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Tech giants swell Net music chorus

The drumbeat beckoning consumers to entertainment-subscription services on the Internet grows as America Online, Microsoft and others introduce products and services.

The drumbeat beckoning consumers to entertainment-subscription services on the Net grew louder Tuesday as leading media and technology companies introduced products and services.

America Online on Tuesday joined the growing crowd of Internet music-subscription services with the release of the beta version of AOL Presents MusicNet 1.0. Meanwhile, the Pressplay music service cut a deal with software maker Roxio that will allow its users to burn downloaded music onto CDs.

Also on Tuesday, Microsoft unveiled "Corona," a bundle of digital products aimed at delivering theater-quality music and video to people over the Internet.

The various services and products are designed to entice Internet users, long accustomed to receiving music and entertainment via the Net for free, to choose paid offerings. Whether consumers will buy into the subscription model remains to be seen, given that no-cost music-swapping services popularized by Napster's early success continue to proliferate.

But the music industry and leading Net technology companies are not shying from the crucial showdown.

"Not only are subscriptions a reasonable response to the outcropping of free music on the Internet, it is really the only possible response," said Aram Sinnreich, a music analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix. "Ultimately, subscriptions are the only product format that can make sense in the digital world."

The beta MusicNet service from AOL--set for an official launch in January--will cost $9.95 a month. It will include access to 100 streams and 100 downloads per month from a selection of over 78,000 songs from the catalogs of BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, Warner Music Group and Zomba Records, the company said.

Listen.com also recently launched its Rhapsody music-subscription service, although it has no deals to license major-label music.

Meanwhile, rival Pressplay, whose subscription service will feature songs from Sony, Vivendi Universal and EMI Group, has yet to launch. But the company announced a deal Tuesday with Roxio that will allow people to download music and burn it onto CDs.

Roxio has a similar deal with RealNetworks for its RealOne service, launched last week. RealNetworks' music-subscription service is based on MusicNet and backed by the vast catalogs of AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann and EMI Group.

Most "streamed" content is confined to the PC, but people have become accustomed to file-swapping services that allow them to transfer music to MP3 players and CDs. The ability to download and then burn music onto CDs is likely to be a "must" for subscription services to succeed.

"Year over year our surveys of online music fans tell us that portability is key to their enjoyment of digital music," said Sinnreich, whose research with Jupiter Media Metrix this year found that 38 percent of those surveyed wanted the ability to move music to portable devices from their paid music service, second only to the ability to copy music rather than just stream it.

"Those figures really get at the heart of the reason people love digital music: It is the portability, the ubiquity and plasticity of the music which allows them to have more freedom," he added.

Separately, Microsoft's announcement Tuesday is aimed at enticing companies to develop richer video and audio content for consumers. The product, code-named Corona, is part of its next version of the Windows Media Technologies platform, which includes software such as Windows .Net Server.

Microsoft said Corona has been designed to offer faster and smoother televisionlike content to consumers through streaming media. Internet users currently have to wait for content to be buffered in their PC media players before they can view or hear it. If the waiting time can be reduced or eliminated, consumers may more readily view video over the Net.

The technical beta version of the product is now available to testers.