KDE and Gnome weren't always this big - they picked up momentum over the years and kept growing. Even XFce came out of nowhere and made a place for itself without having any of the things you mentioned at the time. Regardless of usage numbers Enlightenment and Fluxbox had the biggest buzz in the Linux community at one point. They were the hot cool different window managers to use.
So what happened? What misstep kept them from relevancy?