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Subscription iTunes, anyone?

Apple Computer's iTunes music store shows no sign of slowing its growth, but it seems the subscription model touted by Napster, Virgin Digital, RealNetworks and others is getting some wind in its sails. The New York Times had complimentary things to say about Napster last week, and the Wall Street Journal's technology columnist Walter Mossberg was at least lukewarm on the idea, if not entirely on Napster's execution.

Steve Jobs has a history of denouncing his competitors' products, and then introducing his own versions a little later – often just before a technological idea tips from the margins into the mainstream. The flash-based iPod Shuffle came well after Jobs' describing flash-based MP3 players as gifts which people never used, after all.

Is Apple now working on its own subscription service? It wouldn't be a light undertaking. Most likely, the company would have to do substantial rewriting of its digital rights management technology. It took Microsoft at least two years and many delays to create the portable copy-protection that powers Napster. Apple would also have to renegotiate its deals with record labels, a potentially daunting task.

But depend on Jobs to be reading the tea leaves. We'll keep watching for signs that he's looking to out-Napster Napster.