I see nothing in what you said other than subjective anecdotes.
>> How exactly have their decisions "paid off"?
The main complaint over the last year and a half against ubuntu esp in 11.* days was Unity. At this stage in its life can anyone with a straight face claim that Unity on 12.04 is a substandard experience? I highly doubt it, and if there is that person is most likely still holding on to the bitterness of their initial experience with it rather than any substantial criticism against how it is currently.
>> Clearly, the growth isn't there. Android has become the most popular Linux distribution around. DistroWatch shows more interest in Linux Mint, and a declining interest in Ubuntu. The general sentiment when following discussion online is that people are unhappy with Ubuntu, and trying alternatives, including Windows and OS X.
Saying that Android is the most popular Linux distro out there is grasping for straws, our discussion here is obviously in context of desktop OSs, bringing up Android is a non-sequitur and like comparing apples and oranges.
>> The same goes for Firefox and GNOME. The sentiment within the existing user communities is not pleasant. The only "positive" (more like non-negative) articles are coming from the leadership of these projects, and they often read much more like advertising or propaganda than informative articles. Much of the user-generated discussion is some expression of displeasure.
Once again this is all anecdotes. It's funny you mention Firefox, I use both Chrome and Firefox but the strongest criticism I see against Firefox is something as trivial as version numbers. In pretty much every Firefox related thread there is atleast one person complaining about the rate at which new versions are being churned out all the while not appreciating the irony of being a Chrome user and making that complaint. I read an article today with some guy ranting and leaving Ubuntu for Windows after his web-cam stopped working in a newer release, I consider this kind of trivial criticism to be irrelevant and sadly that's the kind of criticism that is directed at these projects these days.