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Europeans to get Windows music store

Microsoft and partner OD2 choose Europe as the launch pad for an iTunes-like digital download store that sells songs via a tab in Media Player software.

A new pay-by-the-song music service is launching in Western Europe, putting an iTunes-like digital download store inside Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

Branded variously as the MSN Music Club and Tiscali Music Club, the service is actually run by online music company OD2, rather than by Microsoft itself. As with Apple Computer's iTunes, the stores will be accessible inside the music-playing software itself. In this case, each may be accessed by a tab in the Windows Media Player premium services section.

The MSN-branded store will launch Thursday in the United Kingdom, providing access to more than 200,000 tracks, said OD2 and Microsoft in a joint press release. The Tiscali Club, which has access to the same music library will be available in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium beginning in September, they said.

While the music stores are restricted to the British and Western European markets, analysts said they could be seen as some indication of what Microsoft might do with its Media Player software in the larger American market.

"Microsoft has a history of using partners to offer these services," said Susan Kevorkian, an analyst with research firm IDC. "But from what I understand, it's still up in the air. They may choose to take a new tack with MSN Music and bring it in-house."

The European stores provide a first look at a Microsoft Media Player-based rival to the successful Apple iTunes music store, which has yet to launch in the European market.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates recently said that the software company was considering adding an iTunes-like service into the Windows platform, but gave no hints as to how or when such a development might occur.

ITunes' release in April, accompanied by Apple's stated ambition to bring the software and service to the Windows platform by the end of the year, has prompted repeated questions about how Microsoft might respond.

The Redmond, Wash. software company has consistently said that it preferred to work with partners rather than develop its own content or e-commerce services. Previously, it has given subscription services Pressplay and MusicNow access to prime digital real estate inside its Media Player software.

Pressplay, recently purchased by Roxio and renamed Napster, already plans a pay-by-the-song music store, slated to be launched this winter.

Both new European stores will offer songs for sale, starting at 75 pence (sterling) or 99 cents (euro) per track. Cheaper rates will be available for people who sign up for subscriptions to either the MSN Music Club or the Tiscali Music Club.

"These new services represent the second generation of online music stores in Europe," said OD2 chief executive officer Charles Grimsdale in a statement. "Consumers can now access a vast library of legitimate digital music, and download and keep the music they buy without needing to commit to a monthly subscription."