Swinging by the Novetel Wireless (s NVTL) booth this afternoon, I got a great hands-on with the MiFi. The device is far smaller and more lightweight than you’d think; to give you an idea, I took some pics that compare it to my first-gen iPhone. Think of it comparable in size to five credit cards stacked upon each other. It’s so small, I think they goofed on the name: Instead of MiFi, I’d go with the MiNiFi. The device includes both a 3G and a WiFi radio. You simply turn it on, it connects to a 3G network and then broadcasts that signal over WiFi for up to five devices. Aside from the initial configuration, the most difficult interaction you’ll have with the MiFi is pressing the power button. There’s nothing else to do but use it.
The 1150mAh battery lasts for around four hours and you can swap it out for a spare. There’s also a mini-USB port that can be used to recharge the battery if you want to connect it to a computer. That same port is used for configuration: Connect the device and hit a web portal to set up your WiFi network.
But the MiFi isn’t a “dumb,” single-purpose device; it has some smarts, too. Novatel says that the device can actually run applications on the embedded Linux platform inside. That brings a vast number of possible ways to extend the MiFi beyond a simple 3G hotspot. One example: A security application could be installed so that all computers sharing the signal would be protected. Here’s another: With the right software, the device can pull your email and store it, perfect for when you’re about to hop a plane. When you get to your destination, fire up your computer and connect to the device’s hotspot, the cached mail is instantly on the computer. No need to plug in a card, dial for a connection, wait for mail, etc. Carriers and developers alike could create apps and services that seamlessly run inside the connected device.
The MiFi still doesn’t have a firm release date or price, but we should see it this quarter with a goal price of around $200. Bear in mind that the device could be subsidized, since it’s going to need a 3G plan from a carrier. Those 5GB caps might be an issue with the MiFi, since more devices can use the data plan at the same time. My hope would be for a special plan price that lifts the 5GB cap when using this device, but that’s probably wishful thinking on my part.