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Segmenting and growing open-source communities, Actuate/BIRT-style

Not all communities are created alike. Nor should they be, as Actuate shows.

One of open source's Achilles' heels is its lack of true outreach to end users. I'm not a developer. As such, I have very little influence over how OpenOffice, Linux and MySQL develop. I suppose I could request features, but how? And, more to the point, how do I derive maximum business value from the open-source projects that I use?

Actuate may have an answer to this quandary. Actuate just announced the rollout of an innovative open-source community, called BIRT Exchange, focused on open-source business intelligence. I talked with the team today and was impressed by this new community model.

Released in 2004 as a project on Eclipse, BIRT has steadily grown in importance and adoption with Eclipse. Actuate hopes that the BIRT Exchange will focus this adoption even further by improving the end-user community experience:

[As the demand for supported products and services based on Eclipse BIRT has grown,] BIRT Exchange fulfills this need by providing a dedicated site where developers can learn about support and services for Eclipse BIRT, download Actuate BIRT products and participate in the growing Eclipse BIRT ecosystem. Developers can share code and expertise with peers, helping to accelerate the flow of knowledge and information within the community.

Despite Actuate's use of the word "developer," it became clear in my conversation with the Actuate team that the audience for BIRT exchange is actually much broader than command-line loving developers. Actuate is inviting end users to the BIRT party, giving them a place to share information beyond code that helps them derive benefit from BIRT. It's a place to be productive with BIRT, rather than to necessarily produce BIRT, if you see what I mean.

And while it's not yet a haven for techno-bozos like myself, it's a step in the right direction. Importantly, Actuate has ensured that this Exchange site is an additive to the Eclipse BIRT community, rather than a replacement for it. There are links back to Eclipse riddled throughout the BIRT Exchange experience, making it a place to use BIRT but referencing back to Eclipse, the place to develop BIRT.

On the topic of Eclipse, I asked the Actuate team how integration into Eclipse has helped it as a company and BIRT as a project:

Part of the benefit comes from establishing a true community platform. We have contributions from IBM and Inetsoft, the latter of which is a competitor of ours. It's a BIRT community and not necessarily an Actuate community.

This is good and bad, perhaps, as many users of BIRT don't know that Actuate is behind it. On the positive side, Eclipse gives us tremendous access to a large community, reflected in part by one million downloads of the BIRT project in the first two years since its release.

As for the lack of credit for the work we've done, this is one reason that we have decided to establish this BIRT-focused community (BIRT Exchange). The Exchange provides a venue for the users of BIRT technology to share reports/technology/etc. so that their deployment of BIRT will be more efficient and productive for them. As an added benefit for us, it helps to establish Actuate as a center for deriving maximum value from BIRT for users of the system.

I find this fascinating. BIRT Exchange is unique in its focus on the users of BIRT, rather than developers, per se. This differs from other forge/exchange sites that tend to be developer-focused or, at best, mix the community of users and developers (often losing some of both groups in the process).

This is a community initiative worth watching.