A similar transformation may be taking place with GNOME. GNOME 3 itself may be unpopular, but that is largely because of the GNOME Shell, the interface that users see.
GNOME's back end, however, is as influential as ever. It is the basis for Ubuntu's Unity, and for Cinnamon as well. These three desktop environments offer three very different computing experiences, but when we see statistics for the Linux desktop in 2012, they will almost certainly equal or succeed the user shares of KDE and Xfce, the most popular desktops for 2011. Together, they could easily equal forty-five percent or more.
This figure, more than anything else, suggests why GNOME's immediate future is so important. Contrary to initial appearances, GNOME's presence is as strong as ever, if not stronger. If it declines, then much of the desktop market will be sent scrambling to recover, spending more of its efforts on recovery than on new developments.
For many, concern about GNOME is probably difficult. To all appearances, GNOME brought its problems upon itself, seduced by the false objectivity of usability studies and ignoring user responses. Even now, after some prominent speakers have acknowledged reasons for concern, some participants in the GNOME community continue to deny that problems exist.
However, if you care about free software, this position is hardly enough. Free software advocates with no ties to GNOME are not in the position of watching from shore while someone else's ship sinks. Instead, the condition of GNOME is something that should concern the rest of us almost as much as it should project members.
GNOME is not about to disappear completely. But its continued decline seems all too probable, and the effects of that decline will spread throughout the community in the form of fewer developers, unsupported apps, and support for other major desktops. Even if GNOME's collapse might somehow improve the community -- which I doubt -- the process would almost certainly cause more problems than the result could ever hope to solve.
That, in the end, is why I continue to write about GNOME's fortune. Not to troll for page hits or out of rancor against the project, but because what happens to GNOME affects anyone who cares what happens to free software.