This week I have been lucky enough to be one of the first people in the UK to have a play with a product that 3 are bringing out today (Friday 18th September): the MiFi. What on earth is a "MiFi" you might ask? It is a small device that combines a mobile broadband modem, a WiFi router and a battery. You can easily carry it around with you, and connecting to it is no more complicated than connecting to any other WiFi hotspot. Up to five devices can be connected to it, you won't need any extra drivers or configuration packages and yes it works on Ubuntu. You can also connect devices to it that can't use a mobile broadband dongle, like iPod Touches and Internet radio devices and locked down corporate laptops that you can't install software on to. I was invited to an event in London on Monday by the folk at 3MobileBuzz and got to find out about the device, as well as be loaned one to try it out.
The event was really interesting, we were given a presentation by David Kerrigan who is 3's Head of Internet Products and Services. He explained the thinking behind the device, and 3's mobile broadband ambitions with a chance to ask questions afterwards, an opportunity I used to ask about the experience of using the device for Linux users. The most common use of mobile broadband according to their research is a "constant checking culture", people checking for updates to Twitter, Facebook, new email messages and so on. A major use case for the device centres on the iPod Touch, which of course has WiFi connectivity but not any mobile broadband connectivity (unlike the iPhone, but to get one of those could involve an expensive contract), so this device can enable iPod Touch owners to connect their device to the Internet to browse the web and download new apps while out and about, and also at home without the need for an land line connection. He also said their target market is 16-24 year olds, which a bit of amusement in the room as there was nobody of that age group there! However, he did add that they sometimes get their target market wrong, but to be fair to him it is probably difficult to tell with a new product. They have some launch tariffs for the device too, but these might change as the market for the device develops. Currently these are £99 for a pay as you go option including 3GB of data of £69.99 for a one month rolling contract version. They do believe it will be a major product for them though.
I asked about the experience of using the device for Linux users, this is particularly an issue for mobile broadband products due the number of Linux netbooks that are now in circulation. Mobile broadband became popular at about the same time as netbooks, but a Linux user's mileage with these products will vary, it has come down to which distribution you run and which model of modem you have. From version 8.10 onwards Ubuntu has featured an updated Network Manager that supports many mobile broadband modems out of the box, but new models come out all the time so we have a situation where some work straightaway like the Huawei E169G, some work with some extra packages, like the ZTE MF627 and sadly there are some models that no one has yet figured how to get working yet. This is all a bit confusing for the consumer, and has generated a lot of activity on Linux-orientated blog and forums (as regular readers of this blog will know). Added to this is the problem that sometimes to get the modem working you initially need to be able to retrieve SMS messages from it, which is difficult under Linux and tends to require the Windows software supplied with the device.
I was assured that with this device you do not need to retrieve an SMS, you can run the account for the device entirely from their website, apparently the SMS usage in the past has been due to legacy systems and is being phased out. So for a Linux user this device should "just work", regardless of the distribution you are using, as long as you can connect over WiFi. So this is potentially really good news. If you get stuck they are training up a specialist support team for the product, but they will be second line support so you will have to talk to the people with the scripts first. The device can apparently be used as a dongle too, and has software on it for Windows and Mac (but not Linux sadly), through the USB connection, which is also used to charge it (a mains adapter is also supplied).
After the presentation we got a chance to use the device, I had brought along my trusty EEE PC and found that connecting it was very easy, I just selected the WiFi entry for the device and entered the WPA Personal key that was supplied on a bit of card with the device, then I was online, so that was a very good first impression! I tried out a few web pages which worked fine, so then tried some tougher tests by playing a YouTube movie and also trying out playing video podcats through Boxee. Both worked, so that was great too. The device supports the 801.11b and g WiFi standards which should be enough for most use cases. At the end of the event we were lent MiFi units to take away and try out for a few days to give us a chance to put them through their paces, this I did, trying it from various locations, but then thought it might fun to do a more extreme test.
I use streaming music services like last.fm and Spotify quite a lot now so I thought it might be interesting to try out something like this in my car, so I brought along the MiFi unit, got it connected to the Internet, then wired my EEE PC into the car stereo using one of those leads that goes from the headphone socket. I launched last.fm on the EEE, and in respect of the MiFi being aimed at 16-24 year olds entered "drum n bass" for the tag! Now it was time to test, and I went for a drive around Milton Keynes to see if the MiFi and 3 could provide me with music on the move. An important aspect of the test was that the MiFi should be able to reconnect automatically, in the UK it is illegal to be using non-handsfree mobile equipment while you are driving. I was quite surprised by the result, there were a few silent miles as you would expect, but the device did reconnect automatically and last.fm was able to keep streaming without needing to be restarted. So maybe we're not at the stage where music can be streamed from the Internet to a car, but the MiFi brings this a step closer. We were told at the presentation that 3's network should be much bigger next year so this test should work even better by then.
The MiFi generally works pretty well, the plus points are the fact that you can connect up to five devices to it, without the need to install drivers or resort to forums because you've been unlucky enough to buy a slightly obscure model of modem. It is also pretty small, slightly smaller, than a mobile phone, quite thin too so you could easily carry it in a pocket. The five hour battery life is pretty good and should match the battery life of many netbooks. It is also easy to connect to, and I like the fact that the connection is secured by default. A £25 limit is usually applied to accounts so you can't run up a huge bill too if you exceed your data allowance. It is fairly easy to get up and running, there are three buttons, one for power, a WiFi on/off button and a button to tell it to connect to the 3 network.
The status of the device is represented though five indicator lights on the front of the unit, these have icons, and a guide with the device tells youwhat all of these mean. To be honest I found this a little confusing, particularly as all of the light switch off after a couple of seconds to save power. It isn't always clear what is happening, particularly if you are in an area with a marginal signal. You also cannot tell the signal strength from it. It would be great if in later models these lights could be replaced with an LCD display like you get in mobile phones that could show more clearly the device's status.
Overall I think this is a device with a bright future and could be very useful not just as a device for when you are out and about, but also an alternative to fixed line broadband. I've got the device for a couple more days so I might be able to do some more testing with it. Thanks to 3MobileBuzz for organising a very enjoyable event and the loan of the MiFi, it's been fun!