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Starbucks visitors to sip iTunes downloads?

The head of the American coffee monolith hinted this week that socialites at his chain's many cafes may soon be topping up their digital music players as well as their drinking cups.

At a talk held jointly by Bloomberg and the Levin Institute, Starbucks' chair Howard Schultz reckoned that the beverage giant would soon begin testing and ultimately deploying a system that would let its customers add music to their jukeboxes. The change would likely occur "over the next six to eighteen months," Schultz said, but was most likely to happen within a year.

"Within 12 months, probably, you're going to be able to walk into a Starbucks and digitally be able to fill up your MP3 player with music," he said at the conference.

He declined to elaborate on potential partners or how the system would work, leaving ample room for speculation.

Apple may be a prime candidate for the service thanks to its existing involvement with Starbucks. Eyebrows were raised only last year when the coffee house scrapped an experimental CD service it had been testing in its shops, promptly replacing it with a special Hear Music section at the iTunes Store. No other music player or online store provider has otherwise been involved with Starbucks, leaving Apple its strongest partner.

Even with this apparent certainty, questions remain about the delivery method. Of the music players in most US stores, only one —Microsoft's Zune —currently supports the Wi-Fi connection that would likely be needed to transfer songs directly to the player. And in its existing form, the Zune can only temporarily share songs with its own kind rather than buy or download songs from a central location.

Other alternatives may be just as doubtful. SanDisk's new Sansa Connect player would initially appear to be an ideal match with the ability to buy songs through Wi-Fi. However, the option is limited to specific stores and would almost certainly exclude both iTunes or its Starbucks equal.

AppleInsider is watching the story closely and will report on new developments in hardware and online stores that reveal Starbucks' eventual plans.