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Microsoft, Google and Rim Put iTunes in Misaligned Crosshairs

The mobile vendor world must have iTunes envy, because virtually every big name -- Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), and Research in Motion (RIM) -- plans its own music service.

One of Apple's smartest moves -- and that's saying a lot -- was creating iTunes, which provides music but locks the customer to listening on Apple devices, whether an iPod, iPhone, or iPad. Although it's not impossible to sync with a non-Apple device, it is far more difficult than most people would care for.

So iTunes becomes a lock that forces people to remain customers so they can enjoy their investment in music. The other companies are trying to play catch-up, and it's easy to see why. It's not so easy to see how they can succeed.

Microsoft strains

The least surprise is from Microsoft, which already had its Zune music and video service. According to Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet, the company is working on a new offering called Ventura.

Although the latest versions of the Zune player and Zune Pass service got generally favorable reviews, they didn't have Apple's first-to-market advantage. Additionally, Microsoft is currently so far behind in smartphone operating system market share that it can't settle for something simply comparable to iTunes.

Perhaps Ventura is another do-or-die effort like that of Windows Phone 7. It needs to be that focused and driven to offer something unavailable on any other platform. Because, unlike its competitors, Microsoft will have to make a music service something to sell the phone, not something to keep users locked in.

Google equivocates

Google's offering was uncovered by some hackers who were exploring the internals of the latest Android release, Honeycomb. The latest version, not yet officially supported by Google, lets people synchronize their stored music to existing Google cloud storage, delete the local files, and then stream the music.

Given the approach Google showed with Chrome OS of having Google devices and the Chrome browser on a desktop synchronize for an identical look and feel, this seems clear. Google will let people take music they've paid for and put it into a service that lets them have access without requiring device synchronization.

There are a couple of problems. Much digital music is actually licensed, not purchased, so there may be copyright limitations on what the company can do. It will be compelling, but fraught with legal battles. Copyright restrictions have not deterred Google from trying new services in the past, as the ongoing litigation of book authors and publishers shows. But even if Google can afford to fight legal battles, the experience will still disrupt its attempt to get to market.

RIM follows 5 years behind

BlackBerry Playbook will come with 7digital's music store pre-installed. As RIM's press release notes:

The 7digital Music Store will give BlackBerry PlayBook users access to 7digital's catalogue of over 13 million high quality (320kbps) MP3s. BlackBerry PlayBook users will be able to search for tracks, albums and artists and preview tracks before making a purchase. Users can also discover new music through 7digital's recommendation technology. Prices for BlackBerry PlayBook users will match the prices on 7digital.com, with individual tracks and albums priced in a customer's local currency.
This is the least impressive approach of any, although probably more likely to work. It's simply a partnership that pre-loads the service rather than forcing someone to go to 7digital's web site first. Nothing new or innovative.

So far, Apple can probably relax.

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