Maybe, but at least personally, the impression was that GNOME had always been regarded as "the" free software desktop environment, resulting both from the support of the most important Linux distribution (Red Hat then Ubuntu, with Debian neutral), as well as the fact that Qt was initially non-free and in general did not mesh much with free software conventions.
And that's why the destruction of GNOME by their current maintainers is so irksome: they devastated the trademark that once was the reference for the free software community, and are the cause of the current unprecedented fragmentation of efforts and mindshare into XFCE, Mate, Cinnamon, Unity and KDE.
In addition to that, they also fragmented the underlying technology panorama by introducing a GTK 3 that isn't a smooth upgrade from GTK 2 (e.g. GTK 2 themes don't work with GTK 3), and introduced Clutter, which due to the OpenGL requirement cannot currently be used in low-overhead virtualization and thus cannot be used in a non-niche desktop.
Overall, the GNOME 3 effort has probably been the biggest setback for the Linux desktop ever, a true catastrophe without equals.