Business Objects 'Opens' Crystal for Eclipse

The new Crystal Reports for Eclipse is billed as a completely Java-based reporting solution.

Actuate Corp. saw a bona-fide opportunity last year when it came on board the open-source Eclipse Foundation as a strategic developer. J2EE programmers had long bemoaned the absence of a native Java reporting solution for Eclipse—the world’s most popular Java integrated development environment (IDE)—and Actuate promised to give them just that, with the Business Intelligence Reporting Tool (BIRT).

As of last week, Actuate’s opportunity isn’t altogether unique.

At its Insight 2005 conference in Orlando, Business Objects SA announced a preview release of its market-leading Crystal Reports tool—for Eclipse.

Like BIRT, the new Crystal Reports plug-in for Eclipse is billed as a completely Java-based reporting solution. And, like BIRT, Crystal Reports for Eclipse promises native integration with the IDE of the same name.

Unlike BIRT, however, Crystal Reports for Eclipse isn’t the collaborative fruit of a close-knit community of developers. And in a Java space that’s highly sympathetic to open-source and collaborative development projects—like Eclipse itself—that counts for a lot. Call it an Eclipse esprit-de-corps.

“What I like about BIRT is that it is—or can be—an open standard,” said Chris Downey, a report developer who works in the government sector, earlier this year. “BIRT is built from other emerging open standards such as FOP. I believe this is a much more powerful way for me and other developers to leverage our time and knowledge.”

Downey conceded that BIRT 1.0—which went live in June—wasn’t quite ready for prime time. In that sense, he said, it wasn’t going to replace his employer’s existing reporting solution, InetSoft’s StyleReports. But he was excited about its potential. He also thinks that BIRT could do for Java reporting what J2EE has done for Java enterprise application development.

“StyleReports is a good tool for typical business reports. It has tons of features and a rich API,” he says. “[But] there [are] no reporting standards in the sense that J2EE is a standard. The last thing I want to do is spend time learning StyleReports in-depth because I have no say whatsoever in its design and evolution and the marketability of the knowledge is limited.”

Downey’s position is endorsed by many J2EE developers. After all, code-jockeys have different reporting requirements than do BI professionals. To the extent that BIRT provides a standards-based, standard way for developers to quickly incorporate reporting features and report lifecycle management capabilities into their J2EE applications, it’s likely to find an eager audience.

Then again, Crystal Reports is Crystal Reports. It’s one of the most ubiquitously bundled products in software history. It ships—in fact—with all major (commercial) Java IDEs. And it’s deployed in almost every enterprise. In short, it’s a de facto standard all by itself. Even many BIRT enthusiasts acknowledge as much. “Almost every one here knows Crystal Reports, and we know that [it] is one of the best choices out there in the [reporting] field,” said Martin Miguel López, a programmer with Argentine services and software vendor TopGroup, in an interview this summer.

In this respect, Business Objects’ Crystal freeware for Eclipse is a clever gambit. After all, most BIRT adopters probably have existing investments in Crystal Reports. Many BI professionals have Crystal design skills, and a lot of developers do, too. And in many cases, it’s extremely difficult to convert Crystal reports over to another format. Crystal for Eclipse might therefore be appealing.

It could certainly prove attractive for existing Crystal Reports shops that are heavily committed to J2EE development. With a Crystal engine embedded in Eclipse, programmers can incorporate Crystal reporting features into their J2EE apps—without leaving Eclipse. Business Objects officials also stress that the Crystal freeware reporting engine is designed to be a good Eclipse citizen. For one thing, Business Objects officially joined the Eclipse Foundation.

Elsewhere on the app tooling front, the embedded Crystal engine supports Eclipse-esque features like dockable panes and context-sensitive menus. And it’s free—for developers, anyway.

But it isn’t free for commercial use. And for some J2EE developers—particularly those who use Eclipse—that could make all the difference.

“We have a strong open-source orientation, because [the] economic issues of our country make our enterprise less competitive if we choose commercial solutions,” said programmer López.

About the Author

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