Virgin is set to offer a free unlimited DRM-free music download service for as little as £15 although there are several roadblocks ahead that could derail the scheduled launch for the end of the year.
Apart from the fact that Universal Music has been announced as the only partner for the time being, there is the fact that other potential rivals may come before Virgin debuts the service. Indeed there are several similar "unlimited" offers currently on the market for cheaper and offering a wider choice of tracks than Virgin's.
(1) Datz Music Lounge
It would certainly have been simpler for Virgin Media to offer free Datz Music Lounge download packages to its customers. At £89.99 (available from Ebuyer), the Music lounge punts itself as "revolutionary new way to buy and enjoy music". There's a one off cost and you can download as many songs as you want over a year.
All tracks are in MP3 format and DRM free which means that it can go on every music player on the market. Plus you will be able to keep them forever even after the first year. They have more than 234,000 artists featured and "millions of tracks".
It is compatible with MacOSX and Windows XP/Vista. The average cost per month would be £7.50, less than the £15 Virgin is expected to charge. The broadband provider could even bring down the price to around £6.25 a month or £75 a year.
(2) Nokia XpressMusic
Want even more choice and a mobile phone? Why not go with Nokia's Comes With Music. With more than 3 million tracks and thousands more added every week, it is similar to the Datz Music Lounge offer except that you have to download the tracks either on a designated PC or your mobile phone. There are currently two phones that comes with Comes With Music - the obsolete 5310 and the near obsolete N95.
Still you could get the former on PAYG for a mere £92.18. Slightly more expensive than the Datz but you get a phone and £10 worth of airtime. Orange is also offering it on a monthly contract with the very popular Nokia 5800 Xpressmusic for around £25 a month on a 24 month contract.
The CMW scheme doesn't come without inconveniences; unlike Virgin's or Datz, files downloaded comes with DRM protection. You will be able to keep all the music you have downloaded but you won't be able to play them elsewhere although you will be able to stick to the phone or upgrade to another Nokia phone.
We've been waiting for Omnifone to launch a proper unlimited music offer in the UK for quite some times after it was first announced in February 2007. They have announced partnerships with Sony Ericsson and Vodafone in the UK for some time as well as Sky which is set to use their MusicStation Next Generation.
The UK-based startup has already released a desktop version of the service in Hong Kong in partnership with Hutchison Telecommunications (Hong Kong) Limited, which operates 3 Network in the UK. It offers more than 1.3 million tracks from "all the major and leading independent labels" for a mere £5 per month. Consumers will be able to share between devices and friends.
Ex-bad boy, file sharing ex-con Napster offers Napster to Go which offers a significant advantage over others. You will have access to over 8 million full length tracks from any PC. Other unique features include the ability to browse over 45 years of the official charts, going back to 1960.
Napster has also packed "Hundreds of expertly programmed ad-free radio stations to choose from" and has added a pretty nifty social networking layer by allowing customers to "Chat in the forums, listen to members' playlists and share tracks with friends".
The problem? Napster tracks are wrapped in DRM. You can only transfer music to compatible players. Unlimited downloads is limited to 3 PCs only although you can play full length tracks online from any PC.
Forget about burning the tracks to your CD, you will have to buy them instead. Worse of all? If you stop using Napster, you will lose the ability to play back the tracks you have downloaded. A bitter pill to swallow, especially at £180 per year.