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Thu 21 Dec 2000 04:00 AM

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You may never buy another grey box

Buying a computer used to be so simple. If you were tied to a desk you would go for as much power as you could afford in a grey box.

Buying a computer used to be so simple. If you were tied to a desk you would go for as much power as you could afford in a grey box.

If you were mobile, you would compromise on performance in your clunky black notebook. Style did not come into it. However the days of compromise are over. Today, whatever you dream of, you can buy.

A palmtop PC for the careless tough-guy, a machine you could imagine deflecting bullets - and one doubling as a mobile phone.

Would this be enough to constitute the most important technology breakthrough in computing for twenty years?

Probably not, but this description of Husky's FEX21, a groundbreaking, near bombproof hybrid handheld phone-computer, does get near to encapsulating the bottom line of new drivers in IT: make it tough, make it mobile — and make it clever.

Today, the best research and development minds in the world are focusing on making go-anywhere, do-anything PC "dream machines", devices able to take as much as you can throw at them — physically, mentally and wirelessly.

And if the prospect of PC's making your toast, phones broadcasting video images of your own breakfast TV show or notebooks designed to travel through car washes sounds all a bit like the conversation topics of your average sci-fi geek or train spotter — think again.

Siemens manufacture toasters today that will cook bread to your liking in Dubai — whilst you're in the Antarctic, phone video cameras are now so common in Japan that they are, at best, no more than the stuff of rather tedious dinner party small talk, and the PC that could survive being chucked in a river was invented by Husky more than two decades ago in 1979.

But something is changing in the world of IT. The days of the traditional stand-alone, single function PC or notebook, the traditional stalwarts of computing, are now fading.

Every serious manufacturer, and a whole breed of names you have not heard of, are redesigning the computer as a lifestyle item — and that means as much for business as for home use.

With the spread of broadband always connected ADSL infrastructure to the Middle East and the emergence of an ever-powerful global 7 x 24 x 365 business and leisure Internet ethic, the traditional boundaries between leisure and business computing have been seriously compromised.

IDC goes so far as to suggest that within a decade more than 50% of the workforce will be mobile workers, often employed from home. For many businesses today the commercial advantages of removing the limitations of office-only computing from workers has resulted in entire workforces being equipped with notebooks.

The result is that machines have to be tough enough to travel, be more ergonomic, reliable, and practical — as well as sufficiently chameleon-like to fit into almost any environment.

If a new computer is ugly it won't fit in the home. If it's not tough enough to be dropped, it's a potentially expensive liability. If it cannot communicate, by voice or data, with other devices or people, it's not going to work in the real-time Net economy. If it's not powerful, it's going to waste valuable seconds of human resource.

And manufacturers are worried, because any device that does not combine all of these properties could, very, very soon, be obsolete — and building them requires no small quantity of technological brilliance and financial investment.

More significantly, many of the technologies required for the next generation of IT come not from the traditional IT big guns, Compaq, Dell, IBM et al, but rather from vertical market niche players little known to the general public.

Itronix Husky, for example, invented the portable computer in 1979, but is little known outside the emergency service, military and government circles in which it has forged its reputation for manufacturing 'rugged' computers that can be dropped, literally, from four story windows, or dropped in rivers.

A story, now part of rugged folklore, tells of one of their rugged notebooks eventually turned up, still working, after four years under the Atlantic ocean having been dropped (accidentally) off an oil rig. Thousands of the original Husky computers too are still being used in the UK nuclear industry, more than twenty years after they were first manufactured.

It is not only vertical computer manufacturers that pose a risk to the better-known IT manufacturers. Phone companies too have developed miniaturization and rugged technologies to which the Compaq's of this world have simply paid no attention — until today they have not needed to.

Ericsson today manufactures mobile phones tougher than any equivalent offering from mainstay IT vendors. Perhaps even more disconcerting for the IT companies, Motorola is currently manufacturing clamshell PDA-mobile phone devices, with keyboards, that are little larger than your average match box.

The Motorola V and Accompli Series devices use technology Motorola gathered from its work on pagers to develop the micro-PC devices. And with a launch of both the V100 and latest Accompli confirmed in the Middle East before March 2000, IT vendors can no longer effectively accuse the phone vendors of producing fictional concepts rather than cold, hard facts.

At the more extreme end of the spectrum, Alcatel is working on phones that will allow you to not only talk, but also send the aroma of your environment down the wires to give the other party a more real sense of "being there with you."


Power:In today’s technology world, the issue is not how much power you can find, it is a question of what type of device you cram that power into.

Portability:The portable market has become entirely fragmented with companies manufacturing products tailored for more specific tasks. This could be more of a curse than a blessing as you may need to buy several devices rather than one.

Style:Few vendors want PC prices to drop below $1000. Instead of search for ways to cut prices, they are concentrating on giving users more for their $1000. Aesthetics is one area where they are investing heavily.

The Rugged Dream Machine 2001: Husky's Bombproof Fex21

Husky joined forces with computer giant Microsoft to launch its prestigious new world-beater, the FEX21 PC Phone, at the Science Museum, London.

The revolutionary, wire free FEX21 allows bosses to phone, fax or send an e-mail from anywhere in the world: the top of a mountain or lying on a hammock on a tropical island, cocktail in one hand, handheld computer in the other.

With it, the office could become a thing of the past. Husky director Marco Landi put the company's money where its mouth is when demonstrating Husky's rugged handheld. Landi bravely stood with a huge watering can, and poured several litres of water over the FEX21, which, no doubt to his enormous relief, continued to function as required.

Please do try this one at home.

The Husky brand is known the world over for its rugged handheld computers — notebooks and PC's you can take into storms, drop in rivers, subject to extreme temperatures or even background radiation — and which will continue to do the job.

The fex21 is the first of their devices, however, to be made available to the business community — traditionally you needed to be working for the military, be a James Bond type government agent, or be working for the police to be able to get through the security minefield needed to own one — let alone afford one.

The availability of Husky's technology miracle to the business community is not before time — all professionals working in out-of-office environments should expect the same levels of reliability as you would from an office PC. For the Business community, as elsewhere, the priority is data integrity and only rugged devices can deliver this.

The fex21 tries to change our perception of what a mobile computer is and what mobile computing is all about. Its new dedicated mobile Operating System, Windows PPC Professional, coupled with Husky's expertise in miniaturized components and a near bombproof construction, has moved us close to a major paradigm shift: wireless connectivity is about to push us right through to the other side.

With the fex21, to be portable means to be permanently connected, and its ultra rugged construction means that you can take it into places normal PCs would suffer a speedy collapse.

If the new fex21 from Husky is at all representative, rugged portable computers of the future will no longer be huge, boring-looking black boxes either.

Its jade casing may give it the look of your average trendy computer toy, but with something this powerful, Husky can afford to be brave with its iMac inspired colour schemes.

Its lack of a hinged, clamshell design too, while adding to the sense you are looking at a toy, masks a technological miracle of "Open Book Design" (OBD) that enables the fex21 to take all the knocks, shocks and drops of life on the road without hiding behind a typically closed notebook style case.

As Husky told us "notebooks get dropped when they are open and the screen exposed. We started from this requirement that the screen needed to be tough enough to take all you could throw at it — and our world first OBD enabled us to junk the hinges in the process."

If men are likely to be inspired by the military, action man credentials of the fex21, the new design will also deliver added PC appeal to women because of its move away from clumsy, boring and macho traditional rules of PC engagement.

Arguably, like Apple before it, Husky is dropping a heavy wake up call to other vendors to note that 50% of the world's population is female.

Husky has fallen back on its extensive experience of building rugged computers for the field — all the techniques from sealed connectors to impact modified plastic casings are in place to make the machine last when it gets knocked about.

In fact, protection from vibration, liquid spills, extremes of temperature and being dropped comes as standard. The heavy-duty handheld PC is also the first to provide a sunlight-readable transflective display for mobile users working in bright sunlight.

Tougher than Mike Tyson, the Husky FEX21 is the world's toughest handheld computer and one of the most flexible communications tools we've seen in a long while. Integrated GSM hardware transforms the machine into a fully working mobile phone with Internet and faxing capability.

Husky's claim that this is the mobile information device for the 21st century rings truer than most corporate twaddle. Tiny, tough and different, the world's first rugged, military spec handheld PC, is also one of the most desirable rugged portables ever.

Husky's FEX21 offers rugged, outdoors computing at a price close to that of consumer Windows machines for the first time. A mobile phone, computer and multimedia device — all combined in a fully rugged casing, it's nevertheless no boring black box.

And you can't fault its construction: drop it four feet, throw any amount of rain at it, even a pressure water jet — and its IP65 rating guarantees survival.

Some tool.

Give it hell.


Uppers: Rugged, aesthetic, portable

Downers: Too ‘girly’ for some, power

Bottom Line: True road warrior ammunition - with integrated GSM too


Contact:+44 203 604040

The Desktop PC Dream Machine 2001: NEC's Aesthetic Simplem

During the height the Japanese bubble economy in 1989, the Imperial Grounds in Tokyo had an estimated estate value larger than the U.S. state of California.

While that's no longer the case, one fact remains: in Japan, space is a commodity in serious demand. So, in the most technologically-oriented and wireless country on earth, the NEC Simplem is a natural outcome.

The NEC Simplem is a major coup for the Middle East — it will be introduced here in January prior to anywhere else in the world outside Japan.

NEC's design brief for the Simplem was based on a concept to create “simplicity in terms of harmonizing design with living space and easy use for home users.”

NEC told us: “the Simplem has been developed for pursuing simplicity particularly in design, setting, operation, and ecology. Its design uses a simple photo stand like design to harmonize with living space."

"In terms of setting, the Simplem offers improved ease of setting and layout by adopting wireless input devices. In operation it is manufactured to offer radically simplified access to the Internet through a world first, highly innovative wireless Internet pad."

"Finally, its ecology features deliver an energy saving, low noise design based on a non-toxic material, which is easy to recycle."

Through these features, the Simplem can be installed to blend into the home and office, whilst offering users enjoyment of the Web with all the simplicity of using the remote control of a standard TV.”

So does it deliver?

Starting from the outside and working in: the design is sweet. Actually, we're told Parisian designer Rei Kawakubo inspired the look. And, its minimalist façade can be spruced up by a host of different color scheme overlays (with matching Windows backgrounds).

Still, no matter how computer makers try to make well-designed models, the mess of cords and cables always detracts from a pristine working space.

Not with the Simplem. The only cable required is the AC wall power. The modem jack is built-in to the power supply, which rests on the floor. The keyboard and mouse are both wireless, which eliminates desktop clutter. And, there is even a trackpad wireless remote control with browser (back, forward) buttons for easy web browsing.

In the small space behind the high-contrast ratio 15” XGA flatscreen TFT is a Pentium III-800 with 64MB RAM (max 256MB), 4x DVD, and 20GB HDD. On its side (behind a removable panel), the machine also has two Type II PCMCIA slots, 2 USB, and 1 Firewire port.

The NEC Simplem is an unparalleled experience in desktop/slimtop computing. Whether for personal use (watching the latest DVD movies or wireless web browsing) or day-to-day business applications, the Simplem improves and streamlines your workspace--and for most people, that means increased productivity.

The Simplem could, in fact, be easily mistaken for an LCD monitor — especially since its keyboard, mouse and multifunction pad are all wireless radio devices.

Designed to look good in the living room and operate like a piece of consumer electronics, the Simplem dispenses with legacy features like expansion slots and serial and parallel ports, and it relies on USB and IEEE 1394 ports and PC Card slots for peripheral connectivity.

Since the Simplem uses Intel's 810 chipset, the system memory is shared with Intel's 82810 2D/3D graphics accelerator via Direct AGP.

The Simplem's design is based around a 15in. TFT display with a native resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels. This is housed in a stunning perspex jade attractive casing with a 3.5cm bezel and a brushed aluminium speaker grille between the screen and the bottom bezel.

Only the presence of a 5.25in. removeable drive on the right and a door covering the expansion ports on the left betray the fact that this is a PC at all and the external AC adapter helps to keep the screen and system unit bulk down.

The bezel cladding is secured by four Allan bolts, and a key is supplied so that you can remove them. This allows you to change the colour of your Simplem should you want to redecorate your living room, for example.

The cladding for the keyboard and multifunction pad is also interchangeable. So far, NEC has 10 different designs of device available with more promised.

The screen/system unit sits on a detachable base that allows tilt-although not swivel-to be adjusted in discrete steps. There are brightness buttons on the right-hand side, just in front of the bay housing the 4-speed Toshiba DVD-ROM drive.

On the left-hand side are the audio ports and a door that opens to reveal two Type II PC Card slots, two USB ports and an IEEE 1394 port.

The Simplem ships with the now standard built-in V.90 modem. Internal storage is provided by a 6GB hard disk, but there isn't a floppy drive in this 'legacy free' PC.

The Simplem is unusual for the number and implementation of its input and control devices. You get a keyboard, a mouse and a 'multifunction pad'--all wireless radio devices powered by a total of five AAA and four AA batteries.

The multifunction pad contains a trackpad, volume control and VCR-style DVD navigation buttons, plus five programmable hotkeys for accessing your email client, Web browser and other key applications. The mouse and the trackpad both feature a trackpoint-type stick that performs the same function as a scroll wheel.

Ultimately the NEC Simplem is a conversation piece in your living room — but so much more than that. It's a fully fledged PC that breaks down the old authority that PCs are ugly work tools that need to be housed as far as possible from anywhere anyone will ever see them in the home.

Looking like the most glamorous B&O-style hi-fi system, the Simplem is the first device we have seen that offers the chance to integrate computing and Internet into the home that will not have the more aesthetically inspired members of the household screaming murder.

At the same time, its wireless and ergonomic features promise to simplify business PC use, and thereby lower TCO with reduced training costs.

Its space-saving features promise further cost reductions and, above all, an office equipped with Simplems is likely to be an office offering a much more conducive and user-friendly environment for work.


Uppers: Aesthetics, power, wireless

Downers: Fixed, expensive

Bottom Line: Probably the world’s most beautiful PC - and arriving here soon.


Contact:+971 50 636 0695

The Notebook PC Dream Machine 2001: Itronix Wireless GoBook 6250 XC Pro

It's the laptop you can drop, it costs $5000 in its most basic specification — and the makers claim it's so strong you can even drive a car over it.

It's built to survive life out on building sites and getting thrown around Transit vans but would it sell in Compume or Plug-Ins?

Windows User went to find out.

It's a kind of laptop with attitude. Coated all over in tough, grey rubber it looks more like a tool box than a techie toy, there's a handle on the top and the best bit — unlike your boring black laptop, you can drop it on the floor.

“It actually doesn't look like a conventional laptop. It's two dull shades of grey, it's a little bit smaller than a laptop and it's got a kind of rubbery outside coating to it, a special coating. It's very much bomb proof in that kind of sense,” says Jon Chambers from Itronix, the firm who makes it.

And while it's probably not a good idea to try to blow it up, you can try bouncing it: “I've broken two standard notebooks in the last few years myself so I know how easy it is to find yourself screaming from loss of data. I think there is a demand for something you can throw around and won't break," says Ross Lacey, for Digital Markets Specialist.

“The problem though,” Lacey continues, “is styling, because style has become an important factor in the marketing and sales of these devices. If someone could combine the ruggedness of a device like this with something like the Sony Vaio then I think they're onto a real winner.”

"I think it will catch on. I think maybe different colours would be good," says Heather Mary Jackson, fashion editor at The Face. "Maybe bright colours would be quite cool. I like it though. I like the way it's got the arial thing for the Internet, which is cool. I like the handle on it. It reminds me of a portable DVD player."

It's still far too pricey for most of us to buy, but if the cost came down, would it sell?

Featuring innovations such as a "Nitevue" keyboard and the "Colorvue" sunlight-viewable display, Itronix's GoBook nevertheless does not look too dissimilar to your average notebook.

There are a few give-away signs — its aerial and rubber skin are two of the most revealing. Why? Like the Husky fex21, the GoBook is a wolf in sheep's clothing — but more so.

Featuring fully integrated wireless data communications, the Pro is firmly being pitched at large organizations operating with a mobile workforce that need to be connected and productive anytime, anywhere.

Whether drenched, dropped, subjected to extremes of hot or cold, the X-C has been designed to not only survive — but also keep working. Little wonder that Itronix backs the device with a lifetime warranty against failure.

The new European and Middle East version of the X-C 6250 Pro also gives regional industry its first rugged notebook computer to include integrated GSM wireless communications protocol, a major demand of field service engineers in a wide range of industries, including telecomms, emergency services, utilities and transport and logistics. Certainly no currently available non-vertical device carries anywhere near its level of integrated communications.

The Itronix GoBook X-C 6250 also carries a number of unique technical innovations unheard of in the mainstream IT sector. It is, for example, the only industrial mobile workstation that can be turned off and on instantly, without the need to go through the standard (and laborious) Windows shut down and boot-up routines.

This process can take up to five minutes of a vertical market service call-out and its removal represents a significant long-term saving in both time and cost.

But why should this feature not be available on all notebooks? In business, every second has a price — and even in the home, the waste of time involved in waiting for PCs and notebooks to boot is frustrating to say the least.

In addition, the battery's internal processor delivers management capabilities that will get it through a full day's work in the field. An eight hour battery life is unheard of in the traditional IT sector, where notebook users face the daily frustration of battery rundown and seeking out an available power supply.

The GoBook goes a stage further. Through its unique design, the battery can be removed and replaced without exiting applications and without loss of data.

The 6250 is designed for field engineers that need their computer to be just another important tool in their toolbox who need to be confident that if the computer is dropped or splashed or trodden on it is still going to work.

It has been through military testing procedures to prove it, including those ensuring that it can successfully operate in a temperature range of -20C to +60C, stored in a range of -40C to +75C — and survive 54 drops from 1 metre onto concrete at both room temperature and extreme high and low temperatures. Military standard IP65 compatible, the 650 is able to withstand 2 to 4 inches of rain every hour at 40 PSI for four hours.

In the Middle East, where extremes of heat and moisture (caused by moving from air conditioned environments) can cause havoc with standard notebooks, again the question is why should this level of protection not be standard issue on all notebooks?

Between call-outs the X-C 6250 Pro resides in a specially designed, secure vehicle cradle. The battery management system ensures that the integrated wireless radio within the system remains on even when the computer itself is off or recharging.

This means that messages can be received at any time and, while in its vehicle cradle, emergency messages can cause the vehicles horn to sound or indicators to flash ensuring these messages are received as quickly as possible.

The GoBook is designed to maximise the performance of its onboard wireless communications. Its antenna is fully adjustable and the system itself creates minimal disturbance to reception. While in its vehicle cradle, the system automatically switches to the vehicle's external antenna for even better reception.

The wide variety of working conditions that field engineers are faced with means they need a system that is flexible in its use. The GoBook allows data entry via keyboard, pen or touchscreen.

The keyboard incorporates Nitevue, Illuminating in darkness or low light conditions, while the display is both backlit for dark viewing and has non-reflective, non-glare coatings for viewing in the types of extreme sunlight second nature to users in the Middle East.

Various straps for holding the system in place are provided for while the engineer is working and, as well as having a non-slip surface, there are thumb grips and ridges for safe holding.

In addition, the machine's weight is balanced, making it easier to handle and reducing the risk of drop. Special non-slip 'feet' on the system protect any surface on which the computer is placed, particularly important for engineers making house calls.

The device has been widely adopted by the emergency services, particularly paramedics, police and fire officers.

Typical applications include allowing paramedics to send critical data about patients' injuries to the hospital over GSM so that they can prepare for their arrival, allowing police officers to report more quickly from crime scenes and to gather necessary information required to identify vehicles, people and other property and, finally, allowing fire officers to gain vital information needed to assist in dealing with dangerous circumstances, such as the location of flammable or hazardous chemicals and to access building blueprints at the scene of a fire to understand the building layout.

In all these cases emergency service professionals need their computer to be fast, reliable and able to withstand rough treatment.

But, even if the average user is not faced with bombs and fires on a daily basis, again the question is why is it that the vertical sector alone should be delivered this level of data protection as an option.

In summary, the GoBook represents something of a tour de force of design technology — but technology that is hidden under the skin rather than cosmetic.

It is at the least telling that 42% of all the suggestions we received from readers as to the constituents of a perfect future PC included enhanced levels of durability.


Uppers: Tougher than tanks powerhouse

Downers: Tough means heavy

Bottom Line: A vertical market TOTR technological miracle


Contact:+44 24 7660 4040

The Phone PC Dream Machine 2001: Motorola's Miniature Accompli

Motorola define the Accompli as "leaving behind the Old World to embrace the 'fusion' of the PC-Phone and their sleek 009 Personal Interactive Communicator has been thrown into the ring as the next step towards achieving it.

Aimed squarely at business, its compactness, innovation and advanced features are designed to make the Accompli 009 Personal Interactive Communicator a "Virtual Office" and an essential mobile business tool for staying connected.

Inside the machine, the breadth of technology on offer is astonishing even before you take into account its matchbox sized proportions. The Accompli 009 delivers a convergent voice and data solution with its support of Tri-band GSM (900, 1800, and 1900) and, more significantly, GPRS.

A QWERTY keyboard complements its heavy concentration on wireless messaging and the device also manages to pack in a fairly sophisticated Personal Information Management (PIM) suite of applications that can be added to, or programmed by the user.

Motorola's own list of features for the 009 read like a Bond-style menu for the secret agent of the future: true integration of a mobile phone, text messaging and PDA; high-speed network connections for fast Internet access and global roaming where roaming agreements are in place; a proprietary operating system to power the personal calendar, address book, planner, notepad and e-mail; a 256-color display for viewing of Internet content; a full QWERTY for simplified wireless data entry; and fully unified messaging for sending and receiving e-mails, SMS messages and faxes.

The secret to the Accompli is its history of development via the company's 900-series pagers. With the 900, Motorola developed the miniaturization technology required for a clamshell based QWERTY keyboard and screen device, but with the Accompli Motorola have added a next-generation operating system to power the tri-band GSM world phone (900 and 1800 MHz in Europe and 1900 MHz in the U.S.) when used with a standard phone headset.

The Accompli's full-color screen is likely to cause the biggest stir when it finally reaches the Middle East in February. Nokia's Communicator, the world's first attempt at a hybrid PDA-phone has steadfastly refused to adopt colour, for many a failing given the graphical nature of the Web.

The 009 is the high-end brother to a less fully featured, but higher-styled version: the V-series V.100. The V.100 has an iMac-inspired design targeted toward the “style and image-conscious.”

Similarly armed with a WAP-enabled GSM phone, the PIM capabilities are more limited, the Operating System non-programmable and there is no integrated email. It also lacks the colour screen of the 009.

Janiece Webb, Motorola senior vice president and general manager of Motorola's Personal Networks Group told us: “The Accompli is about developing technology and tailoring it for today's society, from the emerging world of m-commerce to the growing need for consumers to have instantaneous connectivity."

"The Accompli 009 personal communicator is the world's first GPRS messaging device with voice capability and a color display. With a WAP Internet browser, email capability, PIM functionality with PC synchronization (2) and OS programmability, the Accompli 009 offers business users a full-featured communications solution for messaging and voice needs.”

There are weaknesses though. The 009 isn’t an audible device — using at as a phone requires the use of an external headset and microphone- like the 010 Watch Phone expected to be released in July next year.

For many too, the keyboard will be too small to be a serious long-term data entry tool. In rebuttal, Motorola emphasizes that the 009 is aiming higher at the introduction of 3G services.

In June they signed a deal with Sega to bring collaborative games technology to the 009, effectively offering the chance of converting it into a 256-colour programmable games console.

Motorola has also entered into a memorandum of understanding with interactive simulation developer MathEngine to build groundbreaking, next generation mobile games, based on real-time physics and natural behaviour technology.

The jointly developed suite of “turbo-powered” games will give users an enhanced gaming experience, allowing interaction with on-screen characters and environments, which will respond by mimicking real-life physics.

Webb told us: “MathEngine and Motorola are on a mission to bring about ground-breaking advances to mobile handsets, giving users access to new and sophisticated gaming content. Not only are we bringing games to people on the move, but we’re looking to make the gaming experience the best quality and most technologically advanced possible.”

Ultimately, like the Husky fex21, many will compare it to an advanced children’s toy, an electronic soap dish or an enlarged pencil sharpener.

In the mode of Apple and Handspring, the V100’s is even more open to criticism — its chassis is in see-through plastic. But also like the Husky, Motorola can afford to ride the criticism — and be adventurous, because of the sheer volume of technology crammed into its tiny frame.


Uppers: Matchbox miniaturisation, looksDowners: Practicality, availability Bottom Line: From micro watches to mini phone-PC’s, nobody does it smaller

Price:$200 - $800

Contact:+971 4 393 8866

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