Unix lead to the development of the GNU Project which needed a kernel that was supplied by Linux to produce the GNU/Linux Operating System. GNU/Linux and Unix are generally criticised for being hard to use for the common user--all those command line tools and all that fiddling with configurations placed them back in the MS-DOS days. The demand is for modern intuitive interfaces similar to those pioneered by the Macintosh back in 1984.
Unix has had graphical user interfaces for a long time. The problem was that Unix was provided by multiple vendors and those vendors had difficulty agreeing on a common way of doing things in the graphical user interface. There were systems like NeWS, OpenWindows, Display PostScript, and the X Window System. There was also a multitude of windowing systems available for the X Window System, including CDE, Motif, OpenLook, etc. They offered tremendous flexibility which lead to great diversity! And great confusion. Developers could chose different toolkits and get very different behaviours. Different ways of interacting with applications lead to much confusion and certainly no consistency: different ways of moving to the next text field; different defaults for keyboard shortcuts; different mechanisms for cut and paste between applications; etc. Apple, with the Macintosh, had a lot of control on how things should be done and developed guidelines for developers to do things the right way. Later, Microsoft with MS-Windows/95 and beyond also dictated standards for others to follow. This meant that once the user had learnt the nuances of the interface they were ``set for life.''
The Gnome Project pioneered by Miguel de Icaza in 1997 and progressed by the free software company he founded with Nat Friedman in early 2000, originally called HelixCode and then Ximian, has set the standards. The traditional Unix players, including Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Package, and Compaq joined the Gnome Foundation in August 2000 to help that standard become, well, standard.
Gnome is not the only standard. KDE, begun by Matthias Ettrich in 1996, is a very respectable and popular alternative. KDE suffered in the early days of its development by being dependent on a toolkit, Qt, that did not meet the licensing criteria for Free Software. This one unfortunate blemish lead to the development of the Gnome project. The fact that there are two standard desktops is not a particular concern, despite the above discussion. The friendly (but at times heated) competition drives the enthusiasts in both camp. What we have to be careful about is that we learn from the past and not allow this competition to destroy the common goals. Perhaps one will live on, or perhaps both will live on. Either way, both are excellent products developing easier to use GNU/Linux systems, and leaving the choice to the user.