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Online music services such as iTunes may be growing in popularity but they're also a source of frustration for many music fans. That's according to the results of a new study which has criticised such services for trying to enslave internet users by locking them in to proprietary formats and music players.

Research conducted by Shelley Taylor & Associates between October and December 2004 also found that a large number of digital downloading services are poorly designed making it difficult for users to navigate around music sites.

The firm analysed 15 download stores, seven media player/jukeboxes, 10 online radio stations and six P2P sites. Among the online music services covered in the research were iTunes, Napster, MusicMatch, Virgin, Sony's Connect and Real Network's Music Store. A number of file-sharing services that aren't supported by the music industry were also included.

The study acknowledges that the digital download industry is still in its infancy however, it suggests that online music sites need to change their tactics if they are to continue to attract music lovers.

"We see some of the most popular download services actively engaging in a form of guerrilla slavery; using proprietary formats, closed system media players and proprietary portable devices," said the report's author Shelley Taylor. "As a result, user's initial enthusiasm is being deflated as they realise they have been conned - there are more limitations imposed on legitimate digital downloads, media players and portable devices than advertised. If music services focused on creating and delivering features, functions and content that enabled users to more fully participate in the pleasure of music, then these services would sell themselves."

Sony's Connect service came in for particular criticism in the report because as well as being poorly designed it uses a proprietary format and is only available to users who have music devices manufactured by the firm. The study also questioned why music fans were forced in to registering for a Hotmail account in order to purchase music from the Music MSN store or in to having a Yahoo account to use LaunchCast.

Although iTunes has proven extremely popular with music fans worldwide, it failed to beat the French online music store Fnac to top the list of best download sites. Fnac was considered to be the most user-friendly online music site because of the extra features it offered. These include discounts for purchasing multiple music tracks, the ability to download videos and the opportunity to buy concert tickets via the site.

However, it wasn't all bad news for Apple. iTunes, which recently launched in Ireland, was judged to be the most flexible and full-featured media player/jukebox in the study.

HMV, one of the most popular high street music retailers in the UK and Ireland was awarded the lowest marks among online music stores in the survey with researchers damning it for confusing navigation and scant artist information.

© ENN

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