Speaking of virtual workspaces, what about a viewer that allows you to see each workspace? Not an overview, like GNOME 3's — that only takes you away from the current task, interrupting your work and disrupting your thoughts.
Such a tool is hardly necessary if you only use a couple of workspaces. Even the default of most distributions — four — is usually manageable. But if you use many more, knowing what is on each workspace becomes next to impossible, even if your use of workspaces is consistent and reflected in the names that you give them. A small dialog window would make all the difference.
Another alternative might be to allow workspaces to be tiled on the current one as needed.
Both GNOME 3 and KDE have limited the contents of their panels to basic items such as clocks and app indicators. However, like many users, I prefer the opposite extreme of customizable applets or widgets.
In fact, why not go one step further and allow widgets to be added to the title bars of windows? That way, you could permanently match each application with the widgets you usually use with it.
KDE's folder view has made switching icon sets on the desktop a matter of a few mouse clicks. However, within each folder view, icons are still treated as a single group. When you arrange icons or set their size, your changes affect all icons, whether you want them to or not.
By contrast, Stardock Corporation offers a Windows app it calls Fences, which allows you to group icons the way you do objects in a drawing program. Icons in a fence are treated the same way, so that rearranging icons does not disperse a group, the way it would if you had manually arranged them together.
Admittedly, both GNOME 3 and Unity have reduced the use of desktop icons in the name of reducing clutter. But given users' retreat to GNOME 2 and Xfce, I suspect that users don't object to clutter so long as it's theirs. Borrowing the concept of fences (okay, stealing it) would at least organize the clutter, rather than eliminate it.
Don't wait up for my code for any of these features — I'm a much better writer than programmer, as scary as that sounds. But in this time of reaction, when people are choosing what they know and often rejecting innovation — regardless of its value — fantasizing about features that enhance the desktop without requiring a change in workflow seems an effort worth making
I haven't mentioned all I would like to see. I would especially appreciate a menu or its alternative that was both convenient and minimally disruptive when you are working. Currently, it seems, you can have one or the other. Unfortunately, though, I haven't managed to imagine an alternative that is both, and simply pleading with developers to find a solution seems unfair.
Instead, think of these suggestions as small thought-experiments about what the free desktop might become in the next few years.
Over the last fifteen years, the free desktop has evolved from an ugly, barely adequate application launcher into an environment second to none for sophistication. I don't expect my perfect desktop will ever be built, but maybe dreaming about it will suggest how easy it could be to build something wonderful.