Roxio's Napster online music download service has gone live in the UK, well ahead of a promise the company made in March to launch the service before the end of summer.

Apple, meanwhile, continues to make plans for a European launch of its rival iTunes Music Store service, though the company is reluctant to offer a firm release date.

Roxio said that its launch of Napster 2.0 was made possible following completion of licensing agreements with the five major record companies in the UK: BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner, along with independent label company AIM.

What's more, Roxio has reached an exclusive partnership with European electronics retailer Dixons, which will feature Napster products and services in Dixons, PC World, Currys and The Link stores in the UK beginning 21 May 2004.

Napster is available only for Windows users and utilising Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) technology for its Digital Rights Management (DRM). The service features the ability to listen to songs online, purchase and download them and boasts a catalogue of more than 500,000 songs.

Napster users can listen to their music on up to three PCs, can burn them to CD and play them back on MP3 players. The service is compatible with more than 60 MP3 players that support WMA DRM.

Roxio expects Napster's catalogue to grow to more than 700,000 songs in the next 30 days. Napster users in the UK can buy individual tracks for £1.09 or albums for £9.95. Napster users can also pay £9.95 per month to listen to music online, on demand.

By comparison, Apple's iTunes music store, still available only in the United States, features a catalogue of over 700,000 songs from the major and independent music labels. The iTunes service lacks Napster's play on demand feature, but sports the ability to purchase individual tracks for $0.99 each and most albums for $9.99.

Apple's DRM system, FairPlay, allows up to five computers to play the same music downloaded from the store, offers the ability to burn songs to CD and allows users to copy music to Apple's popular iPod music player.

iTunes Music Store's most recent iteration, unveiled during the service's first anniversary on 28 April, now features music videos and film trailers served up using Apple's QuickTime technology, the ability to share and publish playlists and other capabilities.

Apple has repeatedly stated plans to launch its iTunes Music Store service in Europe, although the company hasn't committed to a firm release date other than to say the service will launch in 2004.

Apple's vice president of European operations Pascal Cagni has noted complications involving price, tax and licensing from country to country, but suggested in an April interview "that a few months' delay is not essential" to iTunes' long-term European success.

Further complicating matters is constrained availability of the iPod mini, Apple's diminutive 4GB personal digital music player that plays songs purchased through the iTunes Music Store.

Apple had hoped to release the iPod mini in Europe this April, but higher than anticipated demand in the US and constrained availability of components forced the company to postpone iPod mini's European rollout until July.