tromey: I have found automake to be a very useful tool over the years, especially when you take its constraints into account (portable make, shell, etc). Within the GNOME community, my biggest problem has been having to explain myself every time I use a feature not found in 1.4.
Many of the hackers are not even looking at the recent 1.6 releases because their packages break with them. The irony is that the parts of their Makefile.am‘s that break are usually work arounds for bugs or defficiencies in automake 1.4 (many of which have been addressed in 1.6). It is depressing to hear people complaining about bugs in old automake while refusing to upgrade (and this is for bleeding edge gnome development; not maintenance branches of the various packages).
I believe part of the reason for this is the large gap in time between the 1.4 release and 1.5/1.6 (about 2 years, IIRC). People grew too used to all the quirks and bugs in 1.4 that when they got fixed, people started complaining about it. With more frequent releases, these bugs would probably have been recognised as such, rather than features.
Another project that could do with another release is libtool. There are a number of known bugs in the 1.4.2 release (such as not being able to do a buildroot install, which really hurts packaging), and a few more architectures are supported in CVS. Putting out a new maintenance release would be a _really_ good idea.
Overall, the new autoconf and automake releases are a lot nicer to work with, compared to the 2.13/1.4 combo.