This covers several aspects: the way it looks (colour scheme, imagery); the way it behaves (in response to my requests); what it does (which programs are available).
In unix-like environments, the desktop was originally a number of independent windows looked after by a window manager. This has evolved into the (more or less) tightly integrated desktop environments such as GNOME and KDE that we have today.
In years gone by...
Some of the early window managers were fairly basic. I remember
uwm, but I really liked the old Ardent window manager. It was friendly and very customizable.
Time went on and the original generation of window managers bit the dust. It seemed that
twmwas the new standard. I never used twm itself much, as I was starting to run into problems caused by having too many windows open. So I ended up using
Customizing tvtwm was fairly easy (assuming you're happy to edit configuration files) and the degree of customization available was quite extensive. You had complete control over all the mouse button events, for example. I defined all my own menus. And you could define your colour scheme extremely precisely - I had the window decorations for each type of window in different colours, so I could more easily spot a particular application on screen.
Then along came desktop environments - a window manager with an associated set of libraries, and a (more or less) complete toolset. Open Look and CDE were the well known ones, although I'm sure there were others.
However, I found one thing in common with both Open Look and CDE. I hated them both. Utterly and completely. They both forced me into unnatural and counterintuitive ways of working, and I can't stand either of them for more than 5 minutes.
We're now into the brave new world of Gnome and KDE. Again, the aim is a complete and all encompassing desktop environment with a set of libraries and a complete set of applications.
Unlike Open Look and CDE, I've found I can tolerate both KDE and Gnome. Sure, they're slow, and both have irritating features, but both are good enough that I don't start swearing at the screen after a couple of minutes.
Have we really made progress in the last decade? I'm not sure we have. Some of the applications we have now certainly have more functionality than was available 10 years ago, but I don't see that they are necessarily better suited to today's problems than the applications of 10 years ago were to the problems of the time.
Put it another way. Ten years ago the applications and environments I had available met my needs of the time more than adequately. That's no longer true. And it's not as if my requirements have actually changed all that much - certainly less than the overall computing landscape has.
I'm not optimistic about the future. I was less than impressed with the Gnome-based JDS that will shortly go into OpenSolaris. I see very little of interest, and a lot of regressions.
What I also see is a lack of variety, a lack of excitement, no spark. Coupled with an increasing inability to do the basics, and the desktop is withering away.
When it comes down to it, I'm not actually asking for very much. I want to be able to set the focus policy, define the actions to be taken on mouse clicks, define what menus appear, and under what circumstances, and with what contents, and define the shape, colour, and imagery of decorations. And then use the applications that I want.
The desktop environments appear to have become less customizable, not more. Consider the available themes. There are thousands for WindowMaker (and some of them are quite decent). How many Gnome themes are there? Now, OK, a WindowMaker theme doesn't really do very much, but it does what you want.
It's not as if the desktop frameworks have provided a solid foundation on which to build better applications, either. Most of the standard applications that ship are pretty poor. I would much rather have a dedicated window manager and ally that with best of breed applications than have a bunch of applications that happen to be built using the same toolkit.
In summary, I feel that desktop development has headed off down a cul-de-sac, and we need to get back on the main road to make real progress.