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Apple iTunes Europe debut 'may be delayed'

But will happen this year, says Euro chief

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Apple is still on course to launch its iTunes Music Store in Europe, but right now it just can't say when.

Indeed, expect delays, Apple Europe chief Pascal Cagni warns. "This [launch] is going to be so important for the future that a few months' delay is not essential," he told Reuters last week.

"When we launch in Europe, we want to do it well," he said. "There can be no compromise on the ease of use, the depth of the catalogue or the responsiveness [of the Web site]."

Well, we can trust Apple to at least book sufficient bandwidth and storage capacity, so the third of those factors can be ignored. Ditto ease of use, which Apple has proven with the US version of the service, now running for almost a year.

That leaves "depth of catalogue" as the real issue behind any Euro ITMS launch setback. While Apple's US launch was enthusiastically endorsed by the big labels, over here they appear to be driving harder bargains.

We have no direct insight into negotiations between Apple Europe and the labels, but it's telling that talks between Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) and UK-based music service Wippit yielded the digital distributor a fraction of the big label's back catalogue - just 10,000 tracks, and then only for sale in the UK and Ireland, not the whole of Europe.

EMI, by way of contrast, licensed 150,000 songs to Wippit, for distribution across the continent.

Wippit CEO Paul Myers is talking to two of the remaining three big labels. He won't say which one isn't party to licensing negotiations, but the smart money's on Sony, which is launching its own music download service, Connect, in June.

Is it unreasonably to wonder if Apple's negotiations are proceeding along a similar course? Apple has the advantage that it is larger and better known than almost all of the other services coming to Europe, with the possible exception of Napster and Virgin Digital, Richard Branson's revamped and expanded download offering.

Cagni acknowledged the greater complexity of the European market: "There are massive differences in price [across Europe] - it can vary with a factor of two, and the taxes in countries are different." ®

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