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Microsoft on Thursday unveiled new details about Zune, its answer to Apple Computer’s popular iPod music player.

The world’s biggest software company confirmed what many analysts had expected, that Zune would allow users to download and share music wirelessly.

It said the device would be available for the holiday shopping season in the US, although it declined to provide a launch date.

The latest details about Zune came days after Apple unveiled a movie download service.

The service, along with a wireless device called iTV which allows users to play on their television sets films downloaded on to their computers, marked a long-awaited move by the computer maker for control of the digital living room.

Microsoft has been scrambling to catch up with Apple, whose iPod music player and iTunes music store account for the lion’s share of the lucrative portable music player market.

David Smith, an analyst at Gartner, said Zune would include features allowing users to share music with each other. He said that could put Microsoft ahead of Apple in the race to incorporate “social networking” into its music and video service.

“The idea of building a community where you can share music and the like is certainly ahead of the market,” he said, noting that Microsoft still lagged behind Apple in providing video content.

Microsoft said Zune would let users share songs, pictures and other files with friends. Users would be able to listen to any shared song up to three times over three days, after which time they would have to buy the song from Zune Marketplace, an online music store that will be bundled with the Zune player. The music store will offer customers the choice of paying for individual songs or signing up for a monthly subscription service.

Although Microsoft failed to offer details about pricing, it said the Zune device would be priced competitively with rival products.

Speculation about the future of Apple’s digital media strategy continued to swirl on Thursday after analysts at Piper Jaffray pointed to new evidence Apple might be preparing to launch within the next few months a mobile phone capable of playing music and videos.

Researchers at MacShrine, an Apple fan site, uncovered details about an unreleased mobile device buried deep within the documentation files of the latest version of Apple’s iTunes music software. Microsoft shares closed up 1.35 per cent in New York on Thursday.

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