I strongly believe that both KDE4 and GNOME are excellent environments - sure, they have their problems and bugs, but it's not as if others are free of those. They both provide a complete and fully functional desktop experience, but they do cater to different types of people. Thanks to them being Free and open, they collaborate on many underlying standards, allowing them to co-exist on your machine so you can use them both.
There is a clear difference between the two desktop environments if you look at their developmental processes. GNOME has firmly chosen to keep going down the path of incremental updates, while the KDE team more or less ditched everything they had with KDE 3.x, and started all over again. Sure, KDE 4.0 was a mess and a release disaster, but subsequent releases have made enormous strides forward, to the point where KDE4 is now. You could ask yourself: which of these two approaches is going to be more successful?
Bruce Byfield is clear: KDE has the evolutionary advantage. To understand this conclusion, we need to take a look at where KDE and GNOME were a while ago. Both of them had to deal with massive amounts of legacy code, with both projects finding it harder and harder to make innovative changes and additions. KDE decided to actually do something about it, and they completely modernised their project from top-to-bottom, from build system to panel. It took them a while to get KDE4 to a usable sate, but they've done it.
In the meantime, GNOME has seen some minor additions, but overall the situation is still the same. In June 2008, Andy Wingo sounded the alarm bell, stating that "it does not seem to me that GNOME is on a healthy evolutionary track. By that I mean to say that there is no way there from here, if "there" is universal use of free software, and "here" is our existing GNOME software stack." How much has changed since then? There are plans to overhaul Gtk+, and GNOME 2.30 should bring some much-needed overhauls of the desktop, but those are still a long time away.
And that's the crux of the story, according to Byfield: "By the time GNOME is modernized, KDE will have had two years to perfect the 4.x releases," He says, "And, even when GNOME 2.3 finally arrives, it sounds like more of an overhaul than a complete rewriting, which makes its competitiveness questionable."
I've often criticised GNOME for its lack of vision or a plan for the future. In my eyes, it doesn't make sense to just be content with what you have now - you have to aspire to more, especially in a competitive environment. You have to have an additive value compared to your competitors. Sometimes, that means having to start all over again; Apple did it with Mac OS X, KDE did it with KDE4, and to a lesser extent, Microsoft did it with Vista. Sure, those projects all sucked when they were first released, but we're years down the road now, and they are now reaping the benefits. Mac OS X is doing better than ever. KDE4 has matured into a usable platform, with so much potential it just scares me sometimes. Vista gave way to Windows 7, which is almost unanimously praised.
Byfiled agrees that it is KDE4's vision that gives t its advantage over GNOME. "It is this vision, as flawed as it sometimes seems, that gives KDE the evolutionary advantage for the next few years. Far from reducing KDE's competitiveness, as Jack Wallen suggests, the 4.x series may be exactly what the desktop needs to restore its market share."