Linus Torvalds recently said that the Linux kernel was successful because it does not have a "huge vision" of how it wants to develop. In other words, by not being locked into a detailed plan, it is free to develop in the ways that people want.
Much the same can be said about KDE. True, KDE does have a general sense of objectives, and features may be scheduled to be phased in over several releases. But so does the kernel. What both seem to lack entirely is a unified, exact vision of what the desktop should be, or how it is used. Consequently, its developers are less likely to assume that they collectively know better than users.
In the first months after KDE 4.0 was released, KDE developers kept mostly silent. Then a few reacted angrily, some of them blaming the media. However, after about six months, KDE began making serious attempts to assess what went wrong, discussing the situation in their blogs for much of 2008.
How much this assessment affected the next few releases in the KDE 4 series is hard to say. KDE had always planned to restore the features missing in 4.0, so satisfying users was sometimes only a matter of staying the course for the next few releases.
But the fact that KDE recognized that a problem existed did result in more attention to online help and efforts to engage the community in the release process. While these efforts might have gone further, they showed that KDE was at least intermittently listening to complaints.
If nothing else, KDE's members recognized that a problem existed. By contrast, much of the anger expressed about Unity and GNOME seems due to the impression that their developers are not interested in hearing from users.
KDE did not do everything right in responding to its user revolt. It could have responded sooner and more sympathetically. Just as importantly, aspects of the project's culture that helped reduce the revolt might cause other problems.
But what matters is that KDE did enough to preserve most of its popularity. Within a year, the revolt was already starting to sputter out, and, within two years, those who continued to complain about the KDE 4 series were starting to sound crankish.
To some extent, the GNOME and Unity revolts may also seem to be dying of natural causes. As the two desktop environments become more polished, some reviewers seem to be coming to a grudging acceptance of them.
Others seem to think the discussion has gone on long enough. For instance, when a posting about the upcoming GNOME 3.6 release produced the usual acid remarks, Jonathan Corbet, the editor of LWN, suggested that such remarks were no longer useful, if they ever were. Corbet was pleading for a more focused and productive discussion, but his comment did little to raise the tone, which suggests that, for many, the revolt remains far from over.
The reasons why KDE survived its revolt could be summarized in four maxims:
Currently, I judge both GNOME and Unity as behind where KDE was at the same point in its revolt. I suggest that their ability to quiet the revolts and retain users will depend largely on their ability to make these maxims part of their project cultures.