The launch went smoothly, and sales figures for the first day were strong. Just as well, as it was seen as a major benchmark for the whole mobile industry. While this is just the start of a long struggle for DoCoMo to make money from 3G - and an even longer struggle for other 3G operators globally - it seems to have had a better start than many feared.
Japan's leading mobile operator, NTT DoCoMo, on Monday launched the world's first commercial 3G mobile service under the brand name FOMA (Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access). Out of the 20,000 units that DoCoMo shipped to shops, more than 4000 were sold on the first day. Operators, shareholders and banks worldwide watched the launch like hawks, trying to assess its implications for the industry.
FOMA allows mobile users to receive data at over 64kbit/s, compared with 9.6kbit/s for a current-generation mobile, allowing fast Internet access and real-time videophone calls. While FOMA is currently limited to the center of Tokyo, it will cover Japan's four largest cities by the end of the year and the whole country by spring 2002.
Monday's launch was certainly low-key (for a start, a trial version with 4000 subscribers has run since June), but nonetheless it was encouraging news for all watching. On the technical side, as late as mid-September many feared the launch would be delayed again. This would have been a serious blow to DoCoMo's credibility, as well as putting other operators' timetables in question.
The strong sales figures are also encouraging. Japanese consumer confidence is low, hitting sales of consumer gadgets, and DoCoMo's decision to delay the provision of audio and video clips until spring was also expected to hit the service's commercial prospects. It's far too early to say whether the commercial success will continue - but it is likely that poor sales on Monday would have hit DoCoMo and other 3G operators hard.
It's still a daunting time to be a mobile operator. The uncertainty over whether the huge investment in 3G will pay off remains, and will remain for some time. DoCoMo may not hit its customer targets; wider roll-out of services may run into technical problems; and even if 3G takes off in Japan, that's no guarantee it will be a success in Europe. Even so, the knowledge that the launch went smoothly comes as a relief to a beleaguered industry.