In this podcast, we are talking about WordPress in the eCommerce space, including a look at what is happening with WooCommerce and how Jetpack plays into the equation.
Today I’m chatting with two special guests: Todd Wilkens, head of eCommerce at Automattic and Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic and WordPress. They both shared some great insights on issues related to WordPress and eCommerce. And yes, we also did take time to offer perspectives on the new WordPress editor.
We chatted about:
- What we are seeing in the eCommerce and WordPress space with new integrations— and what this means for the future.
- How the new WordPress editor Gutenberg plays a specific role in WordPress and eCommerce sites.
- The reach of blocks with eCommerce plugins as add-ons to existing post types, or from top-to-bottom product page layouts.
- What WooCommerce is working on and how blocks are playing a big role in the future with added features.
- How Jetpack and its WooCommerce integrations will become a stand-alone option for users who want to monetize their blogs.
- The perception of Jetpack (and the reality).
I also added my own experience with the WordPress editor and talked with Matt about how it had enabled me to improve my workflow.
Thanks to our sponsor
Bob: Hey everybody. Welcome to Episode 140. Bob WP here, and I have two very special guests today. First of all, I have Todd Wilkins, who is the head of eCommerce at Automattic. Welcome to the show, Todd.
Todd: Thanks Bob.
Bob: And I have Matt Mullenweg here, founder of Automattic, and WordPress, and somebody I've tried to get on the show a few times, and finally we found the sweet spot. I appreciate you taking the time to be with us, Matt.
Matt: Great. I'm really excited to be here, too.
Bob: What I wanted to really dive into is, I mean it's very broad: WordPress, eCommerce, and WooCommerce. I thought what better way to start it off than to explore a little bit around the space we're in right now as far as WordPress and eCommerce. With the fact that eCommerce having done their integration, their plugin at the beginning of December (which I think is one of the first times I have seen a really a third party integrate as well as it did). Do you think this is a pivotal time right now, and that others might start looking at this and be thinking about the publishing power of WordPress, and how they, well, I don't want to say jump on the bandwagon, but the opportunities that might be there?
Todd: Maybe I'll take a first shot shot at this one. I know Matt has a lot of thoughts too, but since eCommerce is near and dear to my heart, I think there are two parts to your question. So, one is about companies like BigCommerce coming in to work and integrate with WordPress. That's not surprising to me, especially as someone who, I haven't been immersed in WordPress my whole career, so I've been on the inside and the outside, but WordPress is, clearly, it's the most successful content platform on the web. It's one of those effective customer engagement platforms on the web.
On top of that, you have this kind of amazing evolution going on right now with the Gutenberg blocks, and templates, and styles, and the new editor, and the new customer to this. There's so many things happening with WordPress right now, so it has this great legacy where it's standing, and then it's got this major change kind of thing going on. I think it makes sense that eCommerce platforms would really be paying attention to all of that, and then looking for ways to get integrated.
So on the one hand, I'm not surprised at all. In some ways I'm surprised there wasn't more of it sooner. But the one thing I would say is use this word, pivotal time. I actually think it really is. I think it's a pivotal time in a lot of ways, for us to consider what's at the core of WordPress's success. The openness, the ease of development, the flexibility, the control of your own code and your data. These are some of the core tenants that really made WordPress, and the organizations that work with it, that really made them successful. I think what we're going to see is that as other organizations outside the ecosystem try to come in, they're going to wrestle a little bit with how to integrate, because a lot of them are generally closed and inflexible systems, and they're going to try to integrate those open ones.
So in some ways, it's a pivotal time for the WordPress community to be sure of who it is, and what our value is, and what we bring to the web, and to businesses like eCommerce and other kinds of businesses, because the success of WordPress has put this in a place where there's a lot increasing pressure and attention from people outside of the ecosystem. I think it's a good time for us to make sure we continue to be who we are and always have been. Does that make sense?
Bob: Yeah, it does. What are your thoughts, Matt?
Matt: Yeah. Something very fundamental happened when Automattic acquired WooCommerce. Previously we had mirrored our mission as Automattic to the same one as Core WordPress, which is to democratize publishing. When WooCommerce joined the family, we added two important words: to democratize publishing and commerce. So, it was a fundamental shift in the mission of the company. We decided that there was another fundamental activity going on online that needed to have the same flexibility, ease of access, open platform that publishing needs and deserves.
This also means that there's going to be lots of paths to the water. So, as Todd said, I'd be surprised if any eCommerce platform was ignoring a third of the top websites in the world. So, they're all going to be there. But what I hope we can all do is bring that kind of WordPress openness to how we approach this space, because while we'd love it if everyone would use one thing and not the other, how it happens is that people want to integrate the best of different things. Maybe there's some sort of Shopify integration, and they're using something from BigCommerce, or WooCommerce, and then pushing it out to Amazon and Etsy. Commerce is very, very big space. We're all about control and flexibility, and that also means supporting and welcoming all of the entrants into the space.
Bob: Exactly. Now, I know that Todd mentioned Gutenberg briefly, and we cannot have a show with Matt on where we don't talk about Gutenberg. I mean, that's just a given. I'm going to admit, I'm going to make a public admission here, that I finally put 5.0 on my site full-time. Now I spend hours each day in the editor; it's like my second home. This is not because the two of you are on here or anything. I'll admit that I am loving it a lot more than I thought I would, and interestingly enough, one of the plugins I was using was causing a bit of problems, so I had the choice of either dealing with that or going back to the classic editor. I got back in the classic editor, and I actually started grumbling because it was like, "Oh man. This kinda sucks." You know? I'm really used to the new editor now, and the workflow has been amazing on my part. So, what I want to segue into is how do you foresee this new editor, a.k.a. Gutenberg, playing a role with the online stores running on WordPress?
Todd: I'll speak more broadly to not just online stores but everything. If there's anything that had an interface that was designed to output content onto the front end of your website, page, post, whatever, it can be done so much more elegantly with Gutenberg. Because what happened is WooCommerce and every other plugin out there in the world, kind of created their own interaction paradigms. There'll be various levels of that not being what you would see on the front end. There'd be various levels of theme support. There were all sorts of different variations, and in fact many people building custom sites would use things like advanced custom fields to create layers and layers of these.
But you know, once you get into a block mindset, you understand how it's like the periodic table of the web. Any single thing you see built out there can be done with blocks, and we have a chance to reimagine what it means to publish to the web from the ground up with a block-first mentality that'll be a lot more intuitive and accessible for users, and provide developers way more power than they've had in the past, because they won't have to recreate from the ground up, recreate the wheel every single time they're making a new interface. They can inherit the kind of primitives that Gutenberg provides.
Bob: Yeah, I find that interesting because what I realized, and maybe I'm kind of a unique animal in this sense, but with Gutenberg, I love the flexibility of the layout, but I've found out it's better for my workflow. Maybe my workflow is different than other people, but as far as when I'm in, because I write in the editor, so I don't create my posts and drop them in, I'm constantly in there, and actually the flow of it makes it easier once I got used to it. I did it enough times, it was like, "Okay, I love this layout flexibility, but I'm actually loving how my workflow is going even better." I just thought that was interesting because the layout seems to be, I don't want to say the focus, but yeah, it obviously is, and for most users it is, but for me there was that other part of it that was just as important.
Matt: Tell me a bit more about your workflow.
Bob: You know, it's, it's interesting because it's just where things are located. I wrote a post, and I said something like, simple little things that I rely on a lot. Like where the access to the permalink and where it's located now on the side there.
Matt: What was one of the other things?
Bob: I'm just pointing out a couple of really small things. The open in the new window when you're putting an image, and how you can do that, choose that. It just seems like it's one step less. So when I'm in there, I just found that everything that I'm looking at, because I have all these different checklists on the side that I use this one plugin for, and I'm writing. I'm writing texts, I'm dropping in a screenshot. I'm writing text, dropping in a screenshot, and it's just once I got going with it, I found I can do it quicker than the old editor going up to the top all the time. So it was this constant, just adding content.
So as I write content, and it just comes out of my head, I go take a screenshot, I drop it in, I write the next paragraph or two, I do a title. It is just easier for me. Everything seems to, you know, when I went back and actually started using the classic editor, it freaked me out. It was like, "Oh my God. Now I've got to go back up here." It was weird. I've found it's not like a special workflow, but it's all the different things I have going on, and what little pieces I'm using, and what I can constantly check over on the side, you know? It's just the overall layout, and like I said, building up a cool post, even just a really standard post, is so much easier for me.
Matt: Well first off, thank you for, I guess, giving Gutenberg a chance.
Bob: I was always going to do it. It just took a little while.
Matt: Anytime we start with something new, there's that initial reaction, especially when there's as many changes as Gutenberg has had, and that's okay. I think that's natural, and if, let's say you're trying to get from point A to B really quickly, you know? That's why we created the classic editor plugin, because we want to provide that control and that option to everyone out there. But if you have a chance to try the new workflows, and really allow your muscle memory a chance to develop in the new things, there's been a lot of really good work, and a lot of really great iteration in doing exactly what you described. Trying to make things just one or two clicks less or easier to get to, and so I'm definitely going to ask the Gutenberg team to listen to what you just said because I think it's a great validation of all the hard work they did.
Bob: Yeah, it is really. I'm super impressed, and like I said, I've been working on WordPress for about 11 years. I spend probably more time in the editor than most people, just because I'm going into posts, and I go in and constantly update them, and tweak things, and check links, and stuff. So, I'm just moving in and out of posts all the time. And yeah, it just flows incredible. So Todd, on this Gutenberg thing, is there anything that you feel you want to share as far as maybe specific to running online stores, or just your overall thoughts?
Todd: Yeah. Well actually, it builds off of exactly what you said, which is Gutenberg drastically improves the experience, I would say, for merchants. In your case, you're a publisher, right? So you're a writer. Specifically, I think what ends up happening is that it gives merchants a chance, they get more support and ease when they are exploring different ways of merchandising and engaging customers. Right? One of the things you learn, if you look at eCommerce, is that, in many cases, the success of an online store is much more about the way in merchandising, customer engagement, things like that, rather than the specific inventory, because there's so many stores selling similar things.
So it's about the way you're selling it and engaging your customers. What's great about Gutenberg and the whole block approach is that it means that with the editor, the new editor blocks, templates, and styles, merchants can spend more time thinking about how they can engage with customers and less time on the mechanics of page layout. One of my favorite examples. This is a good, very simple one, but it's one of these lovely things. It's a really common practice to put a feature product on us on a store page, right?
Todd: That can be a very manual process to do in the current kind of WooCommerce paradigm, WooCommerce WordPress paradigm, or historic one, but one of our teams is working on a feature products block. I was just seeing a demo of it, and it's like magic, right? Because, you insert the block, it comes with a great kind of responsive default layout that already works, and then you can search through or select the products that you want to feature without having to go through and copy and paste and find stuff. It's just a quick search. "Oh, there's the one I want to feature." You can imagine it and, bam. It's just there within a minute you have a feature product, it's set up, it looks really good. You found it out of your inventory products.
That's the magic of how blocks work rather than our historic approach to things. And what's great is if you think about this in the future, you can imagine how you could even have recommendations for the right product to feature based on your sales trends, or other things like that. The whole paradigm changes for you. You end up thinking about how your store is working, and not how your site is working. Which I think is a huge win for merchants, because that's what most of them are really interested in. Does that make sense?
Bob: Yeah, it does. Yeah, I've been really, even the blocks that have come out, I've already been playing around with them with WooCommerce, and been intrigued with them.
Okay. I'm going to skip the next question and go to the one after that because it kind of segues into what we're talking about. I think you both can give me some thoughts on this. It's something I've thought about as far as the eCommerce plugins, not just WooCommerce, but any eCommerce plugin, you know? You have the product page, create the product page, and then you're using these blocks now to integrate featured products in, and with the different blocks we can pull it into either a page or post. You know? When you think about how we're laying out a product page, and we can take WooCommerce for example, is it always going to be where you think the blocks are going to be an added plus? So maybe on a WooCommerce product page, maybe blocks that can be added, but will there ever be a point where you think eCommerce plugins will use for their product pages something entirely more block-based where somebody can build the actual product page from scratch? Or are we stepping into murky waters here, because then people might get a little crazy and start having every other product looking different, and there's no continuity to their store?
Todd: Yeah, I thought about this a lot. I think there's sort of two pieces of this here, right? Anything that's using a custom post type, anything that's using something a little bit, you know, making its own product page, it's going to interact with the block editor in some way, right? Because the block editor is a new paradigm, but it's an early paradigm. I think that initially for us, we're thinking a lot about exactly what you said, which is not just how the product page works, but also how people create and edit products and how the block editor, or I know a lot of people think of there's one place within WordPress where it is, "the block editor," but you could use block editing in a number of different places.
Like an eCommerce plugin like WooCommerce, could actually do block editing in a place that was not just the block editor if it made sense and the use case was specific. We're thinking a lot about how you create and edit products as well as how you create and edit product pages because they're not exactly the same thing. The challenges we're working on right now is, we're trying to come up with some, and it'll be a little trial and error, but we're trying to, through user research, figure out what the right … There are a lot of aspects to creating products that aren't purely visual in the way that a lot of what the initial paradigm for blocks has been, and so we're trying to get how we can balance letting someone, say, change things like price, or tax class, or shipping zone, which is not a visual thing at all.
And then, there's also this question of, like you said, is someone going to have a custom product page for every single product they're making, and is that the kind of thing they have to do in a purely visual way? So, they have to go through and put blocks together for every product they want to add into their store? Or is there a way for them to add lots of products based on their product information, and then to set up templates for different kinds of products? We need to allow the flexibility to do both, but we'd like to have a really strong smart default for people. And I think that you intuited the right default, which is for most stores, it's really not the best use of someone's time to completely customize every single product page they have. That is true for certain kinds of products.
But for the vast majority of stores, especially because we have a lot of physical goods stores, they are actually going to get better results with their sales if they have a more standard kind of layout for their product pages. So I guess I would say I don't have a good answer because we're right in the midst of this, but it's one of the things that the WooCommerce team right now is tackling very, very seriously. It's trying to make sense of how we embrace all the things that come out of Gutenberg and the block paradigm, but then use it in some situations that aren't necessarily in the core of what a WordPress user or developer would have historically thought of, because it's not purely about posts in the classic content sense. We definitely want to give guidelines and a point of view. It's not one of those things where it's like, "Well, hope this just works." Last week, we were in the midst of a bunch of interesting explorations about what the right approach would be for this, so I don't have a good answer. I don't have a specific answer yet.
Bob: Yeah. Now is there anything, before I shift away from WooCommerce, anything you want to, either one of you want to share that's on the horizon for WooCommerce that you can say something we might be seeing, or any conceptual ideas?
Todd: I feel like I should take that one first too. There's a bunch of amazing Gutenberg block work going on for WooCommerce core, the WooCommerce core experience, and I think it's going to be revolutionary for merchants, and I'm really excited about it. I think people have been able to see we've been releasing new versions of our blocks plugin on a regular basis. We are eventually going to merge a whole lot of those into WooCommerce core, and then we'll continue helping to make them.
Our extensions developers are also leaning into creating blocks. Blocks are an amazing thing for WooCommerce extensions because it gives a way for so many things to manifest for merchants that's much better than the current paradigm with all these, you know, there's so many admin screens and so they don't integrate really well, whereas there there are many extensions that actually manifest well if they use the block paradigm. So, super excited about that.
So, using a lot of things that Matt was talking about that are going to be part of WordPress core, and I'm excited about that. We're doing it slowly and thoughtfully so it doesn't disrupt current users. But, I'm excited about what that opens up for us. And, especially, we've had some clear directives to the teams, which are, PHP is the core, has been the core, of WordPress, and it's the core of the development community. There's nothing wrong with PHP. We're not throwing it out. So, one of the things we're working really hard on is making sure that the work we do in WooCommerce core, is accessible and usable by people with different kinds of development backgrounds, to meet the needs of their clients.
Bob: Yeah, that sounds pretty cool. Well, what I'm going to do is I'm going to move right over to Matt's baby, and that's Jetpack. You talked about your baby, and now we'll let Matt talk about his babies. We've seen Jetpack have more integration with WooCommerce, which I think is great. I love the ease it's made for setting up shipping, things like that. And then you've added a few other elements over time, like easier PayPal payments, putting a single product easily on your site. Now, going beyond just your online store, just monetizing your site in several different ways. Do you see Jetpack becoming more of a standalone monetization element, or having the modules in there to help people? You're already doing it to some extent, but in the future, will you add any more that might help that process for the average user that's just looking to make a few bucks online?
Matt: Yeah. Jetpack exists to bridge that gap between what's in core, and what the majority of people need from WordPress. It tries to do the 20% that we think the 80% are going to need, and some of that sort of simpler onboarding commerce functionality, a step before you're ready for WooCommerce, we can implement in a fast, elegant way that I think Jetpack is a fantastic vehicle for. And then also, because it's integrated with everything else that Jetpack does, you get a very nice user experience there. And because it's all from Automattic, we can provide a really nice on-ramp to WooCommerce when you're ready for it. So, look for more of that in the future, but nothing to pre-announce.
Bob: Are you seeing more of the community of WordPress welcoming Jetpack as a solution for their clients versus just saying, "Hey, I don't want to put Jetpack on because it has all these different modules?" I've always been one to say, hey, use what modules you use. I mean, it's always been on my site for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I've just used a few of them, but they've been important enough to have it on there. Do you feel like that's transitioning over time as well, how people feel about Jetpack?
Matt: I'd say there's always a difference between the perception and reality of Jetpack. If you dig in and if you've been around WordPress any amount of time, we've all had problems where we had lots of different plugins that didn't work well with each other, or security problems, or that weren't updated frequently, or whatever, and Jetpack is a solution to that. It's an integrated suite of things that work beautifully with each other, that's held to the very highest of code and performance, quote, "Quality, security, and performance standards," and integrates with everything else, you know? Including other top WordPress plugins. If there's an issue between, say, Yoast and Jetpack, we're going to get that fixed up right away, within hours if not a day. It is one of those things where, because it is so prevalent and ubiquitous across WordPress, it's tested against and with, all the other top things on WordPress.
That's really all we're trying to do. There are parts of Jetpack that have equivalent independent plugins that you might want to use, or maybe they might provide functionality, so maybe you start with Jetpack content forms, and then you upgrade your Gravity Forms because there's like some extra stuff that you need. That's totally fine. The cool part about Jetpack, like you said, the modules are essentially sub-plugins. So if a module is inactive, it causes no overhead on the site, and when you have things like the Site Accelerator, Photon, et cetera on, Jetpack actually makes your site faster, faster than if you had 20 different things during the 20 different equivalents of the 20 different modules. We feel pretty comfortable with that, and I think you see the adoption among hosts, and just adoption generally, sort of speaks to that reality with Jetpack, that it does make a lot of things better, and sites that run it tend to be more successful on average than sites that don't.
Bob: I've noticed that more and more plugins are, I would say, following in its path because some of them I even use are instead of just keep adding on, okay, another add on, another add on, they're actually doing it more in the module type of way, where you have these certain modules and you can turn them off and on as needed. To me, maybe they would never admit it, but I think they're following the path that Jetpack put in place.
Matt: And then you have the cloud services, which is, I think, really key. If you're serious about your site, particularly your eCommerce store, the realtime backup is huge. Now, it's nice to have daily ones from your host, or anything like that, have those as your backup to your backup. But if something happens, every single order is key. You don't want to lose a thing. So that real time aspect of Jetpack is just, I think, crucial for any store doing, call it over a grand, a couple grand in revenue per year.
Bob: Yes. I remember when I was running my site with the top tier down the VaultPress for quite a while. The backup, and I can't tell you how many times, and I can't remember at what point what I was doing exactly with my site, but being able to go in and I could revert to a backup based on the single action that had taken place. I used that I don't know how many times, and that to me was like one of those hidden gems that I never really knew about until I got in there and realized how it was almost like having this...
Matt: It's a superpower.
Bob: Yeah it is. It's like the revisions, except it's like revisions forever type of thing. It was amazing how quickly it'd back up and it'd be like bam, it was there. I'd think, "Wow. I don't have to go through and do the whole process of a full restore, and try to figure out exactly when this happened." So, it was pretty cool stuff.
Matt: If you haven't yet, also check out the new Activity Log. So, if all places are evolving into Activity Log, and Jetpack Rewind, which essentially gives you that, it's like a time machine for your site. You can zoom forward or backwards to any particular state it's ever been in. And then Activity Log shows you everything that happened. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a support interaction and someone's like, "My widget disappeared." On wordpress.com, we have had support tools where we could see what was going on. So sometimes it'd be like, "Well, hey. Your user account is Bob. It looks like Todd actually removed that widget an hour ago. You want to talk to Todd about that?"
It features little things that aren't really exposed in the WordPress interface, but that once you have a stream of activity going on in your site, as an admin, it's invaluable. Including auto updates, or things the host might have changed, or files that might have changed, or other things that might even be happening without your interaction. That consistent stream of knowing, like an audit log, of what's going on your site I think is, again, one of those tools that once you have it, it becomes indispensable.
Bob: All right. As you mentioned, if you have an online store, especially a very active one, and things are always going on, you have people in there doing different things, and adding products, and changing products, and whatever, that could be priceless. Knowing exactly what happened when, and being able to go back to that specific moment, especially again, with everything else, all those working parts of an online store.
Matt: Maybe that's a to-do for Todd as well. Like, make sure we have all those actions in the Activity Log.
Bob: Yeah, really. You hear that, Todd? Good you're there, huh?
Todd: The conversation that's been going on, we're slowly working them through.
Matt: Good. Awesome.
Bob: Cool. Well, any last thoughts either one of you or both of you have that you want to add to, maybe something we haven't touched on as far as the eCommerce space, and WordPress? Any deep thoughts you might want to share with us?
Todd: I had one thing I wanted to share that actually came up out of this Jetpack conversation that is worth talking about related to Activity Log. I have become a huge fan of Jetpack over my time at Automattic. I think one of the reasons is, I'll say Jetpack is this very big set of things externally and internally with Automattic. We use that phrase to mean lots of things, and it's mostly because there's this team that's built a ton of great their features and the plugin, but they've also built a ton of cloud infrastructure that makes the Jetpack features possible, the cloud features like Rewind and that sort of thing.
But it also makes the parts of WordPress.com work, and as you've pointed out, it makes parts of WooCommerce work. I'm excited that we have such a robust infrastructure built around that, that we can leverage for Automattic as a whole as we go to do lots of things. I think one of the things that has become clear recently, and this relates to BigCommerce and some of the other players, is there are certain things that make a ton of sense to do on a self-hosted site, and then there are some things that just make a lot of sense to do in a cloud environment.
Things like strong PCI compliance services, or data and compute-intensive services. A subset of that would be things like to take advantage of machine learning, or other things like that, that WordPress, general publishing sites, but especially eCommerce online source could really benefit from. I'm excited about the fact that we are finding the right ways to integrate with Jetpack, and all the other robust cloud services within Automattic to strike that balance and bring new things. I've talked about cloud services a bit, but we're continuing to find ways of doing it. We had some tax and shipping things. We're working on other things coming out for later in the year. Nothing I want to preview either, but I think there's some really amazing things that will be coming as we are able to take advantage of the strengths of the self-hosted, and the strengths of the cloud, and integrate them in a really clear and mutually supportive way.
Bob: I'm all for easy. Anything, I said, that can make my life easier when I'm in there, I'm all for it. Any final thoughts, Matt?
Matt: Sure. I'll just say for everyone listening that WordPress and WooCommerce are made by all of us. So, if you find something you think can be better, feel free to change it. You know, these are all systems that are iterating rapidly, improving rapidly, and we're all part of the journey together. That's part of the fun of it. So, if it's something you come across, send the patch, all the code is open. Gives some feedback. Email Todd, you know?
Bob: You slipped that right in.
Todd: I noticed that.
Matt: Get in touch. We're really just trying to make it better every day. None of those systems we're working on is perfect. They're all just a point in time, and it's really through that continuous improvement that we're going to get to the spot that we want to create, where we do democratize publishing in eCommerce.
Bob: Well, it's been wonderful having both of you on. You know, two birds with one stone. I don't know if there's a better analogy than that, but I do want to thank everybody for tuning in. I hope you enjoyed the show. You can always subscribe or give us a review on any of your favorite platforms as far as the podcasting ones out there. First of all, Todd, I want to thank you, bringing in all your WooCommerce brilliance. You know me, I'm a big fan. I've been there since day one, and I just to thank you for taking the time to join us.
Todd: Thanks Bob. Yeah, it's been a pleasure.
Bob: And Matt, I'm glad I was able to finally get you on my podcast, and maybe I'll be able to snag you back here for another one sometime in the future. But I do want to say how much I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule.
Matt: Of course. Let's do it again sometime.
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