Bill Gates’ admission of the Control-Alt-Delete key combination as a mistake was one of his key declarations during a recent fundraising event at Harvard University. Gates, who now holds an honorary Harvard degree, dropped out of America’s premier university to establish Microsoft. For many years, Windows users have been flummoxed by the rather odd combination and some have even commented that it was unnecessary. There have been numerous debates and discussions on the origin of the key combination popularly known as the “three-finger salute” and it is only now that Gates himself addressed the issue.
The question came from David Rubenstein who asked the software pioneer why he needs to use three fingers to turn on his computer and software. “It should have been just a single button,” Gates replied. He explained that the guy doing the IBM keyboard did not want to give them a single button.
Bill Gates was part of the team that developed the IBM PC which came out in 1981. The three-key, two-handed combination was used as a prompt to access the computer login window. IBM engineer David Bradley was the person to come up with the sequence. In a 2001 interview, Bradley said that Gates made it famous and added that he himself did not know why the sequence was used by Gates for the login screen. He just assumed it made sense for Gates and the others.
The story behind the sequence
In the Harvard interview, Gates revealed that the IBM keyboard maker did not want to give them a single button, which was what he favored. He explained that he wanted to have something hard coded in the keyboard that would bring up the operating system. They did not have one button on the keyboard so they programmed at a low level. “It was a mistake,” he added.
The infamous Ctrl+Alt+Del shortcut was originally meant to trigger a reboot but they decided to use it also as the command to log in. The sequence was a very prominent quick fix for the “blue screen of death” in the early days of the PCs. The three-finger salute still figures in the latest Window OS, Windows 8 to access the task manager or lock the computer. Windows 8 OS has a new login screen. In older versions of Windows (Windows XP, Windows 7) the combination is still used for logging in to the computer.
Another option, Ctrl+Alt+Esc, was also considered at that time, but the left side of the keyboard was rather prone to happenstance bumps and thus the risk of an accidental reboot was high. Meanwhile, the Ctrl+Alt+Del combo requires two hands working together and thus would not lead to any inadvertent reboots.
No worries, Bill
Though there are many Windows users who think of the sequence as bothersome, there are people on the other side of the fence who said that a single button would not have worked out. Fans of the two-handed maneuver said that the execution involves “conscious commitment” and gives them a sense of satisfaction. In response to Gates’ declaration, Control-Alt-Delete fans say that it was the “best mistake to happen to PCs.” They like the fact that there is keyboard interaction in the task of logging in and claim that the sequence is forevermore part of 1990s nostalgia.
Photo Credit: Microsoft co-founder and former Chair Bill Gates