Although it seems be too early to tell, the release of GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity desktop may have increased this fragmentation. The problem is not just that both have been widely criticized, but also that the dissatisfaction has encouraged users to look for alternatives. Many, no doubt, look to variants of the GNOME 2 release series, but at least some are looking to other desktops like Xfce -- including Linus Torvalds and a couple of other prominent kernel developers.
The latest GNOME and KDE desktops are not the only choice for graphic interfaces. So, on the one hand, any events that encourage users to explore alternatives seem healthy. Yet, on the other hand, with official cooperation already languishing, the use of more major projects can mean even greater difficulties in coordination.
The GNOME community, with its division between GNOME 3 and Unity may be especially hard hit. They may be the same desktop below the surface, but, with the surfaces diverging, greater differences elsewhere may be inevitable.
Like their proprietary counter-parts, Linux desktops are doing their best to anticipate what will be needed in the future. Touch screen support is planned or well-advanced in each of GNOME 3, KDE, and Unity, and so are mouse-gestures, which are one of several technologies needed for improved accessibility -- something that all three desktops are currently weak in, but particularly KDE and Unity.
In addition, Unity's simplicity and Apple-inspired design seems intended to ease Canonical's entry into new markets, including OEM deals and embedded systems.
But the difficulty with anticipation is that deciding which technologies to support is a gamble, especially if you want to innovate and not just copy what is being done elsewhere.
Not long ago, for example, that Nepomuck was supposed to revolutionize desktop search in KDE, increasing efficiency and, perhaps, freeing users from needing to know anything about the shape of the directory tree. Nepomuck is still being developed (and, in fact seems to be finally coming into its own in the last couple of releases. Yet the interest in this technology has diminished so much that you have to wonder if the amount of effort was worth the result.
Something of the same decline may be happening now with cloud computing, one of the most popular buzzwords of the last three years.
Some developers and users have seized on cloud computing. Distributions like Jolicloud have even developed desktops designed specifically for cloud-based computing -- anticipating Chromebook by at least two years. Yet with articles starting to talk about the most over-hyped cloud technologies, cloud computing may have peaked as a trend. No doubt it will continue to be used, but the moment when everyone viewed it as the next great revolution in computing may have already passed.
Such are the challenges of development plans. To remain players, desktop designers need to start building a year or more before a need is in demand. Yet, during development, any particular need may become less urgent.
None of these pressures is large enough by itself to determine the direction of the desktop. Yet the combined influence of several might. Possibly, too, the conflict of these pressures might keep the desktop from developing clear goals, confining it for some years to minor improvements.
The same is even truer for individual desktops. A year ago, who could have anticipated the continued complaints about GNOME 3 or Unity? Or that less-used desktops would gain popularity as a result? Similarly, while some of the same concerns existed last year, the emphasis on many of them has shifted in both subtle and obvious ways.
The Linux desktop as a whole is probably not in danger. All the same, after years of trying to match proprietary desktops, followed by several years of attempted innovation, the Linux desktop has yet to find a new destination -- or even compass point. For now, it's more responding to pressures than overcoming any.