Every week we have a feature called Read/WriteWeb Files, in which we investigate a current hot topic or company in Web technology. This week we're going to focus on Online Music, something that is becoming more and more prevelant as broadband speed increases and social software functionality gets better. Our network blog on digital lifestyle, last100.com, will also be focusing on Online Music this week and AltSearchEngines will list their Top 10 music search engines. So I'm quite excited by what we'll discover over the following 5 days about online music!

When you think of music on the Web, there are roughly three main eras:

1) In the time of the Dot Com companies, it was P2P systems such as Napster and Kazaa that defined online music. Ultimately though P2P systems were defeated by the record companies and their heavy-handed legal tactics.

2) Enter the iPod and iTunes, which define the current era of online music. Apple's combo of a killer devide (iPod) with an online music storage system that syncs with the device (iTunes), has come to dominate the market. You can hardly walk down a city street these days without seeing those familiar white earplugs in someone's ears. Competitors such as Microsoft (Zune) and Real Networks (Rhapsody) are in the game too, but they're a long way behind Apple and likely to remain so.

3) Perhaps the next defining period in music will be streaming music over the Internet. Already this era is underway, with startups like last.fm (recently acquired by CBS) and Pandora making their mark. Most of the big Internet and media companies have horses in this race - Yahoo Music, MSN Music and AOL Music, to name a few.

Beyond iTunes

This new generation of online music has a big focus on recommendations, personalization and social networking. There are a multitude of startups looking to become The Next Big Thing, from Fairtilizer (our review) to SeeqPod (our review) to MyStrands (who recently took $25 M in funding to enhance their personalization system). Even Apple, traditionally not big on social software, has recognized that it can't sit back on its laurels in online music - they recently announced My iTunes widgets, to enable you to share your music, movies and other media with friends.

My iTunes

So this week the Read/WriteWeb Network (R/WW, last100 and AltSearchEngines) will be exploring online music. If you have any suggestions of things to look at, please leave a comment. Also check out this week's R/WW poll: What is your favorite online music streaming service?