Never shy about entering a market late, Microsoft Corp. is planning to open the virtual doors of its long-planned Internet music store next week.

The MSN Music store is slated to open in trial form Thursday, according to Grace Welch, a spokeswoman for the company. Welch declined to disclose details.

But it appears likely that Microsoft will follow the example set by Apple Computer when it comes to licensing rights, allowing purchasers to play songs purchased on up to five computers and burn the same playlist to audio CDs up to seven times. Apple Computer's iTunes music store is still the most popular on the Internet, though it has many imitators.

Look for the Redmond, Wash., software giant to offer songs at 99 cents a piece, the same as most other Internet stores. It also hopes to offer a simpler system than rivals do for managing purchased music, especially when it comes to moving tracks between computers.

But don't expect Microsoft to do what RealNetworks recently did and provide software that allows its tunes to be played in Apple's proprietary iPod music player. The MSN Music store will offer music encoded in Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format at fairly high variable bit rate (the usual measure of quality in music files). It also will offer a special feature allowing people to buy music directly from their Web browser -- so long as it is a recent Windows version of Microsoft's own Internet Explorer.

Yahoo Stages a Web Site Sale

Yahoo has slashed prices on its Internet domain-name service and upgraded its site-hosting offerings to reel in more small-business customers. Yahoo cut its price to register a domain name (an Internet address such as from $35 a year to $9.95; the price now includes a one-page Web business card that customers can use until they put up a regular site. Yahoo also increased the Web-page and e-mail storage provided with its starter site-hosting package, which costs $11.95 a month.

With its $9.95 domain service, Yahoo added a free "masked forwarding" option that sends visitors who type in a Yahoo-registered domain name to another site without revealing that new site's address. But domain owners who try that option may discover that an ad for Yahoo appears at the bottom of their site. To remove it, Yahoo executives said customers can either upgrade to a different service or opt for a "standard" rather than "masked" redirect service, which reveals the site's true address to visitors.

Virtual Silliness

Attention, guys: a Hong Kong firm wants to beam a material girl to your cell phone -- and charge for the privilege of buying her electronic flowers. Don't want to spend real dough on faux gifts for the pretend lady? Then your animated cell-phone girlfriend just may freeze you out of her cyber fun and refuse to introduce you to her animated pals.

That is the premise of a new wireless game that a company called Artificial Life Inc. is bringing to some Web-enabled mobile phones in November. Cash, not skill, brings out the virtual charms of the cell phone girlfriends. Artificial Life says virtual boyfriends will debut next year.

AOL's Next Netscape

America Online recently released a new version of its Netscape Web browser -- version 7.2 -- which the company says displays Web pages faster than its predecessors and offers such features as pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing.

The browser is now developed largely by volunteers and available separately as Mozilla; Netscape 7.2 was AOL's first update since last summer, while new Mozilla releases come every few months.

E-mail Leslie Walker at