Whistling A Different iTune

Apple (AAPL ) isn't feeling heat just on the iPod front. Competitors are setting their sights on the highly successful iTunes online-music store, too. And while they don't quite measure up to iTunes, some of the big stores give consumers who don't own iPods plenty of satisfaction.

In establishing iTunes (itunes.com), Apple showed the same creative spirit that wowed consumers when it first conjured up the iPod. iTunes has lined up hundreds of great tracks that are exclusive to its service -- songs from artists such as Elvis Costello and Alanis Morissette. And the store includes "fun mixtapes" of song selections from celebrities such as filmmaker Michael Moore and musician Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit. Be warned, though: iTunes sells songs only in its own format, AAC, designed to be played on the iPod.

Altogether, it's a package that iTunes rivals have yet to match, although the combination of sites that sell songs in Microsoft's (MSFT ) WMA format gives users a good alternative. These songs can be played on devices from Creative (CREAF ), Rio, Dell (DELL ), and other makers.

Microsoft's MSN Music (music.msn.com) is the best of this bunch. Its Map of Music lets consumers find tunes from artists in different regions of the country in each of the past five decades. The store offers more than 1 million songs, just like iTunes, including some artists, such as the Dave Matthews Band and AC/DC, that you can't find in Apple's store. The trade-off is that MSN has capitulated to demands by those artists to sell only their complete albums, and not individual songs.

A few other big online stores stand out. Napster (napster.com), MusicMatch Jukebox (musicmatch.com), and Virgin Group (virgindigital.com), which all sell music in the WMA format, have extensive libraries, and offer subscription services in addition to song sales. They let users pick through their entire catalogs for a flat monthly fee. And the RealPlayer Music Store (real.com/musicstore) sells music in its version of Apple's AAC format, so songs can be played on the iPod and WMA devices.

Apple will probably try to squelch that by tweaking software in iPods to make songs purchased from Real unplayable. Even so, one thing is clear: iTunes is no longer the only game in town.

By Jay Greene

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