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Control-alt-delete was a mistake, says Bill Gates

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Will Oremus

Bill Gates has admitted the control-alt-delete command used to log on to PCs was a mistake.

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Bill Gates admits 'Ctrl+Alt+Delete' was a mistake

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates says he would have preferred a single-button command to log on to Windows.

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Hundreds of millions of people around the world, including virtually everyone who has ever used a Windows device, have had to memorise the key command "control-alt-delete". In retrospect, that was probably unnecessary, Microsoft co-founded Bill Gates revealed in a talk at Harvard last week.

As Geekwire points out, the surprising – and, let's face it, seriously belated – admission came in response to a wonderfully blunt question from David Rubenstein, co-chair of a Harvard fundraising campaign. "Why, when I want to turn on my software and computer, do I need to have three fingers: control, alt, delete?" Rubenstein asked the living tech legend. "Whose idea was that?"

Can you imagine Steve Jobs requiring users to perform such a wonky key command before they could begin to use an Apple device? 

The crowd laughed as Gates shifted his weight and scratched his ear sheepishly. His response began with some hemming and hawing, but he eventually wound his way to a straight answer.

"It was a mistake": Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

"It was a mistake": Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Photo: Getty Images

"Basically, because when you turn your computer on, you're going to see some screens and eventually type your password in, you want to have something you do with the keyboard that is signalling to a very low level of the software – actually, hard-coded in the hardware – that it really is bringing in the operating system you expect," said Gates.

"So we could have had a single button, but the guy who did the IBM keyboard design didn't want to give us our single button. And so we had, we programmed at a low level that you had to – it was a mistake."

The guy who did the IBM keyboard design didn't want to give us our single button. There, in a nutshell, is one big trade-off Microsoft made by partnering with third-party hardware firms rather than building its own computers, as Apple did. The strategy paid off handsomely, as Microsoft's operating systems became the global standard. But it wasn't without its downsides. Can you imagine Steve Jobs requiring users to perform such a wonky key command before they could begin to use an Apple device?

The Windows 2000 logon screen.

The Windows 2000 logon screen. Photo: Flickr/CJ Sorg

Note that Gates is not talking about the original use of "Ctrl+Alt+Delete" to perform a "soft reboot" – Mental Floss has a neat history of how that shortcut came about – but about Microsoft's decision in the early 1990s to make the command a requirement for logging into a Windows machine.

Of course, Gates didn't mention all the mistakes that rendered certain versions of Windows so unstable that users grew equally familiar with control-alt-delete as the only escape from a locked screen. Maybe that's because he knew he couldn't blame those on IBM.

Slate

123 comments

  • some old guy who used to work at IBM (assuming he's retired now) just got thrown under the bus!!!!

    Commenter
    0kensai0
    Location
    melbourne
    Date and time
    September 27, 2013, 8:39AM
    • Actually it was copied off NORAD. The pentagon didn't want someone like reagan or bush accidently launching missiles so they used ctrl,alt,del. as the launch code, it was that or add a MOE key.

      Commenter
      stoney
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 10:52AM
    • Can see the point. but also think about how you turn off your computer. you press Start.
      To whine therefore I am. 4 seconds a day by the average life span is 2092 hours or 87 days you can do a lot in 87 days.

      Commenter
      Goatygun
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 10:57AM
    • To Goatygun - 4 seconds per day over an 80 year lifespan is actually 32 hours, NOT 87 days. Glad you're not programming software... or are you?

      Commenter
      blah d. blah
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 11:13AM
    • Stoney,

      According to my old Get This Podcasts, Cntrl-Alt-Del is all you need to hack into the pentagon website and launch a nuclear attack. Cntrl-Alt-Shift Lock-Del launches the anti-nuclear missile from the other end!

      Too funny!!

      Marshland Rules!!

      Commenter
      wazza
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 11:45AM
    • > Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?
      > Later. Let's play Global Thermonuclear War.
      > Fine.

      Commenter
      Matthew Broderick
      Location
      NORAD
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 12:13PM
    • @Goatygun i like me iWhatsaname no brah.

      Commenter
      Sean_
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 1:48PM
  • because a wonky key command is an apple isheeps worst nightmare...nooo! I have to use 3 fingers to use my computer, its the end of the world!

    Commenter
    MrTransfield
    Date and time
    September 27, 2013, 8:40AM
    • If I remember correctly the first Apples (mid-late 70s) had an Escape or Reset key in the top left hand corner of the keyboard. Pressing this key restarted the computer, no questions asked.

      Commenter
      Thomas
      Location
      Frenchs Forest
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 9:09AM
    • So Microsoft itself calls it a mistake and still you defend it?. Now thats some A grade sheepery!.

      Commenter
      Tanuki
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 27, 2013, 9:32AM

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