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This week in online music

The online music arena welcomed some new competition, but players may need to retune their instruments.

The online music arena welcomed some new competition, but players may need to retune their instruments.

Sprint Nextel launched a music download service that lets customers store up to 1,000 songs on their cell phones, pitting it against Apple Computer's popular iTunes service. The Sprint Music Store will allow consumers to browse, preview and, for $2.50 each, download files from the Sprint inventory.

Although the cost per song is higher than Apple's rate, Sprint's store enables users to get a copy of each song they buy formatted for their phone and for their PC. Consumers will also be able to burn their music to a disc using Windows Media Player and transfer music stored on their PCs to their phones.

Meanwhile, America Online announced that it has acquired MusicNow. With the technology, the Time Warner Internet company plans to revamp its music customization and personalization features. AOL will gradually upgrade its current MusicNet AOL subscribers to a new service, called AOL Music Now.

Competition among online music providers is becoming increasingly intense. Customers have shown an insatiable appetite for acquiring their music through nontraditional means ranging from cell phones to peer-to-peer networks.

But not all is, as they say, groovy in the music business. The new iMesh, launched last week as the first record-label-approved file-swapping service, has a Led Zeppelin problem.

Like its peers in the digital music business, from Napster to Apple's iTunes, iMesh does not have the legal rights to distribute recordings by the popular 1970s rockers. And yet for those using the company's new service, it requires only a quick point and click of the mouse to download several of Led Zeppelin's biggest hits.

It is far too early to say whether this is a serious flaw that will require major retooling or simply a bug that will be cleaned up in just a few days of frantic code-tweaking. But the continued availability of copyrighted tunes on the iMesh network shows just how high the hurdles remain for this ambitious experiment in legal file swapping.

The Web, meanwhile, is emerging as the main forum for many digital music stores. In the past few weeks, several of the biggest digital music providers said they are moving portions or all of their services onto the Web rather than deliver downloads through a separate software application, as Apple Computer does with its iTunes software. America Online, Napster and RealNetworks have said they are committing to this departure from Apple's distribution strategy, in part to try to reach as many potential customers as possible. Analysts are skeptical, however, that the move will eat significantly into iTunes' customer base, where the iPod music player still reigns supreme.

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