Software is fascinating stuff. Compared to any other engineered product it is completely ephemeral, yet at the same time it is becoming the thing that makes almost every engineered product work. Software also has a meme-like quality where certain software systems become the standard that everyone gravitates to use, however good or bad it eventually turn out to be. It seems that the trick to creating successful software is to make it really, really successful.
I got to thinking about this after listening to Paul Clenahan, VP of Product Management at Actuate Corporation and member of the Eclipse BIRT Project Management Committee talk on "The Open Source Reporting Framework" at the SDForum Business Intelligence SIG. BIRT is a component of the Open Source Eclipse project that provides a Business Intelligence Reporting Tool (hence BIRT).
BIRT consists of an Eclipse plug in that allows you to design sophisticated reports, a standards based XML definition of the report and delivery mechanisms that allow you to deliver reports as either HTML or PDF documents. As Paul mentioned several times, it is also very extensible, so if it does not have the capabilities that you need, you can easily add them. BIRT is Open Source software that is available under the relatively unencumbered Eclipse public license that allows commercial exploitation of the code.
From the presentation and demo, BIRT seems to be a well designed, easy to use and fully capable reporting system that is free. In fact, as the presentation wore on, the one question in my mind was why Actuate has devoted 8 developers to developing this wonderful new Open Source reporting system. What is in it for Actuate? I think that it has to do with broadening the marketplace.
While reporting tools are widely used, many more developers roll their own reports rather than use a reporting tool. Paul mentioned in his presentation that he asked a large group of developers at a conference whether they used reporting tools and the vast majority did not. Providing an easy to use Open Source tool that fits into the popular Eclipse development environment brings developers into the reporting tool fold.
Reporting tools are not rocket science. Low cost reporting tools have been around for a long time. While Actuate has excellent reporting tools, their core differentiating competence is a scalable platform for delivering reports, something that other reporting tools do not have. So broadening the market for reporting tools also widens the market for report delivery tools. If they are successful and BIRT catches on in that meme-like way, Actuate will have a much larger market to sell their products into. Open Source and an Eclipse plug-in dramatically lowers the barriers to using these tools.