Thursday, March 31, 2011

Looking back, looking forward

This spring roughly marks the 5 year mark from when Libranet shut down. Looking back, a lot has happened over the past half-decade, and I think I now have enough distance from the events surrounding the ending of the Libranet project to sit down and write a little bit about what happened.

Background

Libranet GNU/Linux was a Linux desktop system envisioned by my father Jon as the result of a search for a better, more rewarding computing experience. Towards the end of the 90's Jon found himself in the position of looking for a new project for Libra Computer Systems, a business he founded in 1984. His current projects had wrapped up, and he found himself drawn towards the world of Linux systems. Pushed away from the Microsoft world by the poor quality of engineering, and pulled towards the Unix-like GNU/Linux operating system Jon found himself installing Debian GNU/Linux as an initial point of exploration. After several painful hours of installation, configuration, and exploration Jon realized that he had not only found himself an alternative operating system, but had found a project to work on. The goal: build a complete GNU/Linux desktop OS that was easy to install and maintain. And so Libranet was born, a project designed to build off the amazing Debian community and bring a polished desktop system to the world.

The Atmosphere

In the late 90's into 2000 and before the dot com bust in 2001 the tech world felt a little like it does now a decade later with lots of money an optimism around. Hair-brained ideas with little business sense were being drowned in venture capital, and it seemed like the world was about to dive head-first in to an entirely new digital age. Jon took a different approach with Libranet. We were a self-funded project with him and I spending countless hours conceptualizing and building the product while simultaneously learning what we needed to build a website and store for Libranet, produce some graphics and marketing material, and sell and support the product. This approach was difficult as it required both of us to learn how to do things we had no prior experience with, but at the same time it allowed us to maintain and control the scope of our project and remain self-supporting.

The Product

Libranet was the outcome of many small things done well. The Linux kernel, the GNU system, and the Debian distribution were and are very solid projects, and they provided us with the building blocks to end up with a complete and usable system. It was up to us to streamline installation and setup of the system, curate the contents of the system, and provide email support to our users so that they could overcome any initial difficulties. The fact that we were the development team and technical support rolled in to one meant that any support issues immediately became issues to address in our next release. By our last release, Libranet 3.0, we were providing a fast streamlined installation, streamlined and comprehensive system administration, all backed up by a solid set of online documentation and an engaged user community.

The Work

Working on Libranet was all consuming. For most of the project's lifetime all of my energy and time was primarily directed towards work on Libranet. The majority of my waking hours for 6 days a week would be dedicated towards providing support for our users whilst designing and developing our next release. I wore many hats: software designer, tech support, sys admin, web designer, print designer, tech writer. I don't claim to have done an expert job in all of these fields, but there was work to be done and we had only ourselves to do it.

Learning

I started Libranet without any software development skills, having never used a Linux system, and without any business experience to speak of. Jon mentored me, passing on all of his skills and knowledge of software systems design and giving me the tools to grow and expand as Libranet did. I began as a neophyte and ended the project with a solid working knowledge of software design and management.

Sickness

Late in 2003 Jon was diagnosed with cancer. Needless to say this was devastating to our whole family and put us as a unit into crisis management mode. Nevertheless Jon, and the rest of the family maintained a determined optimism that he could make it through this illness and survive to continue on. As the months progressed and Jon's health deteriorated Libranet continued on with more and more of the day to day running of the business that Jon had always taken care of falling on me. All the while development of Libranet 3.0 continued at as best a pace as it could.

The Final Release

Libranet 3.0 was released in the spring of 2005 a few short weeks before Jon passed away. It was a release that we were immensely proud of not only due to the technical achievement, but due to the struggle we overcame to finally get it done. Towards the end Jon was in no state to be able to handle much of the business, and helping the family take care of him became as much my job as running Libranet was.

Family

Any family that has experienced severe illness can attest to the toll it takes on a family as a whole. Thankfully ours was a family that pulled together in this time of need, all of us doing our part to care as best as we were able for each other and make it through the roughly yeah and half of illness. Despite the fact that Jon did not survive I truly feel that we strengthened as a family during this time and it was a time of many life lessons and growth.

Business

After Jon's death in June 2005 running Libranet fell solely to me. I had many dreams and desires surrounding Libranet, but I found that I was unable to run the day to day business while working to develop the product further. After 5 years of working on Libranet and the death of my father and mentor I was physically and emotionally incapable of continuing the project. I placed the project on hold to do some soul searching only to finally end the business early in 2006.

Passing Libranet On

After deciding that I was unable to continue with Libranet myself I was left with the decision of what to do with the project. In 2005 the Linux desktop market was somewhat changed from our first release in 1999. The Ubuntu and Fedora projects were beginning to catch up with Libranet in terms of ease of use and installation, and at a price (free) that we could not hope to match. Members of the Libranet community offered to take up the project, but I was reluctant to give up the name and legacy of Libranet, a project that had so many hours of my own and my fathers efforts poured in to it. Libranet 3.0 was a solid, competitive release, and I'd seen many open source projects get passed from initial creator into community management only to flounder and die a slow death. Part of me wanted the final release that Jon and I oversaw to be the final hurrah, and I also felt that I would feel bound to spend a lot of time with any community project, something that I felt I was unable to do at that time.

Life Moving On

In December 2005 I met and fell in love with Ilana. It was clear to me at this time that I needed to move on from Libranet and put my face towards the future, keeping the knowledge and lessons of the past while looking forward to new opportunities and adventures.

Looking Back

I do not regret how I handled the end of Libranet's life. I handled things within the emotional context of that time and with the tools I had at my disposal, and I do not think that at that time there was a better way for me to have done things. That being said, with the clearness of hindsight, I would have handled passing on the project slightly differently by at the very least releasing our administration tool and installer under an open source license, perhaps under a name other than Libranet.

Jon

As well as being my father, Jon was my friend, teacher and mentor. I learned so much from him that I will always be grateful for. I had the opportunity to work with him on what was to be his last project, and together we produced something we were proud of, and he was able to pass on to me his expertise and skills which I continue to rely on and build from.

Thanks

Towards the end of the Libranet 3.0 release cycle I had the privilege of working with a talented man by the name of Daniel de Kok. Jon and I recognized Daniel's talent in his frequent contributions to the Libranet user community. We hired him initially to take up some of the tech-support load, but Daniel's software development talents quickly become evident, and he was a big help in finalizing the Libranet 3.0 release. This post was in part inspired by Daniel's retrospective blog post.

5 comments:

theLearningChan said...
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theLearningChan said...
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Hello World said...

Hello Tal. I'm sure you don't remember me but I was a dedicated user of Libranet for many years. Libranet was indeed something that you should be proud of. It was what kept me using Linux. I had made the rounds through all the major distributions at the time and Libranet was the shining star of them all. I was about to give up until I found it.

I can't believe that it's been 5 years. How time moves on. I appreciate your narrative of those years. It brought back so many memories. Even after all this time I still think about you and Jon and how you made your business such a personal thing with your users. It was really wonderful.

I've read many of your blog entries over the years and am glad to see that you have moved on to other things. You sure seem to have a handle on enjoying life! For that I'm envious! :-)

For a closing thought, if you ever slow down and contemplate doing a similar project, consider a BSD version of Libranet. Unlike Linux, it could be a market for a good small business.

I have really been wanting to give it a try, but even the best of the best is still rough. I really think you could give the BSD world something to "drool" over. It doesn't have to be a full blown project with all the bells and whistles. Just settle on one desktop only and then build just the major items around it. Keep it small and simple. If Apple can do it I know you can! :-)

But then when you think about it, it's much nicer to ride bikes in the Canadian mountains, isn't it? I just love the Canadian wilderness!

Keep posting, I really enjoy keeping up with the life of Tal Danzig.

Take care friend!

Ted Gatza

Michael Valentine said...

Just found this posting today, and I was a long time Libranet user as well and still have Version 3 stashed away. I miss the fun I had with Libranet and Linux never was the same for me after Libranet. In the end you did the right thing Jon, have no regrets! Happiness is what's important and Libranet went out on top.

Anonymous said...

As I enter graduate school for the second time, I decided to find a distro that would be able to provide me with the tools I'd need at a more advanced level than the average desktop. I chose to revisit the last distro I used those many years ago (now!), that being Libranet. What a great and truly useful and way-ahead-of-it's-time this distro was. It served me well for the length of it's life cycle, ending with 3.0, which I used until I was met with all the "Unable to Update" messages. I spoke with Jon, only once, but was thrilled he took a call to assist a noob in 2000/01 with basic installation. Tal, I was one of the community members who offered to join a team and carry on the name and the distro: your decision was, and is, totally understandable. As I move on into the strange world of distro searching and comparing, I wanted to say "Thanks!" to you for all the work that went into producing Libranet and props to Jon for all he did for Libranet (and what a great friend he apparently was to you). Best to you and your family.

Fred
New Hampshire