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Napster sets launch date for UK

iTunes plays coy

After much anticipation over when Napster 2.0 would reach European shores, Roxio today announced it will launch its Napster LLC online music service in the UK "before the end of the summer."

The localised version of Napster 2.0 will be the company's first foray into the European market and will be headed by Leanne Sharman, who was named as Napster UK general manager, a title that was added to her existing job of vice president of business development.

Roxio plans to offer the music subscription service throughout the rest of Europe, but has no timeframe yet for doing so. "Once the service is established (in the UK) we will then look to roll out Napster across Europe on a country by country basis, with localised content," said Napster UK spokesman Adam Howorth.

The company also declined to give a specific date for Napster's launch or to outline what its pricing plans will be. "Pricing will be compatible with the US model of Napster," Howorth said.

It is unclear if Napster will get its service to the UK market before its rival, the iTunes Music Store from Apple Computer as Apple continues to remain tight lipped on its plans. Speculation within the industry has long been that iTunes will receive a UK launch in the second quarter.

"We don't have any comment on iTunes," said an Apple spokesman in the UK. "We haven't released any information on the service, and though we are aware of the reports in the media and elsewhere, we do not comment on rumour and conjecture."

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said the company aims to launch iTune services in Europe in 2004, and that the company expects success similar to the levels its has enjoyed in the US. In January, he announced that two million iPods and 30 million iTunes Music Store songs had been sold since both were announced.

"Both Apple and Napster are going to be on track to launch European services this year," said Mark Mulligan, senior analyst with Jupiter Research in London. "My suspicion is that Napster is going to come out just a little bit before Apple, partly because Apple has continually insisted it will launch iTunes in Europe only when it is assured it can replicate the same usage it has in the US."

Apple has competed hard with Napster in the US, going so far as to announce late last year that between 28 October and 3 November it had sold 1.5 million songs through its store, whereas the newly launched Napster had sold 300,000 tracks in the US.

Apple has already established a toehold in the UK with its iPod music player, which pundits predict will give the company an edge over Napster.

"Both companies have been rushing to get out on the UK market first," Mulligan said. "It had been expected that Apple would launch iTunes in the UK in the second quarter, but the third quarter does sound more appealing in that it doesn't compete with the launch of the iPod mini in April and it still gives them plenty of time for the Q4 (fourth quarter) Christmas push."

Users can expect a huge marketing push from both Napster and Apple. Mulligan believes that Apple will attempt to partner with large non-technology companies as it has done with Pepsi in the US, while Napster will continue its innovative link-up with universities, as it has with Pennsylvania State University and the University of Rochester, in New York. Roxio is also working hard to make Napster appealing for users by increasing the number of portable audio players onto which users can directly drag-and-drop tracks from the Napster application.

"Apple has established an off-line brand, which Napster hasn't done," Mulligan said. "But there have been some set-backs for Apple, such as the negative press it has received here about the expense and difficulty of replacing the iPod battery."

That issue, as well as issues of interoperability with Windows Media Audio (WMA) from Microsoft are making some UK iPod converts rethink their commitment to Apple.

"Yes, the iPod is a design classic. It looks and feels great," said iPod owner Toby Burton. "But just last week a friend of mine asked for my suggestion on a digital music player and I had to point him to something that uses WMP, because it's more flexible and the batteries on those devices are less of a hassle to replace."

Burton believes that the music services between Napster and iTunes would most likely be similar, so therefore price and convenience would be the deciding factors.

Mulligan also sees convenience and interoperability as key components to the future success of online music services. "Somewhere down the line, there will have to be interoperability between all of the music formats. I think that Napster will be the first to get there as Apple is famous for holding on to its proprietary software and hardware, and at this point, Napster has more ground to make up."


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