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Amazon on Thursday announced the launch of a digital video download service that will set the online retailer against other major players including Apple’s iTunes service.

Amazon said its new Unbox service would offer customers thousands of television shows, movies and other video content from more than 30 studio and network partners from Hollywood and around the world.

The launch seemed designed to pre-empt an expected announcement by apple next week of its own movie download service.

Amazon said its service would be the only one to offer DVD-quality pictures. The technology would also allow customers to buy from one PC, such as an office computer, and download the content to another at home.

Bill Carr, Amazon vice president of digital media, said customers could now choose between DVDs delivered to their door or DVD-quality downloaded content.

“Amazon has built the ultimate solution for anyone who has ever had a friend or coworker tell them that they missed a great TV show last night,” he said.

Video over the internet has become a major growth market as broadband penetration has increased, fuelling the success of YouTube and other video-sharing sites.

Early movie download sites such as MovieLink and CinemaNow enjoyed limited success but studios have become more cooperative in releasing the latest films and television networks have also begun to view the internet as another channel in which to monetise their shows.

Amazon’s move will be seen as a threat to online DVD rental companies such as Netflix and to the smaller video sites.

One such site, Guba, said on Thursday it had already established a strong following and expected its movie and TV portfolio to expand to the 1,000s by 2007.

But Amazon’s announcement came with endorsements from six major Hollywood studios, including 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., as well as TV networks such as CBS and Fox, and cable channels such as Comedy Central and E! Entertainment.

It said new releases such as V for Vendetta, Inside Man, RV and Walk the Line would be available and all 79 episodes of the original Star Trak TV series would make their digital download debut.

Television series episodes will sell for $1.99 per episode, while most movies can be purchased for between $7.99 and $14.99, or rented for $3.99. amazon said the first TV download would be free of charge.

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