Despite Microsoft supremo Bill Gates' belief that music download services aren't money spinners, the company is launching its own iTunes-alike service as part of Windows Media Player today.

The new subscription service will be backed by OD2, the UK company behind the few existing legal download offerings. It will work along much the same lines as iTunes, offering a pay-as-you-go service with tracks starting from 75p each, or £7.99 for a whole album. It will offer 200,000 songs from 8,500 artists.

As well as being offered through Windows Media Player, it will also be available to users throughout Western Europe via the MSN Music Club and ISP Tiscali. If users opt to buy through these subscription services they will get an even cheaper deal, with individual tracks starting at 62p.

You can choose to buy a permanent download, where you can copy a track to another device or burn it to a CD, or a cheaper, temporary download, which you can only listen to on the PC it's downloaded to. Both services work on a system of buying credits and the more credits you buy, the cheaper music is.

"These new services represent the second generation of online music stores in Europe. Consumers can now access a vast library of legitimate digital music, and download and keep the music they buy without needing to commit to a monthly subscription," said OD2 boss Charles Grimsdale.

The move sees Microsoft stealing a march on Apple which is still struggling to launch its iTunes service in Europe due to licensing issues, and to port it to the PC platform.

This could leave Apple out in the cold by the time it does finally launch in the UK, despite its massive success in the US, where millions of tracks have been downloaded since its launch in April. Unless it can reach PC users it is limited to a tiny slice of the pie, while Microsoft's service can be used by 96 percent of computers in Europe.

So far Microsoft has only announced its European music service, but the new version of its internet service, MSN 9, could include a subscription-based music service for US customers.

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