As the UK prepares itself for tomorrow's launch of Apple's online song shop iTunes, described by the company as "the biggest story in music", arch rival Windows-based Napster could end up having the last laugh thanks to its close relationship with Microsoft.
The software giant is currently inviting all comers to test the next version of its Windows Media Player, which has a streamlined interface and new features that better support portable devices. This will dramatically cut the cost of transferring tracks from PC hard disks to MP3 players.
Windows Media Player 10 - due to be released later this year - contains a new version of Windows Media Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, a copy-protection technique formerly code-named Janus, that enhances the software's support for portable devices, according to Jonathan Usher, director of the Windows Digital Media division at Microsoft.
The DRM technology is intended to combat piracy. However, if a portable device supports Windows Media DRM, users will have greater flexibility in storing and saving music on that device, according to Microsoft.
Essentially, the technology will enable music subscription services such as Napster to offer portable downloads to subscribers who are using compliant portable devices.
For example, since launching in the UK last month Napster subscribers can currently download an unlimited number of DRM-protected tracks to their PCs. As long as a user remains subscribed, those tracks will play normally. Once they cancel their subscription, the files can't be played.
Current portable players have no way to check if the licence for a protected track is still valid, so users aren't allowed to take tunes from their subscription service on the road.
New portable players that support the new DRM scheme, such as upcoming Portable Media Center devices, will change that by including a secure clock that can be used to check if the licence for a downloaded track is still valid. If it is, the track plays; if not, it doesn't.
This means music lovers should be able to fill their portable players with as many tracks as it can hold for only the £9.95 monthly cost of a Napster subscription, without being charged 99 pence for every song transferred as with the current setup.