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Online music competition heats up

The battle for digital music supremacy began in earnest last week. Napster is back and Dell premiered a new service that will compete with Apple's popular iTunes Music Store, BuyMusic, Sony, America Online, RealNetworks and others.

Attention last week focused on Napster and its familiar kitty logo and whether it can live up to its legacy, or the expectations of its original 60-million users who swapped songs for free.

The services are similar, offering single songs for download at 99 cents each and albums starting around $9.99. Some offer additional services that require a subscription. Selection is similar, too, though each service is trying to offer at least something the others don't.

Dell, which is teaming with MusicMatch for its service, also came out with a portable music player, called the Dell DJ, to compete with Apple's market leading iPod. Dell has a 15-gigabyte model, which can hold more than 3,700 songs, that costs $249, or $50 less than Apple's 10GB iPod. A 20GB model, which can hold about 5,000 songs, costs $329 compared with $399 for Apple's 20GB iPod.

It impressed Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, who tested the DJ and a new Samsung player for Napster: "I still give the edge to Apple, but the margin is very slim and the other players, especially the Dell, are credible alternatives. . . . I am very impressed with the Dell DJ, which is less expensive than the iPod, yet has roughly double the battery life and a very clean user interface that borrows a lot from the iPod itself."

Virtual community There officially opens

After five years in development and nearly a year of public testing, a three-dimensional online community called There is officially here.

The service is similar to Myst. But unlike the popular adventure game, users can interact, participate in activities and chat with other subscribers who happen to be online at the same time.

And, like the real world, there are big-company sponsorships so participants can buy Nike shoes or Levi's clothes for their virtual representations, called avatars, using virtual money, called ThereBucks.

Some 27,000 people have been testing the system since January.

"In There, we have proven that it is possible to build a fun and social online product where members can choose how they look, who they hang out with and what they want to do while they build powerful relationships with other members," There founder Will Harvey said.

During its test period, There attracted an increasing number of women, unlike other, male-centric online games. Initially, women represented just 10 percent of users but grew to 40 percent within six months.

There, of Menlo Park, Calif., offers a 14-day free trial. Monthly memberships cost $19.95 to set up and $4.95 a month. A full-year subscription costs $49.95.

Users need at least an 800-megahertz Pentium III computer running Windows 98SE or later with 256 megabytes or more of memory and a recent graphics card. A Mac version is expected in 2004. Broadband Internet access is highly recommended.

Court upholds FCC rule on digital TVs

All but the smallest new televisions will have to be able to receive digital TV signals by July 2007 under a government rule upheld last week by a federal appeals court.

The makers of TVs, VCRs and DVD players tried to block the Federal Communications Commission rule, saying it would make sets more expensive and was unnecessary because cable and satellite viewers don't need the tuners.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the FCC, which said the requirement was needed because the industry was not moving quickly enough to make tuners available.

The tuners will be needed to receive over-the-air broadcasts after the nation switches from analog to digital signals. Congress has set a goal of December 2006 for the change.

Google may soon include book texts

Google reportedly plans to follow in making the text of tens of thousands of books searchable on the Internet. Publishers have been approached by Google in recent months, according to a report in Publisher's Weekly.

"We're talking to a few publishers and always looking to add more content that will make the search more useful for customers," a spokeswoman for Google said. One publisher reported he'd been told the search company has agreements to put as many as 60,000 titles into a database.

_ Compiled from Times wires