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Oregano, Firefox and NetSurf reviewed

By Martin Hansen. Published: 25th Aug 2005, 01:11:32 | Permalink | Printable

So close yet so far

How would you describe your experiences of RISC OS on the web? In his review of three likely contenders in the RISC OS web browser arena, Martin Hansen is certainly pulling no punches.

I may as well admit it right at the start of this article: My web browser of choice is Internet Explorer. As a passionate RISC OS enthusiast, I'm not proud of this fact. So let me briefly explain how this has come about, and why, in spite of recent RISC OS browser developments, it is still the case.

I am a mathematics teacher and five years ago, my school issued each member of the teaching staff with a free 333MHz laptop computer running Windows 2000 Professional. Internet Explorer came with the laptop as part of the bundled OS and we were expected to use it to access the school intranet and the Internet. Since then, staff have been encouraged, in the nicest possible way, to tackle more and more administrative tasks electronically using this setup.

In January 2004 I bought an A6 Windows machine for my daughter with VirtualRiscPC already installed from Stuart Tyrell Developments. I managed, in an epic four hour stint, to find out how to configure this to log on to the school server, and to set it up, and obtain the necessary permission, to gain access to the world wide web through a fierce firewall that protects the school's network, now of some eight hundred staff and pupil computers, from the Windows nasties: viruses, spam and spyware.

In February 2004, I bought an Iyonix. In spite of my success in getting the A6 networked, I initially despaired at trying to get the Iyonix to converse with the school's local area network. In frustration I had an outside BT telephone line installed in preparation to bypass what is, for Iyonix, an unnecessary protective shield and gain Internet access directly. However, over an intensive three day period that involved many, many email exchanges with our head of IT, postings to, and helpful replies from, the Iyonix Support mailing list, and much experimentation, I finally cracked it: using the browser supplied free with my Iyonix, Oregano 2, I could obtain the internal intranet main page, albeit slowly and with the odd, worrying, error message. I also managed to send and receive 'roaming' email using a web-based package called Squirrel-Mail. The term 'roaming' indicates that authorised users can access their email from any of the eight hundred machines on the LAN.

Thinking back to the time when my Iyonix was first networked, I recall that I already regarded Oregano 2 as being great for reading, for example, HTML based instructions and manuals that come with RISC OS applications or Archive back issues on CD. "How good was it", I remember asking myself, "at rendering some of my favourite websites?"

Oregano 2
On my Iyonix, and I'm running it now as I type to confirm those distant impressions, Oregano 2 renders the front pages of the Drobe, Iconbar, Cybervillage, Acorn Arcade, APDL, CJE Micros and RISC OS Ltd websites quickly and competently. With 'bump scrolling' turned off, scrolling a page is very smooth. Google can be used to search the web. Castle's website causes a few cosmetic colouring problems on the buttons but eBay and the yacht and boating world site, cause Oregano 2 to crash, although not taking the desktop down with it. The official McFly website brings up the message, "Get Macromedia Flash Player".

Delving a little deeper on the Drobe site, clicking on the link, "More RISC OS news..." eventually brings up the large webpage of around 700 headlines with article descriptions, and thumbnail graphics. It is fascinating to watch the Iyonix task display as this page loads. But although Oregano 2 appears to still be working, no hot link, or URL typed in to the address bar works. Presumably worn out, it seems to have given up on the Internet for the day. Possibly, this problem has since been resolved on the Oregano SmartGroups list. I tried fiddling with a few of the configuration settings before deciding that I'd spent enough time messing around with it for one day.

Oregano 2 is actually doing a better job now than was my impression when I tried it out a year or so ago but problems with some websites and, in particular, its inability to quickly and correctly render my school intranet pages prompted me then to stick with Windows and Internet Explorer. For me this was no big deal as I had not bought my Iyonix in the expectation that it would be my means of surfing the net. However it did make me aware that the premier RISC OS machine could not seriously, in my opinion, be sold as a high quality device with which to navigate the world wide web. This is, let's be blunt, embarrassing. If RISC OS is to gain new users, then, in this respect, they are going to be in a similar position to me - familiar with IE and expecting something as good if they are investigating alternatives.

So, although I personally have not been desperately waiting for a quality RISC OS browser for RISC OS, I am certainly aware of its importance to the platform. This was the thought that prompted me, earlier this week, to download the latest versions of Firefox and NetSurf, and to check, as described above, my older impressions concerning Oregano 2.

The development and history of NetSurf and the porting of Firefox to RISC OS will be very familiar to regular readers and I have no intention of recapping discussions of these here. I simply wish to download a couple of web browsers for my Iyonix and ascertain if, in their present states, they can do a better job than Oregano 2, and if they can match what I am familiar with, Internet Explorer on an old and slow Windows laptop.

I found Firefox and the required modules easy to install and was quite excited as I double clicked the application directory logo of a fox embracing the world. After a brief pause I, once again, had the Drobe front page upon my Iyonix's screen, although the background texture under the rocket logo was absent. There is an immediately obvious glitch with scrolling, often with the webpage seeming to disappear entirely but for a line at the bottom. A random mouse click over the page brings it back. This did make the application feel flaky and I tried to be careful not to rush the browser. I waited until it settled each time before pushing on with my investigation. Drobe's "More RISC OS news..." link didn't kill it as it had Oregano 2 and so I began working through my list of liked sites.

Various RISC OS media websites, Castle, and RISC OS Ltd sites all rendered well, as before, plus yacht and boating world, and eBay were now also accessible. Google could again be used to search the web. As expected, the Flash reliant McFlyofficial.com remained out of reach, and the APDL site, unexpectedly, rendered very poorly. The animation on the opening page of CJE Micros' site froze but otherwise all was well. Much to my delight, my school intranet pages rendered perfectly, given time.

Once again I decided to delve deeper into the web, and decided to look at how the bids for a Viewfinder card on eBay were going. Using Firefox to do this was hard work. The scrolling bug, although not fatal, became excruciatingly irritating as I tried to move around the pages of lists. Trying to type in text to be searched was awkward, with the caret often vanishing, keyboard presses not registering, and the mouse pointer failing to change to the shape appropriate to the area it was moving over. The whole task was painfully slow on my 600MHz Iyonix compared to my 333MHz x86 laptop: The Iyonix, clocked at twice the speed of the laptop is, I estimate, six times slower. I would have given up when Firefox crashed taking down the entire computer but for my desire to get an eBay item screen shot under Firefox. After another twenty minutes of faffing around, including another fatal crash, I got the screen sprite I was after. However, I felt irritated and stressed by what I'd been through. I quit the application feeling disappointed. Incidentally, its developer has asked for help in completing the port.

By now, you will have gathered that I'd got a fairly clear and set testing routine established. I moved on to apply it to NetSurf. Again, installation was straight forward and the greeting of a Drobe front page, once again confirmed that I had a live and kicking browser up and running. Drobe's "More RISC OS news..." loaded well and scrolled smoothly with both the window furniture or keyboard page up/page down keys. The links to old articles, that had crashed Oregano 2 but not FireFox, also worked under NetSurf.

This time the opening page of the Iconbar, Cybervillage, Acorn Arcade, and RISC OS Ltd, websites worked as they should, as did that for APDL which, you will recall, Firefox didn't cope well with. Trivially, the Javascript powered roll-over buttons on CJE Micro's site that had worked with both Oregano 2 and Firefox didn't animate as the mouse crossed them in NetSurf. Castle's site didn't render at all due to difficulties with frames. Locating the Viewfinder card on eBay, which had been inaccessible under Oregano 2, and tortuous under Firefox, was a positive joy under NetSurf. A Google search could be conducted briskly, but a search for a yacht on ybw.com that in principle Firefox could do, failed under NetSurf. The McFly site, possibly to some readers delight, remained unobtainable. I was becoming quite enthusiastic about NetSurf's brisk and responsive interface and felt inclined to forgive it for those sites it failed to render. I asked it to display my school intranet page. The page half rendered before causing the browser to vanish, taking its icon from the iconbar with it.

It is frustrating: I have to conclude, perhaps predictably, that none of the three browsers are going to tempt me away from Internet Explorer. To recap: Oregano 2 works at a good pace on the Iyonix but there are too many websites that it can not cope with. Firefox can render most sites, but has a scrolling bug that makes it unusable with many. It is slow and unresponsive and when it does crash, often takes down the entire machine with it. NetSurf falls in the middle of the other two. Like Oregano 2, it works at a good pace and it copes well with more sites, but not enough. The RISC OS browser issue remains to be resolved.

Do you use RISC OS for Internet banking? Which banks can't you access? Let us know of your findings.


Future web browsers for RISC OS

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Try the Windows build of Firefox Martin, you'll find it superior to Internet Explorer and as it is not still in beta like Peter's version far more stable.

A very well thought out article, our little platform still has many browser issues to fix though. I always considered (this is the abridged version) that Oregano 2 was too expensive for an old piece of kit, Firefox is still tempermental as it is still a beta, and Netsurf although being the most up to date native ROS browser is still far from a final product.

 is a RISC OS UserTrapper on 25/8/05 7:50AM
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Firefox: Martin doesn't say, but what build of FF did he try? There is a notable speed and responsiveness improvement between beta1 and beta3. I'm using the latter on an Iyonix and haven't encountered the scrolling problem as described. As for crashes taking down the machine, Alt-Break then terminating 'Unknown' following a freeze consistently restores the desktop in my experience. I use FFbeta3 as my default browser; its ability to render sites correctly and interact with key ones such as banks and eBay outweighs the sluggishness compared with Netsurf and O2 IMO.

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 25/8/05 8:19AM
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I found that neither Firefox beta1 or 2 would run on my Iyonix, but beta 4 does, but so slowly it must be a joke. Certainly, it is no where near being a useful tool. Like Martin, I have Windows machine running IE 6. I have not yet found a site it won't access, but then I have fairly mundane tastes. Although I'm a serious RISC OS user - I have a RISC PC, an A4, In Iyonix & an Alpha - I do realise that the outside world has not stood still since the early 1990's. However, I am often reminded of the mantra in Orwell's Animal Farm "two legs bad, four legs good" by some of the attitudes of some RISC OS proponents. I eagerly await Oregano 3.

 is a RISC OS Usercharles on 25/8/05 10:03AM
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O2 is my usual browser (O1 would be preferred because it's quite a bit faster, and most of the time I don't find O2 does much better with rendering, but I've not got it to work even with Aemulor). Firefox is nice, but unfortunately if I really need it for more than one or two quick looks at things I'm more likely to start it up on a Windows laptop, because I find it too unresponsive to use for long (and this is the latest version, and on an Iyonix). That said, it does fetch and render some complicated pages quicker than other RISC OS browsers.

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 25/8/05 10:08AM
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charles:"I have Windows machine running IE 6. I have not yet found a site it won't access" Well, of course! The current nature of the internet is that it is totally dominated by IE - so you'll be pretty hard pushed to ever find a site that fails to render in IE. That doesn't necersarily make IE a good browser though.

I use Opera as my browser of choice /despite/ the fact that maybe 1 or 2 percent of sites are inaccessible to it. The reason I do that is that in every other area, it runs rings around IE. It would be great if we could get to a similar situation on RISC OS - but don't ever expect to be able to access every single website out there.


 is a RISC OS Useradamr on 25/8/05 10:24AM
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Using Firefox 4 on my SA, has proven quicker than Fresco :@P but thats not difficult ;@)

GUI / HCI is slow, but there again, I use it as opposed to the windows version as MY Risc PC is the only that is on the 'Bad' side of our firewall ;@) strange no attacks, been there for a month?

cannot seem to get oregano 1 to install on RISC OS Adjust? apparently its too old, yet RISC OS 3.5 isn't?

and Netsurf just will not look out onto the internet? only local pages

Firefox get's my vote

 is a RISC OS Userem2ac on 25/8/05 10:28AM
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The main problem with FF (apart from lack of straightforward printing and Flash) is response to mouse clicks, which definitely requires patience. Keyboard response seems much better: tabbing between dialogue boxes is quicker than mouse clicking in them I find, and using the up/down arrow keys to select options in dropdown menus. Page loading and scrolling on the other hand is little slower than O2 according to rough timings I've done. My Windows laptop (a company machine) takes over a minute to boot and load all the various network settings, so unlike SimonC I find I've hardly used it at all for private browsing since getting FF, and as FF can cope with IE6-optiimised sites I can now log on to the company email system from the Iyonix, which was impossible with any other RO browser.

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 25/8/05 10:29AM
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Internet Explorer is a severe security risk. Charles, Martin, I thoroughly recommend you leave it be (as uninstalling it is rather awkward) and install Firefox or Enigma on Windows.

As bucksboy already pointed out, it would have been helpful if Martin had supplied version / build data of all three browsers employed.

The current situation seems disappointing, but this is very dependant upon the users' expectation of it. I, for one, am delighted with NetSurf and it is my day-to-day browser of choice, although I freely admit it isn't as capable as Firefox, for example. Regarding Martin's review, although it was nice in general, I found it a bit rough around the edges. For example, it would have been nice if a rendering speed tabel was included, as well the use of bookmarking, browser options, etc.

Anyway, it arguably is a reasonable indication of the current state of affairs. Let's keep our fingers crossed for Oregano 3 and don't forget both NetSurf and Firefox still have a significant way ahead of them.

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 25/8/05 10:43AM
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"and Netsurf just will not look out onto the internet? only local pages"

No its a fully fledged HTTP browser.

 is a RISC OS UserTrapper on 25/8/05 11:02AM
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hEgelia: Enigma uses the IE layout engine - so it offers no advantage over IE in terms of security.

 is a RISC OS Useradamr on 25/8/05 11:08AM
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Martin, while you are still using IE, go and get yourself a anti-spyware tool such as SpyBot [link] If that doesn't convince you to move to FireFox on the PC, or better still any other browser on any other non Microsoft platform, nothing will.

But back to topic, while its not ideal I use a combination of all 3 browsers, which works very well. I use Oregano for most comercial sites due to its good compliance supporting much of CSS2 and javascript, and its reasonable speed. For problematic sites I switch to FireFox which has excellent compliance but the UI feels like wading through treakle at the moment. But for doing searches and surfing around random sites I favour NetSurf, its lightening fast rendering and responsive UI means I can visit far more sites in the same time than if using Oragno or FF. Of course when it comes to a site relying on javascript its stuck, but there are far fewer non comercial sites using it than you'd expect, and its easy to hand over to one of the other browsers when you find one.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 25/8/05 11:08AM
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Trapper: No, presumably he meant that he couldn't get it access any pages. Of course, without any details of his problem, it's impossible to guess why.

Flash isn't a "problem with Firefox", it's a general RISC OS problem, relevant to any RISC OS browser.

Oregano 1 works fine with Adjust; again, we don't have any details to diagnose the problem.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 25/8/05 11:09AM
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adamr: That's a bit of a dangerous statement. Of course, it's impossible without more details to know how much of IE it does use, but a browser is a great deal more than just its rendering engine, and there are endless places for security problems.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 25/8/05 11:15AM
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What versions of the browsers were you using, Martin? Bear in mind that even O2 is now pretty much officially out of date now that O3 is arriving, and FF and NetSurf are updated regularly.

The issues with Flash and other similar technologies are *not* a RISC OS browser issue, but a problem with lack of up to date plugins. In that sense, NetSurf and FF have another edge over O2 as they can use newer plugins when they become available, rather than be stuck with O2's built-in ones.

Personally I love NetSurf and use it 90% of the time. For sites requiring JavaScript or other things NS can't do, I RDP into my laptop and use FireFox there as RISC OS FF is still a bit slow and flakey, and is definitely a work-in-progress, although I do use it under RISC OS on occasions.

Oregano2 doesn't get a look-in here. Guess I've been spoiled by the speed of NS (and FF under Windows), but If it loads by accident I'll have banished it from my iconbar before it's even finished loading - which isn't a hard thing to achieve! (And usually invokes a nasty-looking bug too).

 is a RISC OS Usertamias on 25/8/05 11:30AM
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Yes, you're right. O2 might be the latest version, and its comparison in that respect is understandable. However, I don't think either myself or the NetSurf developers can take its comparison entirely seriously given its age. O3 is the obvious technical comparison, but without its general availability, that's of course difficult. I've expressed concerns in the past about what will happen to O3 if its release takes too much longer, which I won't repeat here, but we'll have to see.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 25/8/05 12:07PM
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Hi folks.

Just to answer a couple of questions asked.

As it says in the article, I downloaded and used the latest versions of Firefox, and NetSurf, as of five days ago.

I was also careful to make sure I had the latest versions of the supporting modulues such as TINCT which both Firefox and NetSurf use.

I also upgraded my Iyonix flash ROM to the latest version of RISC OS 5 using !IyoUpWtch.

The version of Oregano 2 which I used is, effectively, that which came free with my Iyonix when I bought it in February 2004. I actually received this via a CD a few months later as I couldn't then access it for download via the Internet at that time.

But I didn't want to clutter up the article with to much dry and technical detail, and, as some readers have pointed out, with Oregano 3 coming, and the ongoing development of Firefox and NetSurf, this article will be out of date, (hopefully !) by the year's end.

It is very interesting to have the feedback that is coming in of other user's experiences and preferences with these browsers.

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 25/8/05 12:35PM
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It's not always clear what people mean when they say a browser works or not on some site. I can think of numerous ones that I've visited with O2 where the display is a mess, but the functionality and information is there. Is that working or not?

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 25/8/05 1:16PM
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Trapper: I know, but there is a funny on my Adjust machine which forces it to not go outside, whereas FF and fresco do?

Peter: tis true that I lack details, but there again, I use firefox, as I have no problems :@P

Oregano....simply running the Install program from the CD causes an roor of: "This application cannot run under this version of RISC OS...You must be using RISC OS 3.5 or later.

NetSurf... who knows lol, it is (as with the way I setup ff) down to how I have installed it...it just times out all of the time :@P

 is a RISC OS Userem2ac on 25/8/05 1:22PM
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SimonC: 'working browser': I agree that it is not essential that /all/ features of a given site are correctly displayed, but the test surely is, can you see and interact effectively with all the functional features. My wife is not a RISC OS enthusiast, and uses IE at work on her PC. Before the advent of Firefox I was constantly explaining why some site or other wouldn't work properly, or couldn't be accessed, and suggesting that we fire up the company laptop (cue: 'Why can't we get a proper computer' discussion). Now with FF I have no qualms; I just let her get on with it. That is why FF on RO, even in its present early stage, is a quantum leap forward for the platform IMO.

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 25/8/05 1:42PM
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martin: Fair enough that you didn't want to clutter up the article with too much dry information, but it's worth mentioning that you were comparing a full release with a beta, and a test build.

If you look at the Netsurf progress page ([link]) you can see how much more is to be done, though I have to admit, it does extremely well in practice employing some of the features that are still marked yellow or red, even if you do have to learn to work around a few missing features (frames and reload, mainly).

 is a RISC OS Userninja on 25/8/05 1:53PM
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em2ac: I advise you contact the developers and ask for advice (preferably including as many relevant details as possible).

martin: Are you going to report the issues you had with NetSurf to the developers or just hope that they'll magically be fixed? ;)

WRT the McFly site, that's using some crazy Flash redirect system, that presumably attempts to check for a specific version of Flash. The Flash plugin doesn't support such nonsense. Simply appending /home/ to the end of the URL will take you to the normal homepage, however. (Quite why you'd want to go there is an entirely different matter ;))

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 25/8/05 2:02PM
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ninja: What's this about reload? (and have you reported said issues?). Frames are a work in progress, so there's not much point telling us about problems with them (unless, of course, a site with frames causes the browser to crash).

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 25/8/05 2:04PM
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jmb: Sorry, that was a mistake on my part. I meant the 'refresh' tag which I thought was unsupported. I couldn't see it just now on the 'progress' page though, so perhaps it's been implemented; since I have bookmarks straight to all the post-redirect pages I use regularly, I wouldn't see the change.

 is a RISC OS Userninja on 25/8/05 2:12PM
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ninja: Ah. No; meta refresh isn't implemented yet.

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 25/8/05 2:20PM
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Just for interest, I've done some simple timings comparing IE 6 on a 600Mhz PC laptop, FFb3 and O2 on Iyonix, and O2 on a 233Mhz Kinetic RPC. My connection is 1Mbit broadband and all 3 machines are connected to the same router. The laptop is actually connected to a much faster company link, but the 'last leg' so to speak is the 1Mb broadband: this may flatter the IE results.

Accessing Drobe, the timings are: 5 secs (IE); 10 secs (FFb3/Iyo); 8 secs (O2/Iyo); 10 secs (O2/Kin).

To access The Register: 10; 14; 9; 14 secs respectively.

To access Aprilia.com, a rather busy page with lots of animations: 8; 20; 17; 25 secs respectively.

I then tested O1 against O2 on the Kinetic: the O1 results were 8 secs (Drobe), 10 secs (The Register) and 17 secs (Aprilia) virtually identical to O2 on the Kinetic. Not exactly a scientific test but it demonstrates that FFb3 is not a million miles away from the performance of other RO browsers, even at its current early stage of development. IE 6 did best, but I cannot quantify the difference in link speeds so am cautious about the result.

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 26/8/05 1:37PM
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I too experience the scrolling problems with Firefox (beta 4) as described by Martin on my early model Iyonix. The text disappears on scrolling but comes back with a random click in the window.

Curious to see if this happens on a later model Iyonix that I have, (not used for internet work) I find that this problem does not exist.

As far as I can see the settings on the two machines are the same so perhaps it is just early models of the Iyonix that suffer this problem.

 is a RISC OS Userpotterco on 26/8/05 5:44PM
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SimonC> re Oregano 1 under Aemulor, it's most likely that you just need to patch the HTTPStream module as documented here:


There's some code in that module which isn't strictly SA/XScale-compatible.

 is a RISC OS Useradrianl on 26/8/05 9:33PM
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