
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Amazon Alexa to let Apple Music play through speakers • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

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Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. announced their second partnership this month: the iPhone maker’s music-streaming service is coming to Amazon’s Echo devices in December.

The move gets Apple Music onto the most-popular voice-controlled speakers, giving it distribution beyond Apple’s own devices. Subscribers will be able to control Apple Music with Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, the first time Apple has opened up its music service to full voice control outside its own Siri technology.

The decision pushes Apple’s music service into more living rooms at a time when its own internet-connected speaker, the HomePod, hasn’t sold as well as the competition. Given the breadth of Alexa-enabled speakers on the market, the move could also boost Apple’s own subscription numbers.

“This is further evidence that Apple sees it needs to work with other hardware players in order to advance Apple Music, and it is an admission that the HomePod has been a disappointment,” said Gene Munster of Loup Ventures.

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Combined with the decision to let Amazon sell iPhones, Gurman wonders whether there’s a rapprochement between the two companies. I think it’s more that it’s win-win for Amazon to sell iPhones etc. As for the choice between allowing Apple Music to go on the Echo (which I bet you both Apple and Amazon wanted – probably Amazon a tiny bit more than Apple, because it becomes a selling point for the Echo): it’s more simple economics. Apple Music is already on the Sonos systems, so price isn’t the barrier. There’s no sensible reason to keep it off the Echo on that basis.

Now the question is whether Apple Music will show up on Google Home. I wonder if that depends on who sees the telemetry data.
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How Facebook is fueling the French populist rage • Monday Note

Frederic Filloux:

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The “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) unrest that has been spreading across France over the recent weeks is the perfect, grass-rooted, unstructured movement that demonstrates the efficiency of Facebook and the damages it can indirectly cause to Western democracies.

The Yellow Vests started with the controversial tax on gasoline and grew with a widespread discontent against the government. President Emmanuel Macron is viewed as the embodiment of the French elite, disconnected from the country, and willing to favor “The Rich”. Next was a series of blockades across the country, that turns increasingly violent.

On Saturday, 166,000 people carrying the iconic outfit— invented by some Scottish railway workers nearly a century ago and which is a mandatory equipment in French cars — were on deck. In Paris, the demonstration turned violent in with scores of destructions. Firefighters had to respond to 249 fires of cars and stores.

I spent my entire afternoon there. Nearly all the people I talked to admitted to relying on Facebook to get informed in real-time on the unfolding events. In France, 63% of internet users are on Facebook. The country is served by a remarkable cellular infrastructure that is relatively inexpensive and reliable (laws have been passed to force carriers to progressively cover 100% of the territory). The result is countless selfies, videos, and live blogging taken during the event, which fuelled anger and fantasy and above all an incredible efficiency to organize hundreds of demonstrations large and small.

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As he points out, for those who want to revolt, or who sympathise, Facebook has replaced the traditional media – and nothing can penetrate the new bubble it creates. But he also has an important message if you think the answer is “ban Facebook”.
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YouTube Music is a bad product in desperate need of improvement • Android Central

Andrew Martonik:

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YouTube Music is so unfinished and lacking features that I question whether Google has any intentions of following through with its vision of replacing Google Play Music entirely. Put simply, I can’t believe Google thinks anyone will pay $10 per month for it when all signs point to Google itself not caring about YouTube Music’s success.

YouTube Music effectively doesn’t work with Google Home. Yes you can select “YouTube Music” as your music provider in the Google Home app, but that only gives you access to a music catalogue when you ask for specific songs or artists. You can ask any way you want, but a Google Home won’t play your YouTube Music “Mixtape” or any custom playlists. It’ll try its best to play some music from YouTube on your Chromecast instead, but that’s not helpful. And most times when you think you do get a Google Home to play YouTube Music, it isn’t actually playing YouTube Music — it’s playing Google Play Music, of course, so there’s a good chance it’ll start pulling your old GPM playlists and sending listening history there instead. Great.

YouTube Music also still doesn’t work with Android Auto, which is just as inexcusable as not working with Google Home. Android Auto and YouTube Music apps have both been updated at least half a dozen times since the music service re-launched with this new direction, and I still can’t use it to play music in the car. You can start up YouTube Music and then open Android Auto to at least get a player for play/pause/seek, but it won’t show up as a media choice in the app.

Then there’s the Music app and website, which are just rudimentary. Building playlists is clunky and feels tacked-on. Search is an odd mix of actual songs, tracks from compilation albums, and a weird sprinkling of YouTube videos.

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Google now has metastatizing music offerings to go with its chat offerings. Why? What’s the difference from Google Music Play Access All Areas, or whatever it’s called this week?
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Google keeps failing to understand tablets • The Verge

Vlad Savov:

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Tablets, despite being proximate to both phones and laptops, are unique. To have a good tablet experience, you need an OS that is made specifically for that task. It must offer an intuitive touchscreen interface, like a phone, but it should also make full use of its greater screen real estate and higher spec ceiling. Apple’s iPad is, of course, the role model for how this is done. Apple has developed custom X editions of its iPhone chips for use in the iPad, taking advantage of the larger battery and better cooling of the tablet. The company has also dedicated major iOS releases to improving iPad functionality, even while the iPhone remains its most important product. That, together with a historic willingness among app developers to create iPad-specific apps, generates a distinct iPad-only user experience.

So long as Google keeps trying to cram its software for other platforms onto a tablet, it will continue to suffer the ignominy of failure. Android Wear on smartwatches, now renamed Wear OS, has been another instructive example of what should be a very simple concept: if you want to build the best possible version of any gadget, the software for it has to be designed for it. Someone at Google really ought to consult Microsoft’s long, abortive history of trying to slim Windows down just enough to make it fit onto mobile devices. (The Surface Pro 2-in-1s of today are good, but they’re still more laptop than tablet.) There’s also Intel’s spectacularly profligate run of pseudo-mobile chips that were just trimmed-down laptop and desktop processors.

The future of technology will be defined by more software specialization, not less.

«

Google’s problem is that Android tablets have been second in its priorities after phones (and then third, after WearOS), which has put them a long way down the pecking order for developers considering what to develop for. As Savov points out elsewhere in the article, too many Android tablet apps are poorly resized versions of the phone app – rather than being rethought for the bigger real estate of the large screen.
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More than 40% of world coal plants are unprofitable: report • Reuters

Nina Chestney:

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More than 40% of the world’s coal plants are operating at a loss due to high fuel costs and that proportion could to rise to nearly 75% by 2040, a report by environmental think-tank Carbon Tracker showed on Friday.

Institutional investors are increasingly divesting from fossil fuel companies due to the risk their assets will become stranded as tougher emissions cut targets discourage their use and renewable energy becomes even cheaper.

London-based Carbon Tracker analysed the profitability of 6,685 coal plants around the world, representing 95% of operating capacity and 90% of capacity under construction.

It found that 42% of global coal capacity is already unprofitable. From 2019 onwards, it expects falling renewable energy costs, air pollution regulations and carbon pricing to result in further cost pressures and make around 72% of the fleet cashflow negative by 2040.

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Blockchain study finds 0.00% success rate and vendors don’t call back when asked for evidence • The Register

Andrew Orlowski:

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Though Blockchain has been touted as the answer to everything, a study of 43 solutions advanced in the international development sector has found exactly no evidence of success.

Three practitioners including erstwhile blockchain enthusiast John Burg, a Fellow at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), looked at instances of the distributed crypto ledger being used in a wide range of situations by NGOs, contractors and agencies. But they drew a complete blank.

“We found a proliferation of press releases, white papers, and persuasively written articles,” Burg et al wrote on Thursday. “However, we found no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims. We also did not find lessons learned or practical insights, as are available for other technologies in development.”

Blockchain vendors were keen to puff the merits of the technology, but when the three asked for proof of success in the field, it all went very quiet.

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2012: long before H-P deal, Autonomy’s red flags • WSJ

Ben Worthen, Paul Sonne and Justin Scheck, back in 2012 when the Autonomy deal was starting to fall apart:

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When Autonomy Corp. was starting up in this historic university town, founder Mike Lynch stuck a sign on an office door that read “Authorized Personnel Only.” Behind the door, he told visitors, were 500 engineers working on “hush-hush” projects.

The door, in fact, led to a broom closet, Mr. Lynch recounted in a 2010 speech. By then, Autonomy had grown from its founding in 1996 to one of Europe’s largest and fastest-growing software companies. Hewlett-Packard bought it in October 2011 for more than $11bn…

…Interviews in California and England with former Autonomy employees, business partners and attorneys close to the case paint a picture of a hard-driving sales culture shaped by Mr. Lynch’s desire for rapid growth. They describe him as a domineering figure, who on at least a few occasions berated employees he believed weren’t measuring up.

Along the way, these people say, Autonomy used aggressive accounting practices to make sure revenue from software licensing kept growing—thereby boosting the British company’s valuation. The firm recognized revenue upfront that under US accounting rules would have been deferred, and struck “round-trip transactions”—deals where Autonomy agreed to buy a client’s products or services while at the same time the client purchased Autonomy software, according to these people.

“The rules aren’t that complicated,” said Dan Mahoney of accounting research business CFRA, who covered Autonomy until it was acquired. He said that Autonomy had the hallmarks of a company that recognized revenue too aggressively. He said neither US nor international accounting rules would allow companies to recognize not-yet collected revenue from customers that might be at risk not to pay, which he said appears to be the case in some of Autonomy’s transactions.

A person familiar with H-P’s investigation said the company is confident the deals are improper even under the international accounting standards Mr. Lynch cites. “We’ve looked at this very closely,” this person said.

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Last week, Lynch was formally charged in the US with 14 counts of conspiracy and fraud. This is going to grind on for years and years.
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France and Germany abandon ambitious plans for EU digital tax • Financial Times

Mehreen Khan:

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France and Germany have abandoned EU plans to impose a wide-ranging digital tax on tech companies, in favour of a narrow levy on advertising sales that would be likely to exclude giants like Amazon and Apple.

In an attempt to rescue reform of taxation rules for digital companies, Paris and Berlin will on Tuesday present a draft plan to impose a 3% tax on revenues generated by ad sales in the digital economy, according to a draft seen by the Financial Times. 

The new compromise abandons a wider three-pronged digital tax plan that would have also targeted around 180 of the largest technology groups by capturing activities like data sales and the activities of online platforms, raising an estimated €5bn a year.

Under the new Franco-German version, the likes of Facebook and Google would be targeted through their sales of advertising but other retailers like Amazon, AirBnB and Spotify were likely to be excluded, said officials. Advertising revenues would form the “minimum common scope” of the EU’s tech tax, says the text.

Diplomats said the focus on just advertising was designed to alleviate German concerns that its car companies could be hit by the tax. It is also an attempt to overcome staunch opposition from Nordic economies who have pushed back against Europe’s attempts to go it alone with new tax rules for digital companies, in favour of broader international rules. 

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Verizon takes aim at Tumblr’s kneecaps, bans all adult content • Ars Technica

Peter Bright:

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Oath, the Verizon subsidiary that owns the Yahoo and AOL digital media brands, has announced that as of December 17, all adult content will be banned from the Tumblr blogging site. Any still or moving images displaying real-life human genitals or female nipples and any content—even drawn or computer-generated artwork—depicting any sexual acts will be prohibited.

Genitals and female nipples will only be permitted within the context of breastfeeding, childbirth, and in health-related subjects such as gender confirmation surgery. Written erotica will also remain on the site.

Nowadays, pornography represents a substantial element of Tumblr’s content. A 2013 estimate said that around 11% of the site’s 200,000 most-visited domains were porn, and some 22% of inbound links were from adult sites.

Tumblr’s relaxed attitude both toward adult content and to copyright infringement—a good proportion of the porn is simply lifted from commercial adult websites—created a safe space for adult content. So a wide range of communities—particularly those poorly represented in broadly heteronormative mainstream porn—took advantage of this atmosphere to publish their own pornography. Present-day Tumblr has substantial LGBT, kink, fetish, and BDSM representation, for example. This encompasses a mix both of the commercial (amateur models promoting their content) and the non-commercial (porn made for fun, for empowerment, for the sheer joy of exhibitionism).

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Only 11%? Seriously? Anyhow, they’re going to do this using automated tools – don’t snicker at the back – and you can see it all going wrong.

Just as a reminder, Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1.1bn under Marissa Mayer in May 2013. What do you think it’s worth now?
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The new word processor wars: a fresh crop of productivity apps are trying to reinvent our workday • Geekwire

Tony Lystra:

»

the old “office suite” is being reinvented around rapid-fire discussion threads, quick sharing and light, simple interfaces where all the work happens inside a single window. In recent years, the buzzwords in tech have been “AI” and “mobile.” Today, you can add “collaboration” to that list — these days, everybody wants to build Slack-like communication into their apps.

For notes and docs, there’s Quip, Notejoy, Slite, Zenkit, Notion and Agenda. For spreadsheets, there’s Bellevue, Wash.-based Smartsheet, as well as Airtable, Coda and, although it’s a very different take on the spreadsheet, Trello. The list goes on seemingly ad infinitum, largely thanks to the relative ease with which developers can launch software in the cloud.

“Work has totally changed,” said Aaron Levie, the co-founder and CEO of Box, the online storage company that is building its strategy around unifying data and messaging from a dizzying mix of cloud apps. “Employees were lucky to have two, three, five modern applications in the 90s. Now they have almost unlimited ways of being productive.”


Notejoy, like other new productivity apps, combines the word processor with Slack-like collaboration. (Notejoy Image)

At a fundamental level, many of these apps aren’t built atop new technologies like touchscreens or AI so much as they are reinventing anew the way most of us still get our work done — typing on a physical keyboard and in front of a monitor. In this new environment, workers aren’t satisfied with the apps IT gives them anymore. They expect the same simple user interfaces found in the consumer apps they’ve become accustomed to on their phones, and they’re tired of wading through standard-issue file directories based on the classic Windows and Mac OS structures.

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The Microsoft Word 2.0 ad at the top of the article shows an interface that’s so perfect in its simplicity. Then they added cruft to it.

Of the “spreadsheets”, Coda (not the Mac app) looks very interesting for a task-based approach – which is what these new products generally seem to focus on.

And who’d have thought people might get tired of file directories?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.966: the UK’s retail space crash, Alexa: play Apple Music, Facebook’s role in French riots, and more

  1. re Google and tablets.

    I love The Verge’s “To have a good tablet experience, you need an OS that is made specifically for that task. It must offer an intuitive touchscreen interface, like a phone, but it should also make full use of its greater screen real estate and higher spec ceiling. Apple’s iPad is, of course, the role model for how this is done”

    Erm…
    Isn’t the iPad running the same iOS as the iPhone, with a few UI/UX tweaks ?
    Didn’t most of those UI/UX tweaks first appear in Android (pen support, split-screen and pip windows, support for USB peripherals…)
    Doesn’t Android still have distinct advantages (homescreen widgets instead of a sea of icons, pointer support…).

    As someone who uses Android tablets and even desktops, surrounded by people who do the same, the issues are both clear and simple:
    1- fix the patchy mouse support. Some apps understand the wheel, others need click-and-drag. The right mouse button should pop up a menu or same as left click or do nothing, not be “back”
    2- highlight tablet-optimized apps, and desktop-optimized apps. The biggest learning curve for new users is finding which apps will work and look nice. Makes sure yours do, too ^^ I think the pressure works the other way now: it’s not in Google’s interest to inflate number of apps, it’s in devs’ interest to make sure they get listed in the “tablet” and “desktop” sections too, because as a user I’ll certainly favor apps that can run on all 3.
    3- Hire tablet&desktop champions and evangelists. Android’s tablets’ image is much worse than the reality. What’s needed is, internally a bit of customer focus, externally a bit of PR.
    4- Awaken to the fact that ChromeOS isn’t the solution, most users do not want to learn another OS for the sake of it. If the future is Fuchsia and it solves all of Android’s issues (mostly, updates and Linux-originated complications), make sure Fuchsia supports tablets and desktops w/o having you dive into its ChromeOS personality.

    As you say, mostly it’s a lack of focus and motivation. I blame ChromeOS mostly, Google likes that one much better than Android. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop re. Fuchsia’s ability to work off-cloud and w/o Google’s proprietary services, or even to freely substitute system defaults the way we can on Android.

    • Isn’t the iPad running the same iOS as the iPhone, with a few UI/UX tweaks ?

      Not exactly, no. If you rotate the view on an iPhone, you don’t get an iPad view. The underlying code is the same, but the understanding of windowing is different. They’re both touchscreens, so of course there will be commonality there. It depends on whether you call something a “tweak” or a difference. “Tweak” makes it sound trivial; but the reflowing that a developer has to do to accommodate, say, a split-screen view which is rotated, or when it goes from being 50% to 33% of the screen, isn’t trivial. This is what Android devs have signally failed to do – possibly because Google intentionally isn’t prescriptive about screen size.
      But that comes back to bite you. Contrast the Amazon iPad app with the iPhone one, or pretty much any case where there’s actually an iPad app: the design and layout is different. Then you compare Instagram, which has never done an iPad app: it looks horrendous, and nobody produces content on an iPad on Instagram. That same “ah, just let it do what it wants” approach means Android tablet apps look dire, more often than not.

      Didn’t most of those UI/UX tweaks first appear in Android (pen support, split-screen and pip windows, support for USB peripherals…)

      Samsung was first with split-screen and pen support, I think. More to the point is which Android tablets made effective use of those features. Again, to labour a point, I don’t hear about artists drawing work on Android tablets using Android pens. I do hear about them doing that with iPads and Pencils (and Surfaces, to round it out.) The lesson in technology is not “were you first?” but “did you do it best?”

      Doesn’t Android still have distinct advantages (homescreen widgets instead of a sea of icons, pointer support…).

      Funny thing: from day to day on my iPad I hardly ever see the homescreen. I use the running apps, the Dock and the Spotlight search to launch any apps not in the Dock or open documents or find contacts or whatever. (I’m the same on the Mac.) Homescreen widgets – I have a ton of widgets I can swipe in from the left if the screen is locked, or down from the top and left if unlocked. Battery levels, transport, news, podcasts, music, calculator that doesn’t launch the calculator app. So I guess I’d say no, Android doesn’t have “distinct” advantages there.

      As to what Google should do.. I guess we’ll see.

      • The Widgets thing is a bit of a chicken-and-eggs. They’ve got to be right there on the home screen, or you don’t use them. I just got my new Xiaomi tablets (they rock ! Well worth the $50 / 20% extra over lower brands), but “for some reason” they put widgets in a separate panel to the left of the home screen. I dutifully set up my widgets out there, but I never go there. Widgets have to be right on the home page. I’ll probably swap launchers in the end to get the darn widgets where god intended them.

        My point was that Android was first, but also that Google could -should- have built up on that instead of dithering forever. Aside from the nice PR and edge cases, most of the value of Android’s openness is that OEMs get to try stuff. I wish Google had the motivation, bandwidth and sense to spot worthwhile directions and embrace&extend them. It seems that what’s missing mostly is the will, and by the time they get their act straight iOS apps will run on desktops (whether MacOS or iOS), and Windows might finally have gotten a foothold in not so much “mobile” as “no-admin, store-only, CPU-independent” devices. And we’ll remember HP and Tosh had Android laptops back in 2010 and Google watched them flail.

        Again, the core issue is that most people not only don’t want to, and in theory don’t need to, learn a new OS and shop for new apps and peripherals. They’re forced to do so for laptops and desktops because MS failed at new-gen ecosystems, Apple prefers to sell several devices and needs to keep MacOS at critical mass, and Google is dumb. If there were 1st-tier, polished Android desktops, laptops and consoles, about half the devices around me would be just that, just like TV boxes are. We wouldn’t be pondering about ChromeOS maybe getting a foothold, but wondering how so many users can live with something so limited as Android gear ;-p

  2. re. Word 2.0. I remember fighting a rearguard battle way back when trying to get people to realize that Ashton Tate’s Framework and then MS Works were all that was needed. Lost that one because formats, it’s not about the tool it’s about the content, and one “rotten” high-end user spoils the whole “casual” barrel with her fancy .docs . My 77yo mom still has to have PowerPoint on her Android desktop because slideshows of cats…
    Maybe the collaboration aspect now trumps the format issues, and maybe we’ve broken out of .doc jail a bit via Apple’s and Google’s success.
    Funny how it’s all social stuff, not technical. Back when I started in IT, I did it because I though it would change the world. People, not tech, do that.

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