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Omnifone brings MusicStation, a rival to Apple’s iPhone, to Europe

British mobile music company Omnifone unveiled its cell phone-based music subscription service MusicStation on Thursday, going live in Sweden with other European markets set to follow in the coming weeks.

The move is part of the British company’s plan to take a major piece of the market before Apple Inc. brings its sought-after iPhone to market in Europe and elsewhere.

”They will be in stores on a wide variety of handsets – Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung – giving European consumers the ability to access their music from anywhere,” Omnifone Chief Executive Rob Lewis told The Associated Press. ”We’ve got to market first and ahead of the iPhone by many, many months.”

Scandinavian provider Telenor launched the service with a weekly subscription price of 25 kronor (euro2.67; US$3.55). Cell phones pre-loaded with the software are being released in stores there Thursday.

”Telenor has always focused on delivering cutting edge services to its subscribers and with MusicStation we can deliver a truly next-generation music experience, giving our consumers the freedom to download an unlimited amount of music, wherever they are, for a small weekly fee,” said Johan Lindgren, Telenor’s chief executive.

The service works by letting users search, download and play music on their cell phones and sync it with their personal computer to create playlists that can be shared with other MusicStation users.

The iPhone is not due to be released in the U.S. until June and a European launch is scheduled for the autumn. So far Cingular, the new AT&T, is the only major operator with a deal to distribute the phone, which marries the form and function of an iPod with touch-screen and cell phone capabilities.

MusicStation is an ”all you can eat” platform that will let subscribers download new songs from several major music labels at a weekly cost of euro2.99 (US$3.97), including the cost of sending the music to the handset.

The first rollout of the service is in Sweden, followed Britain, France, Germany and several other countries in Europe ”which will be launching or rolling out in the coming weeks,” Lewis said, adding that a similar launch in Asia will come in about 60 days.

Omnifone has partnerships with providers to bring MusicStation to Australia, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa.

”We’re taking an old-style approach and announcing the rollout the day it’s available to the consumer in the store,” he said. ”Every time it goes live, it will be available in store.”

Lewis said MusicStation had also signed international licensing deals with Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Music and Warner Music International, to provide their international and local digital music catalogs to MusicStation users.

”Its hard to imagine a more compelling music experience on mobile than MusicStation. It works on almost any phone, giving consumers the freedom to choose whatever device they want,” said Rob Wells, senior vice president, digital, at Universal Music Group. ”It allows downloads wherever those consumers are, providing the freedom to access music whenever they want. And it gives users unlimited access to our and other labels catalogues, all for a fixed weekly fee that includes data.”

Unlike the iPhone, Lewis said the service downloads music over the air across a data network, meaning users can have instant access to new music despite their location. He said the service was designed for 2.5- and third-generation networks, which are prevalent across Europe and Asia and expanding in North America.

The tracks will include digital rights management to limit unauthorized copying and be delivered in enhanced advanced audio coding format, or eAAC+.

Songs downloaded through MusicStation, along with users’ playlists, are stored centrally, meaning that if a mobile phone is lost or stolen, the content is not and can be downloaded to a new phone, Lewis said.

He said the company anticipates a high demand for the service, and said the company is targeting 100 million subscribers by June 2008.

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