November 29, 2005

Libranet's long goodbye

Author: Bruce Byfield

"Basically the operation is shutting down." With these words, Tal Danzig, the owner and technical lead for the Libranet distribution, quietly announced in his blog on November 25 the news that users had been dreading ever since his announcement two months ago that the distribution was "restructuring."

Danzig did not rule out the possibility of reviving the distribution after his return in February 2006 from a three-month trip to Israel. Yet, for now, the announcement seems to mark the end of one of the oldest and best-loved Debian-based distributions. On Distrowatch, Libranet's status is now marked as "dormant."

Libranet was founded in 1999 by Jon and Tal Danzig. From its first release, the distro has had a reputation for three features: A user-friendly installer; Adminmenu, a configuration tool; and a comprehensive list of packages. Over the years, these advantages have been eroded by the rise of similar features in other Debian-based distributions including Linspire, Mephis, Ubuntu, and Xandros.

Some customers also complained about what they considered high prices for new versions. Yet throughout its existence, Libranet has attracted a small but enthusiastic community noted for its friendliness to new users, with more than 3,700 users registered for its forums. For many, Libranet was their first introduction to Debian.

Never more than a three-person operation, the distribution ran into trouble when Jon Danzig, its founder, died of cancer on June 1. Tal Danzig, Jon's son, had become increasingly involved in the business aspects of the distribution over the previous two years, but seems to have felt uncomfortable in the new role."[I] would very much like to continue the legacy that is not just my father's work, but very much mine as well," he wrote in his blog on September 30, but added that "I need to catch my breath then figure out how to move on."

Last Friday, Tal Danzig elaborated on these remarks. "I'm not a business man," he wrote, "And I can't run the company on my own." He raised the possibility of "outside involvement" in the company, while putting any changes on hold until his return from Israel.

Reaction on the Libranet forum was mixed. A few expressed anger that the company was suspending operations so soon after they had paid for Libranet 3.0, which was released in the spring of 2005. Others complained that Tal Danzig had made the announcement on his blog and not posted an official statement on the forums, and addressed the Libranet community directly. Most of these negative responses came from users who had been registered for the forums for less than a year, or who characterized themselves as having tried Libranet, then switched to other distributions.

The majority of the comments expressed strong continued support for the distribution. More than one user planned to continue using the latest version of Libranet as long as possible.

Others suggested possible community actions. Some hoped to continue to support new users through the public forums. A few called on Libranet to release the source code for its installer and Adminmenu, neither of whose licenses have ever been announced. One or two even suggested that users pool resources to purchase Libranet for themselves. At the time of writing, though, no concrete plans have been announced for such an effort.

Nearly all posters, including those with criticisms, expressed sympathy for Tal Danzig's difficult position. And, while the general sentiment was that Libranet was probably dead, many expressed a faint hope that it might be resurrected in 2006.

Tal Danzig had not responded to a request for comments by the time this story was filed. But on Tuesday, November 29, he did note on his blog that he appreciated the words of support from Libranet users. "Thanks to all of those who have sent supporting words by email, in blog comments, or on the forum. It means a lot to me and brings a smile to my face."

Daniel de Kok, a programmer who worked on Libranet and remains an active member of the community, had this to say about the Libranet announcement and the community response:

The Libranet community is a very friendly tight-knit community, with many knowledgeable people. The first reaction of the community is characteristic for our community. Rather than passively waiting in despair, members of the community are constructing new ways to continue the Libranet dream: making GNU/Linux accessible for anyone who wants to try and use it.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge.

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