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Bill Gates during recent interview at Harvard

Windows' CTRL-ALT-DEL was a good 'mistake'

I'm crestfallen. Microsoft founder Bill Gates told a group of students at a Harvard fundraiser that making the CTRL-ALT-DEL key combination the centerpiece of Windows was a mistake. The entire interview was posted on YouTube, and it has a lot of people talking.

For many people, those three keys were the first actual computer commands they ever used. Hitting them at the same time would let them log in and/or bring up the  almighty task manager. It was kind of like a magic trick, or at least cantrip. A user who knows the the super-secret hand motions can get total control over the machine’s environment. And if nothing else, bringing up the task manager can get users out of a frozen program.

Gates explained that he wanted a single key to accomplish the same function, but the person designing the IBM keyboard for him wouldn't comply, so he eventually gave up and went with the three-button combo. He also tried to explain how it’s a security feature, because it’s not a good idea for  a single button to be able to interrupt running programs, which might lead to accidental stoppages. But eventually, Gates just says, "It was a mistake."

The audience laughs and cheers at that revelation, but I don’t know how many of the students attending college now — in the age of mobile computing — grew up with powerful CTRL-ALT-DEL combination, so I suppose they have less nostalgia for it.

For feds, the three-key combination was always problematic, though, because it was not remotely Section 508 compliant, given that it takes two hands to make it work – except for people with very long fingers, or a tiny keyboard, or who like to use their nose as an extra digit. (For users unable to perform the combination, Microsoft offers a way to disable it.)

That's probably why the CTRL-SHIFT-ESC key combination was added, since those keys are aligned along the left side of the keyboard and can be pressed with just one hand. Those three left-side keys still bring up the task manager, and they do it in one fewer step in Windows 7 than the old CTRL-ALT-DEL method. Also, the Windows key (for those who have one) and L will lock a system down -- a nice two-button combination that can be used with one hand, though it's still a bit of a reach on a standard 101-key keyboard.

There is some question as to whether IBM could have successfully added a single new key sign-on button to keyboards anyway. As Arstechnica mentions, at the time IBM's influence had waned, and the companies that were really in control of the market were Dell, Compaq and HP. Also, the article points out that Microsoft's big play to get into government service, the super-secure Windows NT operating system, required a set of keystrokes that tunneled directly into the operating system and could not be spoofed by outside programs. When users hit those keys, dubbed the Secure Attention Key or SAK, they could be sure they were not being spoofed or phished. So in that sense, as a security step, CTRL-ALT-DEL could hardly be called a mistake.

I suppose it's all in the past now, so it doesn't really matter whether it was an accident, a security feature or the result of a stubborn keyboard designer who refused to compromise. CTRL-ALT-DEL has become a cultural icon, and even as its prevalence continues to wane, many of us will still hold this keyboard trinity close to our hearts -- and fingertips.

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 30, 2013 at 10:00 AM


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