Apple is downplaying the just launched MSN Music Store, suggesting that Microsoft will struggle to catch up with the iTunes Music Store, especially since it wont be able to sell music to the 50 per cent of the market Apple already owns.

Apple UK issued the following statement to Macworld UK:

"Today the score is:
iTunes: 125 million songs downloaded
Microsoft: 0 songs downloaded

"The iTunes Music Store is currently selling over 16 million songs per month (a rate of 200 million songs per year). How many songs will Microsoft's new online music store sell during its first month?

"Compared to iTunes, Microsoft's music store currently offers only half the songs and is missing many features, but its biggest problem may be that its downloaded songs do not play on iPod, iPod mini, or the Apple iPod from HP – the world's most popular digital music players with over 50 per cent market share," says Apple.

Microsoft leaves no doubt that it places the blame of incompatibility on Apple. It warns iPod owners on its Web site: "We're sorry that this isn't easier – unfortunately Apple refuses to allow other companies to integrate with the iPod's proprietary music format. If you are an iPod owner already and unhappy about this policy, you are welcome to send feedback to Apple requesting that they change their interoperability policy."

Microsoft even goes so far as to outline a workaround that entails burning a purchased song onto a CD and then using iTunes to rip the song from the CD into an iPod-compatible format.

The company also emphasises that, while currently its library is not as big as Apple's, the service has only been launched in beta and it will grow.

Yusuf Mehdi, vice president at Microsoft's MSN Internet division, told Reuters: "MSN Music will quickly grow to more than 1 million. It will be larger than any catalogue."

The company is also boasting that as its songs will be encoded in the Windows Media format it will offer better sound quality than Apple.

Video too

One area where Apple cannot claim dominance is video. Unlike Apple, who has only focused on music, Microsoft is giving nearly equal weight to video. It is pushing its Portable Media Centres, that play TV and video in addition to songs.

Apple doesn't believe in portable video. VP Greg Joswiak told Silicon: "The video market isn't really something that customers have shown an affinity to."

Joswiak noted that while Sony has sold 200 million Walkman music players it has not sold very many portable TVs.

But Gates is sold on the idea: "Ask kids in the back of a car on a two-hour trip, 'Hey, would you like to have your videos there?' My kids would "I guess Steve's kids just listen to Bach and Mozart. But mine, they want to watch Finding Nemo. I don't know who made that, but it's really a neat movie."

The two companies also differ in their approach to the service. Reuters points out, while Apple has taken an exclusively sales-oriented approach, Microsoft has also developed technology that allows people to "rent" music through a subscription service.

Analysts react

Josh Bernoff, analyst at Forrester Research, told Reuters: "It is too early to tell how Microsoft will stack up against Apple, especially considering MSN Music has launched in beta (or test) mode."

Bernoff said: "It has weaknesses that Apple has pointed out but many of them are going to get fixed. Just because Microsoft's first offering doesn't solve all problems doesn't mean that they won't be around for a long time or soak up customers."