MusicMatch Jukebox is the most popular program available for playing and organizing mp3 music files. Personally, I find it confusing and difficult to use, but millions of people use it to play their tunes.

MusicMatch rolled out a digital music download service yesterday which parallels Apple’s iTunes Music Store in many ways. Pricing is similar – songs for 99 cents, albums for $9.99 – and song quality is high. iTunes uses 128Kbps Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) files that can only be played on Apple hardware;’s rival service offers 128Kbps Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 files; but MusicMatch uses 160Kbps WMA 9 files, a high enough encoding rate to allow true CD-quality audio.

More importantly, the limitations imposed by digital rights management are similar to iTunes – and less restrictive than and some of the other services. Make no mistake, the tunes are still restricted, with limits on how many computers allowed to play the songs and limits on what you can do with them.

Two things jump out at me about the new service.

First, the new service only runs inside MusicMatch Jukebox. Apparently there’s no web site where you can go download files; you have to use the MusicMatch software. Granted, the software is a market leader so that’s not an inconvenience to a lot of people – but it excludes those of us choosing different software. (Checked out Media Center 9.1 lately? There’s still nothing like it for managing large libraries.)

It’s another way the MusicMatch service is similar to Apple’s iTunes Music Store, which works inside the iTunes software. That limitation didn’t strike me as a problem with Apple’s service because nobody expects to have any choices on the Apple platform – there’s seldom more than one program in any category.

But that leads to the second point that nobody has discussed yet. Apple made a splash with its iTunes service, which had early success and obvious potential. At its launch it was clear that Apple could only jump to the big leagues if its service expanded to reach Windows users. It was never clear why Apple didn’t make that happen, although there were rumors of restrictions on the licenses obtained by Apple from the recording industry.

Now Apple has allowed its momentum to completely dissipate. A well-funded competitor has appeared offering a precisely comparable service to Windows users, before Apple made its move. There’s no longer any reason that Apple will stand out from the market if it does make songs available on the Windows platform – it might join the ranks as a distinguished competitor, but that’s a far cry from creating a market and dominating it from its inception.

In other words, Apple fumbled the ball. Again. This was a rich opportunity for Apple to define a new market with style, and it failed to deliver. Apple will eventually turn up with Windows software and a Windows-based iPod and a lot of marketing to convince you that it’s a big player. Don’t be fooled. I see no evidence that Apple can succeed at anything.

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