Actuate Pursues Unconventional Business Model with BI Reporting Tool Project

The Eclipse Foundation’s BI Reporting Tool is fast maturing into a viable Java reporting solution. What does this mean for Actuate?

One year ago this month, Actuate Corp. and the Eclipse Foundation kicked off the BI Reporting Tool (BIRT) project, a top-level Eclipse effort to develop a native Java reporting solution.

This June, Eclipse announced the version 1.0 release of that product. BIRT 1.0 is far from ready for prime time, but user feedback is encouraging, and project development continues apace. The hope, adopters say, is that BIRT will soon mature into a highly functional reporting solution.

More vexing, however, is the question of what BIRT will mean for Actuate, which remains intimately involved with BIRT’s evolution as an Eclipse project.

The company suffers no lack of vision. In fact, officials say, Actuate had a very specific strategy in mind when it helped launch the BIRT effort last year: namely, to replicate (in the form of a pay-for-use BIRT tool, complete with value-added features and technical support) IBM Corp.’s fantastic ascent to commercial Java IDE dominance. “IBM was able to ride the disruptive potential of open-source [software], with Eclipse going from 0 to 65 percent over a three-plus-year vantage point. But also, IBM itself is now a leader in the Java IDE space,” said Mike Thoma, vice-president of product marketing with Actuate, in an interview earlier this year. “You have to be the first in so you don’t get commoditized out of the world, and with the first top-level business intelligence reporting tool for Eclipse, we’re in there first.”

No one disputes the pressing need for a standard Java-based reporting engine for J2EE applications. Given the economics of the J2EE app dev segment—which sometimes seems to hew very closely to the open-source side of the aisle—will Actuate’s open-source gambit translate into market success?

That’s a very distinct possibility, writes Eric Rogge, a vice-president and research director with consultancy Ventana Research. Rogge recently compared Actuate’s pay-for-use BIRT offering with the free Eclipse version. He found that the two products are virtually identical—except for a few ease-of-use differences.

“The Actuate and Eclipse versions are the same except that the Actuate version includes an automated installer, commercial licensing, maintenance and support from Actuate,” he writes. In any case, the BIRT technology and feature set is the same in both tools: It consists of a report development environment, a report file format specification, and a report rendering engine for tables and charts. Both BIRT versions are 100 percent Java applications, and both are capable of generating HTML- and PDF-based reports.

In this respect, he notes, the BIRT technology differs substantially from Actuate’s commercial reporting tools. “It does not compile report templates to an intermediate language as does Actuate’s iServer. It also does not generate reports as spreadsheets as does Actuate’s e.Spreadsheet product,” he writes.

As a result, BIRT isn’t as robust as Actuate’s existing pay-for-use tools. For one thing, interactivity is highly limited—at this point, users can interact with reports mostly by means of embedded HTML forms (i.e., pull-down menus and radio buttons), says Rogge—and there’s limited support for dashboarding. Nevertheless, Rogge stresses, BIRT is a relatively strong first-generation product. “[I]n addressing reporting and dashboards, the initial release of BIRT is well positioned. Additional interactivity capabilities likely will be added in subsequent releases to address more ad-hoc analysis."

In fact, Rogge allows, BIRT has a lot of things going for it—such as a highly accessible API, for starters. “The BIRT report platform will be extensible via an API accessed through JavaScript and by custom programming of report files generated in XML by the report development environment,” he points out. “Query generation will be via query-by-example as well as custom SQL scripting. The tool also supports variables within the SQL statement.”

As to the $64,000 question—will open source adoption of BIRT translate into profit, much less market dominance, for Actuate?—Rogge hedges his bets. While it’s very likely that BIRT-associated revenues will translate into profits for Actuate, it’s not at all clear that open-source-to-commercial uptake of BIRT will amount to a viable business model for the company.

“Actuate’s business model is based on the expectation that organizations that download and learn the open source version of BIRT will then be motivated to license the company's commercial version, which includes maintenance and support from Actuate,” he explains, noting, however, that there are few successful examples of such a business model at work. “For BIRT to be a significant revenue contributor, Actuate will have to provide a compelling reason to upgrade beyond the availability of maintenance.”

Actuate’s Thoma, for his part, has attempted to do just that, nothing that many enterprise IT organizations want a “throat to choke” if something goes wrong.

There’s a lot to be said for this reasoning, concedes Rogge, who suggests that Actuate’s pay-for-use BIRT offering will probably appeal to risk-averse organizations and other traditional IT consumers. “Organizations concerned with indemnification, maintenance and support should consider purchasing a BIRT support subscription from Actuate."

Related Articles:

BIRT: Users Optimistic about Emerging Reporting Engine

Actuate’s Open Source Gambit

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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