I'm not a fan of the GNOME 2 release series. It was my main desktop for years until I replaced it with KDE 4, which was far more innovative. A few months ago, I wrote pointing out some shortcomingsof GNOME 2, questioning the demand for what seemed to me like a desktop that had long outlived its usefulness.
GNOME 2 is not likely to become my main desktop again, but I realized that there were nine reasons (if not more) that users might prefer a GNOME 2 derivative over more recent desktops. Many of these reasons are not a specific software feature, but higher level design approaches, or even things completely external to the desktop and its performance.
GNOME 2.0 recently passed its tenth anniversary. If you compare it with GNOME 2.32, the last release in the series, the improvement in widgets, utilities, and everything else is obvious. However, what didn't change in the entire series was the classic desktop layout with a configurable panel, a menu, and launchers on the desktop.
This layout makes GNOME 2 clones like Mate instantly familiar to both anyone who has used a Windows release in the past fifteen years or who used a free desktop like Xfce or LXDE. Users might take a while to learn the details, but they immediately understand the general navigation.
That doesn't mean that GNOME 2 is intuitive, or even well designed if looked at impartially. But it does mean that users can quickly stop focusing on the desktop, and turn their attention to their tasks, where it belongs.
Once, a panel that you could easily position or add icons and widgets to seemed a given. Then the KDE 4.0 series premiered with a panel with next to no customization options (a limitation long since removed), and the GNOME 3.0 releases did the same in the name of saving users from clutter.
Admittedly, some users leave the panel exactly as it comes. But, for others, a panel is a convenient place for useful utilities. Many depend on a panel so much that they have two. Mate, for instance, largely reserves the bottom panel for the task bar, which means that you can have over half a dozen windows open and still clearly read their names.
Personally, I wouldn't exaggerate if I said that a customizable panel is basic to the way that I work -- and I suspect I'm not the only one.
A classic menu, whose levels spill across the desktop is an ungainly mess. All you can really say about the classic menu is that it is better than the alternatives.
Unlike a menu confined to a single dialog window, a classic menu assures that you never lose your place in the menu hierarchy.
Unlike a menu on an entirely separate screen or overlay, like those offered by GNOME 3 or Unity, it's quick and doesn't distract your attention from what you are doing, and rarely buries administration items more than three clicks from the desktop.
Presumably inspired by the interfaces for mobile devices, both GNOME 3 and Unity open most apps maximized. Exceptions are only made when an app's window is so small that opening maximized would be ridiculous.
In comparison, GNOME 2 and its clones open apps in a medium-sized window. This is usually the most sensible option, since you don't always open an app to use it exclusively or even immediately. Often, you open it to use together with another window. Opening it maximized distracts you as you scramble to rearrange the open windows so you can use two or more together.
This rearrangement -- not incidentally -- is all the harder when the tools for adjusting windows’ sizes are either not close at hand or invisible until the cursor rests on the title bar. Title bar buttons may seem like clutter to the developers of GNOME 2 and Unity, but they are an accessible positioning of basic tools for anyone who works with more than one window open at a time.
GNOME 3 arranges virtual workspaces for users. On the whole, it manages well, and should be credited for introducing users to the concept.
However, like any tool that adds a level of complexity to basic desktop functionality, virtual workspaces need to be under a user's control. For one thing, some users will always want to avoid the added complexity. For another, users want to organize their workspaces by naming them and, in some cases, like terminals, have them persist between desktop sessions.
Virtual workspaces in Mate and other GNOME 2 clones could do far more, such as allowing different icons sets on each virtual workspace. But any degree of control is preferable to what GNOME 3 offers.