When Intuit bought Mint.com and its 1.5 million users in September 2009 for $170 million, it was widely assumed that the company would eventually transition the current users of its Web-based Quicken Online personal finance application to the award-winning Mint. Intuit kept Mint founder and new media darling Aaron Patzer and its development team on board, and it promised Quicken Online users that “good things are coming your way.” Aaron even sent note on April 29, 2010 telling me and my fellow Quicken Online users:

Dear Valued Customer,

Since Intuit acquired Mint.com, our personal finance teams have been hard at work (behind the scenes) combining Quicken® Online and Mint.com into the single best way to manage your money online—Mint.com from the makers of Quicken.

You will still enjoy the features you know and love in Quicken Online plus so much more. It will make personal recommendations based on your spending to help find ways to reduce your bills and cut your interest rates—on average, saving people hundreds of dollars. And, best of all, it will remain FREE!

We'll let you know when we get closer to a release date. In the meantime, you can continue to use Quicken Online just like you have. Once we have completed integrating all features to Mint, you will be able to easily transfer your information and data to ensure the smoothest transition possible.

Thank you for your continued loyalty.

Wow. Mint. All those awards. All that glowing praise from the personal finance and Web press. And I'll be able to easily transfer all of my information. Maybe they'll even do it for me, I thought. Bring it on!

Then two weeks ago Intuit reversed that decision. On July 16, 2010, good old Aaron sent me and all other Quicken Online users another note, this time with bad news:

Dear Valued Customer,

For the past several months, we've been working hard to combine the best features of Quicken Online and Mint.com into a single online personal finance solution—Mint.com. With the improved Mint.com, you can enjoy the features you love in Quicken Online, plus new benefits such as connecting to over 16,000 financial institutions, including Canadian banks—as well as tracking your investment and retirement accounts. There is also a new Goals feature that takes the tool you enjoyed in Quicken Online to the next level.

As a result of these changes, Quicken Online will no longer be available as of August 29, 2010. Creating a new Mint.com account is easy, but for reasons of security and accuracy, we cannot create one for you. Once you're signed in, you can add your accounts and see your financial picture in just a few minutes.

While it only takes minutes to sign up, I do urge you to make the switch at your earliest convenience. After August 29, 2010, you will no longer be able to access Quicken Online or your data stored in it.

If maintaining a record of your Quicken Online data is important to you, you can export it to a CSV file. If you have any questions, we're here to help. Click here to view a list of common questions.

We look forward to continuing to serve you with Mint.com—the best online personal money-management solution available. Sign up today.

Disappointing but understandable. No doubt that migration is tough, and transitioning all the user bank, credit card and bill information set up in Quicken would be a monumental task. It would have been nice if Aaron would have been straight with Quicken Online users about those difficulties instead of telling us about all the great new features but hey, I can take a hint. And killing off my Quicken Online account certainly makes sense from Intuit’s point of view—they did pay $170 million for Mint, after all. Might as well start recouping some of those costs and shuttering Quicken Online is a big step in that direction.

So migrating my own stuff on my own might be a hassle but it will be worth it, I thought. Aaron has personally assured me that his team has been working hard to combine the best of both sites. Mint debuted at TechCrunch, got raves on this very Web site, and won a slew of awards. 1.5 million users can’t be wrong, can they?

Sure they can.

Awards are fairly easy to come by on the Web and 1.5 million users isn’t exactly a bellwether of a great site—just look at MySpace (actually, spare yourself the trouble). But Quicken bought Mint for $170 million—the more I say it, the more my head hurts—so, hey, it’s gotta be good, right?

I’m here to tell you that for many users, especially those from the Quicken Online diaspora, Mint,—and I’m searching for a really nice way to say this—Mint sucks.

Here’s why. In addition to several usability quirks—like signing you out of the application while you pour yourself a cup of coffee or the practically unusable drop-down calendars that require a surgeon’s steady hand to select dates—Mint does not let you schedule transactions in future. While Quicken Online was far from perfect, it let me schedule transactions in future, so I could budget at a very granular level of detail. Not so with Mint.

In keeping with it's Web 2.0 Weltanschauung Mint does have some very active message boards. So I went there to get some satisfaction. Judging by the posts I read, anger and frustration among Quicken Online users is rising. Open rebellion is being proposed and most shocking of all is that for months users have been complaining of the lack of the most basic budgeting functionality and have been summarily ignored:

abloxom replied 4 months ago
This is the number one reason I use Quicken 2007. Scheduled transactions allow me to see in advance how much money i'll have if I make all of my CC, Phone, and Utility Bills on time and in full. I'm able to easily evaluate how much I can spend without going over my limit. Come to think of it, it's the ONLY reason I use Quicken at all.

Amen abloxom. And the affable Jami from Mint responded:

Jami, Official Rep, replied 4 months ago
Hi wlteague4289,

As this feature is not currently available, I've changed made your question an idea so it can be considered by the product team.

Thank you,

Mint Community Manager

So while Mint’s product team has been twiddling around merely considering adding the most basic functionality for the last few months, they’ve made absolutely sure that they have some kind of business model in place to make money off the Quicken Online users they are asking to migrate. Mint has put a ton of resources into partnering with financial institutions and credit card companies to offer you alternatives to your higher interest rate credit cards, for instance. Great. But if Quicken loses thousands of customers in the next few weeks because its product cannot meet user needs in terms of the most basic functionality, all this Webby-award winning new economy goodness will be for nought. That means zero, Intuit. As in ZERO Quicken Online conversions.

Thankfully, members of the Quicken Online diaspora are more than willing to help each other. Help each other escape Mint, that is:

amysun123 replied 9 days ago
I'm thinking of migrating to a new product (GreenSherpa) that has everything I need. I am even willing to pay a small monthly amount to have useful functionality. QUESTION to fellow forum users: What do you all think of GreenSherpa: http://www.greensherpa.com/ ? It seems to have everything we need and it's only $5.95/month. Does anyone have any experience with that product? Should we all do a mass migration and leave Mint in the dust?

Wizznilliam commented 9 days ago
Why pay $5.95 a month when Yodlee has everything Quicken Online had and more for free. The only shortcoming I have seen so far is that it does not automatically give the pretty cleaned op transaction descriptions that Mint is good at doing and QOL was only partially good at. Everything else is there and it is HIGHLY customizable. And Free Bill Pay so you can do EVERYTHING all in one place. I'm digging it so far. There are a few quirks. But they all have them.

I’ll be checking out Yodlee, Greensherpa and whatever else I can find and reporting back in the next few weeks. If Intuit is going to force us to go to something other than Quicken Online, then we should investigate the alternatives to the sad excuse for personal finance site that they are offering. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

The key feature of RIS that makes it attractive in comparison with these alternatives is its nearly passive nature. The absence of amplifiers to boost the signal means that an RIS node can be powered with just a battery and a small solar panel.

RIS functions like a very sophisticated mirror, whose orientation and curvature can be adjusted in order to focus and redirect a signal in a specific direction. But rather than physically moving or reshaping the mirror, you electronically alter its surface so that it changes key properties of the incoming electromagnetic wave, such as the phase.

That’s what the metamaterials do. This emerging class of materials exhibits properties beyond (from the Greek meta) those of natural materials, such as anomalous reflection or refraction. The materials are fabricated using ordinary metals and electrical insulators, or dielectrics. As an electromagnetic wave impinges on a metamaterial, a predetermined gradient in the material alters the phase and other characteristics of the wave, making it possible to bend the wave front and redirect the beam as desired.

An RIS node is made up of hundreds or thousands of metamaterial elements called unit cells. Each cell consists of metallic and dielectric layers along with one or more switches or other tunable components. A typical structure includes an upper metallic patch with switches, a biasing layer, and a metallic ground layer separated by dielectric substrates. By controlling the biasing—the voltage between the metallic patch and the ground layer—you can switch each unit cell on or off and thus control how each cell alters the phase and other characteristics of an incident wave.

To control the direction of the larger wave reflecting off the entire RIS, you synchronize all the unit cells to create patterns of constructive and destructive interference in the larger reflected waves [ see illustration below]. This interference pattern reforms the incident beam and sends it in a particular direction determined by the pattern. This basic operating principle, by the way, is the same as that of a phased-array radar.

Beamforming by constructive and destructive interference

Erik Vrielink

A reconfigurable intelligent surface comprises an array of unit cells. In each unit cell, a metamaterial alters the phase of an incoming radio wave, so that the resulting waves interfere with one another [above, top]. Precisely controlling the patterns of this constructive and destructive interference allows the reflected wave to be redirected [bottom], improving signal coverage.

An RIS has other useful features. Even without an amplifier, an RIS manages to provide substantial gain—about 30 to 40 decibels relative to isotropic (dBi)—depending on the size of the surface and the frequency. That’s because the gain of an antenna is proportional to the antenna’s aperture area. An RIS has the equivalent of many antenna elements covering a large aperture area, so it has higher gain than a conventional antenna does.

All the many unit cells in an RIS are controlled by a logic chip, such as a field-programmable gate array with a microcontroller, which also stores the many coding sequences needed to dynamically tune the RIS. The controller gives the appropriate instructions to the individual unit cells, setting their state. The most common coding scheme is simple binary coding, in which the controller toggles the switches of each unit cell on and off. The unit-cell switches are usually semiconductor devices, such as PIN diodes or field-effect transistors.

The important factors here are power consumption, speed, and flexibility, with the control circuit usually being one of the most power-hungry parts of an RIS. Reasonably efficient RIS implementations today have a total power consumption of around a few watts to a dozen watts during the switching state of reconfiguration, and much less in the idle state.

Engineers use simulations to decide where to deploy RIS nodes

To deploy RIS nodes in a real-world network, researchers must first answer three questions: How many RIS nodes are needed? Where should they be placed? And how big should the surfaces be? As you might expect, there are complicated calculations and trade-offs.

Engineers can identify the best RIS positions by planning for them when the base station is designed. Or it can be done afterward by identifying, in the coverage map, the areas of poor signal strength. As for the size of the surfaces, that will depend on the frequencies (lower frequencies require larger surfaces) as well as the number of surfaces being deployed.

To optimize the network’s performance, researchers rely on simulations and measurements. At Huawei Sweden, where I work, we’ve had a lot of discussions about the best placement of RIS units in urban environments. We’re using a proprietary platform, called the Coffee Grinder Simulator, to simulate an RIS installation prior to its construction and deployment. We’re partnering with CNRS Research and CentraleSupélec, both in France, among others.

In a recent project, we used simulations to quantify the performance improvement gained when multiple RIS were deployed in a typical urban 5G network. As far as we know, this was the first large-scale, system-level attempt to gauge RIS performance in that setting. We optimized the RIS-augmented wireless coverage through the use of efficient deployment algorithms that we developed. Given the locations of the base stations and the users, the algorithms were designed to help us select the optimal three-dimensional locations and sizes of the RIS nodes from among thousands of possible positions on walls, roofs, corners, and so on. The output of the software is an RIS deployment map that maximizes the number of users able to receive a target signal.

An array of electronic devices sits atop a supporting structure.

An experimental reconfigurable intelligent surface with 2,304 unit cells was tested at Tsinghua University, in Beijing, last year.

Tsinghua University

Of course, the users of special interest are those at the edges of the cell-coverage area, who have the worst signal reception. Our results showed big improvements in coverage and data rates at the cell edges—and also for users with decent signal reception, especially in the millimeter band.

We also investigated how potential RIS hardware trade-offs affect performance. Simply put, every RIS design requires compromises—such as digitizing the responses of each unit cell into binary phases and amplitudes—in order to construct a less complex and cheaper RIS. But it’s important to know whether a design compromise will create additional beams to undesired directions or cause interference to other users. That’s why we studied the impact of network interference due to multiple base stations, reradiated waves by the RIS, and other factors.

Not surprisingly, our simulations confirmed that both larger RIS surfaces and larger numbers of them improved overall performance. But which is preferable? When we factored in the costs of the RIS nodes and the base stations, we found that in general a smaller number of larger RIS nodes, deployed further from a base station and its users to provide coverage to a larger area, was a particularly cost-effective solution.

The size and dimensions of the RIS depend on the operating frequency [see illustration below] . We found that a small number of rectangular RIS nodes, each around 4 meters wide for C-band frequencies (3.5 GHz) and around half a meter wide for millimeter-wave band (28 GHz), was a good compromise, and could boost performance significantly in both bands. This was a pleasant surprise: RIS improved signals not only in the millimeter-wave (5G high) band, where coverage problems can be especially acute, but also in the C band (5G mid).

Marios Poulakis

To extend wireless coverage indoors, researchers in Asia are investigating a really intriguing possibility: covering room windows with transparent RIS nodes. Experiments at NTT Docomo and at Southeast and Nanjing universities, both in China, used smart films or smart glass. The films are fabricated from transparent conductive oxides (such as indium tin oxide), graphene, or silver nanowires and do not noticeably reduce light transmission. When the films are placed on windows, signals coming from outside can be refracted and boosted as they pass into a building, enhancing the coverage inside.

What will it take to make RIS nodes intelligent?

Planning and installing the RIS nodes is only part of the challenge. For an RIS node to work optimally, it needs to have a configuration, moment by moment, that is appropriate for the state of the communication channel in the instant the node is being used. The best configuration requires an accurate and instantaneous estimate of the channel. Technicians can come up with such an estimate by measuring the “channel impulse response” between the base station, the RIS, and the users. This response is measured using pilots, which are reference signals known beforehand by both the transmitter and the receiver. It’s a standard technique in wireless communications. Based on this estimation of the channel, it’s possible to calculate the phase shifts for each unit cell in the RIS.

The current approaches perform these calculations at the base station. However, that requires a huge number of pilots, because every unit cell needs its own phase configuration. There are various ideas for reducing this overhead, but so far none of them are really promising.

The total calculated configuration for all of the unit cells is fed to each RIS node through a wireless control link. So each RIS node needs a wireless receiver to periodically collect the instructions. This of course consumes power, and it also means that the RIS nodes are fully dependent on the base station, with unavoidable—and unaffordable—overhead and the need for continuous control. As a result, the whole system requires a flawless and complex orchestration of base stations and multiple RIS nodes via the wireless-control channels.

We need a better way. Recall that the “I” in RIS stands for intelligent. The word suggests real-time, dynamic control of the surface from within the node itself—the ability to learn, understand, and react to changes. We don’t have that now. Today’s RIS nodes cannot perceive, reason, or respond; they only execute remote orders from the base station. That’s why my colleagues and I at Huawei have started working on a project we call Autonomous RIS (AutoRIS). The goal is to enable the RIS nodes to autonomously control and configure the phase shifts of their unit cells. That will largely eliminate the base-station-based control and the massive signaling that either limit the data-rate gains from using RIS, or require synchronization and additional power consumption at the nodes. The success of AutoRIS might very well help determine whether RIS will ever be deployed commercially on a large scale.

Of course, it’s a rather daunting challenge to integrate into an RIS node the necessary receiving and processing capabilities while keeping the node lightweight and low power. In fact, it will require a huge research effort. For RIS to be commercially competitive, it will have to preserve its low-power nature.

With that in mind, we are now exploring the integration of an ultralow-power AI chip in an RIS, as well as the use of extremely efficient machine-learning models to provide the intelligence. These smart models will be able to produce the output RIS configuration based on the received data about the channel, while at the same time classifying users according to their contracted services and their network operator. Integrating AI into the RIS will also enable other functions, such as dynamically predicting upcoming RIS configurations and grouping users by location or other behavioral characteristics that affect the RIS operation.

Intelligent, autonomous RIS won’t be necessary for all situations. For some areas, a static RIS, with occasional reconfiguration—perhaps a couple of times per day or less—will be entirely adequate. In fact, there will undoubtedly be a range of deployments from static to fully intelligent and autonomous. Success will depend on not just efficiency and high performance but also ease of integration into an existing network.

6G promises to unleash staggering amounts of bandwidth—but only if we can surmount a potentially ruinous range problem.

The real test case for RIS will be 6G. The coming generation of wireless is expected to embrace autonomous networks and smart environments with real-time, flexible, software-defined, and adaptive control. Compared with 5G, 6G is expected to provide much higher data rates, greater coverage, lower latency, more intelligence, and sensing services of much higher accuracy. At the same time, a key driver for 6G is sustainability—we’ll need more energy-efficient solutions to achieve the “net zero” emission targets that many network operators are striving for. RIS fits all of those imperatives.

Start with massive MIMO, which stands for multiple-input multiple-output. This foundational 5G technique uses multiple antennas packed into an array at both the transmitting and receiving ends of wireless channels, to send and receive many signals at once and thus dramatically boost network capacity. However, the desire for higher data rates in 6G will demand even more massive MIMO, which will require many more radio-frequency chains to work and will be power-hungry and costly to operate. An energy-efficient and less costly alternative will be to place multiple low-power RIS nodes between massive MIMO base stations and users as we have described in this article.

The millimeter-wave and subterahertz 6G bands promise to unleash staggering amounts of bandwidth, but only if we can surmount a potentially ruinous range problem without resorting to costly solutions, such as ultradense deployments of base stations or active repeaters. My opinion is that only RIS will be able to make these frequency bands commercially viable at a reasonable cost.

The communications industry is already touting sensing—high-accuracy localization services as well as object detection and posture recognition—as an important possible feature for 6G. Sensing would also enhance performance. For example, highly accurate localization of users will help steer wireless beams efficiently. Sensing could also be offered as a new network service to vertical industries such as smart factories and autonomous driving, where detection of people or cars could be used for mapping an environment; the same capability could be used for surveillance in a home-security system. The large aperture of RIS nodes and their resulting high resolution mean that such applications will be not only possible but probably even cost effective.

And the sky is not the limit. RIS could enable the integration of satellites into 6G networks. Typically, a satellite uses a lot of power and has large antennas to compensate for the long-distance propagation losses and for the modest capabilities of mobile devices on Earth. RIS could play a big role in minimizing those limitations and perhaps even allowing direct communication from satellite to 6G users. Such a scheme could lead to more efficient satellite-integrated 6G networks.

As it transitions into new services and vast new frequency regimes, wireless communications will soon enter a period of great promise and sobering challenges. Many technologies will be needed to usher in this next exciting phase. None will be more essential than reconfigurable intelligent surfaces.

The author wishes to acknowledge the help of Ulrik Imberg in the writing of this article.

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