I think that what GNOME and KDE are finding out is that the old, simple desktop works really well for a lot of people and that many people are very resistant to change.
For example, the QWERTY keyboard layout persists despite the fact that it may or may not be the most efficient because people are used to it. No-one has radically changed the user interface of a car, a phone, a toaster or a camera because the old intefaces are familiar and good enough.
I think this is why many people are using things like XFCE: It's a simple, familiar, unobtrusive UI that doesn't try to impress with newness or coolness. It just stays out of your way and works.
Maybe GNOME will have better luck on mobile devices or new devises whose modes of interaction we haven't even dreamed of yet... I hope so. Because changing entrenched and familiar interfaces is incredibly hard and takes a once-in-a-generation genius visionary to pull off.
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