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In what may prove to be the most far-reaching digital music launch since iTunes, Omnifone today took the wraps off its MusicStation service.

The service gives mobile phone users access to the big four labels' music catalogs on-demand for £1.99 (€2.99) a week, using a player that runs on mid-range feature phones and GPRS or EDGE networks, as well as high-end 3G phones - which Omnifone reckons gives it access to 70 per cent of the world's phone users. Indie content will follow, it's expected, as the indies are in the process of setting up their one-stop licensing arm Merlin, announced earlier this month.

As well as signing up the major four labels - UMG, Sony-BMG, Warner Music and EMI - Omnifone has inked deals with 23 network operators across the globe for MusicStation. The first of these rollouts - Telenor in Scandinavia and Vodafone's Vodacom in South Africa - are confirmed for launch in Q2, with many of the others following in Q3.

In addition to the mobile-only service, a PC and Mac version of the MusicStation client will be available as part of a premium service costing £2.99 (€3.99) a week. With each plan, there will be no data charges.

Users will be able to receive share playlists, create personalized charts, and receive information about artists, concerts and promotions in the MusicStation player.

Omnifone, then offers a full-on challenge not only to Apple's iTunes, but quite probably to MySpace too.

"Selling music is a legacy business," CEO Rob Lewis told us. Lewis believes per-unit pricing is dead and the winners will be companies who offer the best subscription services.

He also believes MusicStation's willingness to partner with carriers casts the Apple's iPhone announce in a new light. Cingular agreed to Apple's terms and disabled over-the-air music downloads to the iPhone - granting Apple exclusivity over acquiring content for the device, which must either be ripped from a CD or else be purchased through Apple's own iTunes store. Verizon had balked at similar terms.

"iPhone is not good for operators," Lewis said. "MusicStation is an all you can eat iTunes you can access from the bus, or anywhere."

Partnering with the operators also gives Omnifone a global roll-out that PC-based companies can only envy, another contrast with Apple's country-by-country exclusive world tour. Apple launched the US version of the iTunes store in spring 2003, with the UK following in summer of 2004, and Japan more than two years after the original launch. Lewis notes that in each market, 50 per cent of the catalog is local, something ignored by rivals.

So you can see why networks are keen on the start-up: all the music is sent over the networks directly to the phone. But what does it do for us?

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