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News magazine The Economist this week forecast that Apple's share of the emerging online music business would plummet later this year when Microsoft moves into the market.

But according to a Billboard report, the two firms' love-hate relationship may be tending toward the former in order to build links between their music encoding and digital rights management technologies.

Essentially, the hardware and music industries want a single standard to work to. While that might have fallen to Microsoft's Windows Media format, the success Apple has experienced with its iTunes Music Store, which uses MPEG 4 as the basis for song encoding, has made Microsoft's dominance less certain.

In any case, music industry staff have long told us they are very keen not to allow the Beast of Redmond to control the technology on which their future fortune may be based.

The upshot: "There's a substantial discussion going on among these companies [Apple and M$] about interoperability," says Paul Vidich, executive VP of strategic planning and business development for Warner Music Group, quoted in the Billboard story.

Apparently, the talks centre on ways Apple's AAC files and Microsoft's WMA files can be easily cross-coded while maintaining each's DRM data.

Certainly the availability of a variety of formats has always been viewed as one of the chief barriers to building a successful online music market. Few users are happy about running different applications to find, purchase and play songs from different services. Or with the limitations some services put on which devices songs can be transferred to.

Napster chairman Chris Gorog recently lambasted Apple for not providing WMA support, particularly on its popular iPod player. Equally, it hasn't proved keen to allow other hardware vendors to support iTMS through their devices. We can't see it changing its mind on that point, nor about extending support to WMA, but industry and - to a lesser extent - consumer pressure may force a rethink on Apple's part.

We'd certainly welcome one. If you can buy a CD from any store and know for sure it will play on any make of hardware, you should be able to do the same with a digital download. Building a strong digital music retail presence should be dependent on providing quality of service, good branding and so on, not on the extent to which you control the technology. ®

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