Bridging the connected age, the MiFi tops 3M sales

Introduced in 2009, Novatel Wireless’s MiFi product line officially crossed the 3 million sold mark on Monday.

But how much more can its sales grow now that Internet sharing functionality has become a common staple in smartphones and even other connected devices? The MiFi may become a relic, albeit an important one that helped bridge a time when cellular connections weren’t as ubiqutious and connectivity wasn’t taken for granted.

Regardless, the milestone of 3 million sales is a¬†sizable¬†accomplishment from the mobile broadband equipment maker. And I’m not surprised, because I remember being impressed by my first look at the thin, credit-card sized device at the early 2009 CTIA trade show. It only took a few minutes to convince me that Novatel Wireless (s nvtl) was on to something with the MiFi’s simplicity and utility: Press a button and the MiFi instantly creates a personal Wi-Fi hotspot that shares a 3G or 4G data connection.

My MiFi

I bought my own MiFi last year and have used it during travel and as a backup connection at home for when either the power or home broadband connection goes out. With the ability to connect to five Wi-Fi devices — some models can support eight devices — the MiFi has made many long car rides far less boring. Our kids connect iPads(s aapl), small tablets and laptops to the mobile web for hours at a time while on the road.

Will consumers continue to follow suit and keep buying the MiFi devices, however? Although we used our MiFi quite a bit when we first bought it, our usage has dwindled considerably; some months we don’t use it at all and I’m now considering the idea of canceling our $35 month-to-month deal. Our desire to be connected while mobile hasn’t diminished — if anything, it has increased — so what changed?

Software for the win

In May of last year, my Android handset gained the same functionality as the MiFi, and my Samsung Galaxy Tab has it too. Using software in these devices, I can share a 3G connection with several Wi-Fi devices, eliminating the need to carry a MiFi at all. Because my plan allows for it, there’s no charge for this ability, although the plan is old and newer plans typically add $20 or more per month to enable this feature.

I’ve kept the MiFi since then for two reasons, and I suspect they’re the same reasons that some people will opt for a dedicated mobile hotspot instead of using their phone. For one, the hotspot feature can quickly drain a smartphone’s battery. I carry a spare battery at all times for my Android(s goog) phone, but I’m likely in the minority. Using up a phone battery for MiFi-like features ends up leaving you with no Mi-Fi and no smartphone, i.e.: a useless brick. My other reason is because the MiFi is on a different network than my smartphone, which gives me some redundancy if one of the two is down.

So while there’s good reason for some to buy and use a MiFi, however, I recall some other reasons that sounded good at the time, but really haven’t come to pass. A number of times since the product’s introduction, Novatel Wireless has touted the ability of the MiFi to run unique software solutions. One example is having the device pull all of your email just before getting on a plane and then reading that mail offline after a data transfer from MiFi to laptop, for example. Ideas such as that sound good and could help add more value to the MiFi, but for now, the device is primarily known for a simple way to get online with tablets and laptops as needed.