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I’ll admit that when Apple announced the release of its iTunes software and the iPod hardware, I was skeptical that it would succeed. Actually, I openly mocked the company for entering the digital music fray so late in the game.

Well, so much for predictions. Over the last week, several companies have announced plans to sell “iPod-killers”–mobile music devices aimed at expanding the digital music market and putting a dent in Apple’s supreme dominance over the music download market.

The latest to enter the fray–and the one with the most promise–comes from a partnership with Real Networks and SanDisk. Real Networks already has its own online music shop, Rhapsody, which doubles as both a streaming and downloading online retailer, similar to–although not a large as–Apple’s iTunes.

The new partnership will allow Real to release its own portable music player tied directly to its online property.

From the Associated Press article:

The player will come pre-loaded with hundreds of songs from musicians such as the Dixie Chicks and Jessica Simpson, as part of a free trial of RealNetworks’ Rhapsody To Go subscription service. Anyone who buys or already has the music service will then be able to use the gadget to listen to nearly all of the songs available through the core Rhapsody service.

The Rhapsody Unlimited online service charges users a flat fee of $9.99 to essentially rent an unlimited number of songs as long as they subscribe to the service. Users who purchased the Rhapsody To Go service, at $14.99 per month, had previously been able to transfer their Rhapsody songs from their computers onto a portable music player.

The Real/SanDisk move comes on the heels of Microsoft’s announcement last week that it would begin selling the Zune, its own version of the portable music player, sometime in the coming holiday season.

Microsoft and Real had been working together on the Rhapsody service; however, last week’s announcement signaled a shift in that relationship, according to various reports.

Japan’s Samsung just announced a Microsoft-styled player called the K5 Digital Audio Player, according to a press release on the company’s site. And, in a not-so-subtle shot across Apple’s port bow, the Samsung makes it clear that this device isn’t tied to any particular type of audio file.

To coincide with the launch of the K5, Samsung developed the MPFreedom campaign which demonstrates the freedom of choice music subscription services offer consumers. This campaign represents the benefit of not being held down to one particular outlet, but to living wirelessly, and express individuality.

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