MiFi: The Best Product of 2009

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I've been racking my brain over the past couple of weeks trying to think of the biggest technology game-changer of 2009. I'd been looking for a product that not only changes technology this year, but one that will make a big change in the future.

This year wasn't so easy. In 2007, the biggest game-changer was the iPhone. In 2008, Apple's App Store was probably the biggest winner. This year, however, I believe the most important product isn't from Apple.

This year's game-changing product is from Novatel and it is called a MiFi. A MiFi is a super small card that may fit in your wallet since it's about the size of a third of a pack of playing cards.

A MiFi's functionality is simple: it takes a 3G (Or 4G from Sprint where available) signal and it routes that Internet connection to devices that share its connection over Wi-Fi. Currently, the limit for number of connected devices is artificially set at five. It also works as a regular USB modem for a single machine.

Why is this thing so important? Certainly, a 3G Internet connection is nothing new.

I think the MiFi is something revolutionary because it attaches the Internet connection to a person, not a device. Therefore, it is billed only once to the person, not per device that connects to it. It is small enough to be connected to my wallet so it comes with me everywhere.

I can add devices as necessary. If I am with someone who needs a connection, I can allow them to hook up to my wireless connection.

Obviously, my laptop is connected to my MiFi. I have a Verizon MiFi which often gets better reception than my iPhone which is on AT&T. Therefore, I connect my iPhone to my MiFi as well when I can't connect to AT&T. I also have a dedicated Skype phone which I often bring with me that just stays connected while the MiFi is on.

When my wife is with me, she connects her laptop to my MiFi as well. I am currently visiting my parents' house in Florida, which doesn't have an Internet connection ... yep MiFi is serving the whole family.

Also, as impolite as it sounds, if I need to whip out my laptop at any point during vacation, I have a signal.

If MiFi become ubiquitous, 3G radios won't be necessary in things like Smartphones and eReaders (or cars - like OnStar), making the devices less expensive and easier to move from network to network.

Another differentiator with MiFi is that you can move from network to network easily. If you move to a place where Verizon's network is weak but Sprint is strong, you can just switch to Sprint. All of your devices won't need any change. This will keep the carriers from price gouging.

MiFi also makes traveling overseas easier. One MiFi can account for all of your wireless needs, rather than getting a new SIM card for your phone and another one for your laptop.

The devices aren't perfect yet, however. My major complaints:

  • Proprietary USB plug. Why!? I will never understand why companies insist on building their own USB plugs when standards exist. You'll have to carry an extra adapter for this device.

  • Plug-in mode - when I plug my MiFi into a wall outlet, it inexplicably turns off. I am hopeful that this changes in the future firmware update, otherwise you can only go for around four hours at a time.

  • Bigger battery option. I hate to say this but since the MiFi can't be used while plugged in, I need more battery life per day. Verizon sells a large battery as an aftermarket item, but this option should be a built-in from manufacturer option.

  • Better status indicators. Right now a Verizon MiFi has two LED lights. They change colors depending on what mode the device is in and what the battery state is. This isn't really easy to figure out. My suggestion: by default, no lights to save power and to prevent annoying flashing. If a button is pushed, then battery power and signal strength lights indicate status. Simple.

These are all easily addressable shortcomings and can be forgiven on a generation-1 product. Overall, this device, and others in its class like the Cradlepoint solutions that are older and larger but have more options, are here to stay. Already, we are seeing new Mifis with built-in MicroSD card that allows connected users to share up to 16GB of files. More innovation will continue.

In fact, with Google's Chrome OS, tablets, and other Internet connected devices set to explode in 2010, I think MiFis will become even more important in the coming year.

MiFi - Free With Plan at Amazon.

Cradlepoint - $160 without plan or USB Modem

This story, "MiFi: The Best Product of 2009" was originally published by Computerworld.

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