Microsoft cues up Net music store

The company says its own version of Apple's iTunes and other such services will appear this year, but it remains mum on whether the associated software will end up in Windows.

Microsoft said Friday that the second half of the year will see the launch of its online music store, a long-expected entry into an increasingly crowded business dominated by Apple Computer's iTunes.

The software giant this week began offering sneak peaks of the service to independent record labels at the South by Southwest trade show in Austin, Texas. Though Microsoft remains mum about specific details, this week's dog and pony show signals the company's heightened ambitions to enter the world of online music sales with a bang.

Microsoft will promote its music store primarily through its Web portal, according to company spokeswoman Lisa Gurry. Visitors will be able to sign up via MSN and browse a catalog of songs and albums to purchase and download onto their computers. Gurry declined to comment on pricing or on the number of songs Microsoft plans to initially release on the service.

"We are absolutely going to be striving for a large catalog of music, but we have no specific numbers to confirm," Gurry said in an interview.

The store will also let buyers transfer their music onto portable playback devices. About 60 percent of portables currently support Microsoft's Windows Media audio format, Gurry said. She added that Microsoft has not decided whether to extend its song portability to non-Windows Media devices.

Currently Apple's popular iPod player is compatible with Microsoft's Windows operating system, as is its iTunes music store. Gurry also declined to say whether Microsoft's music store would be bundled into Windows or featured on its Windows Media playback software.

Online song sales have started to catch on, and many companies are trying to elbow their way into the market. Apple recently said it has sold 50 million songs through iTunes, while smaller players, such as Roxio's Napster, have sold as many as 5 million. Still, the business is difficult because margins are low. Still other companies, such as Yahoo, have publicly expressed doubt about the business but have nonetheless noted that the trend is becoming too powerful to ignore.

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