Bill Gates: Making people press Ctrl+Alt+Del to log into Windows 'was a mistake'

It's been a mystery for a long time; why did Microsoft make people who owned early versions of Windows use the Ctrl+Alt+Del keyboard combination to log into their PC? Last week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates shed some light on this subject during a Q&A at Harvard.

The event, which was later posted on YouTube, shows David Rubenstein, Harvard Campaign co-chair, asking Gates point blank, "Why, when I want to turn on my software and computer, do I need to have three fingers on Control, Alt, Delete? Whose idea was that?” Gates said, "It was a mistake," which got a huge laugh from the crowd attending the Q&A.

Gates said that a single button solution was something that Microsoft really wanted, but he put the blame on IBM for the Ctrl+Alt+Del setup. Specifically, Gates indicated that the unnamed person who designed the keyboard at IBM didn't want to offer up one button login support. Gates added:

You want to have something you do with the keyboard that is signaling 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, instead of just a funny piece of software that puts up a screen that looks like a log-in screen, and then it listens to your password and then it’s able to do that.

Gates has been open in recent months with admitting Microsoft has made mistakes in the past, such as with the launch of Microsoft Bob and with the company's involvement in smartphone development.

Source: Harvard on YouTube via GeekWire

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Although C.A.D is one of the worlds most burned onto your brain function, I think at the time with limited technology I think it was the best move to take. I don't think it was a mistake.

Uhhh I've been used to this for years and I think it's wierd when I don't have to use it... LOL.

I've been mostly using server OSes since 2000 so... That's the default login method is using that instead of being straight to the login screen

Ctrl-Alt-Del didn't come from Windows. IBM never licensed Windows. It came from MS-DOS 1.0 and the IBM version called PC-DOS. Early versions of Windows ran on top of DOS until it was replaced with NT. But NT still used Ctrl-Alt-Del. This was a choice by Microsoft and had nothing to do with IBM.

What is wrong with the three-key salute to log on? Nothing. Sure beats a single key, that could easily be pressed by mistake. If some action has major/dire consequences, don't make it too easy to invoke; because "what's done can't be undone."


It's been a mystery for a long time; why did Microsoft make people who owned early versions of Windows use the Ctrl+Alt+Del keyboard combination to log into their PC?

Just because you don't know something, doesn't make it a big mystery.

Isn't the key combo related to needing to hook an interrupt signal so that user-mode programs can't hijack the login prompt?

Spicoli said,
Yes, but it didn't necessarily have to be those particular keys. They could have built in a special key just to send that interrupt.

No other key combination in BIOS would result in an interrupt and MS has no authority to change the BIOS…

MFH said,

No other key combination in BIOS would result in an interrupt and MS has no authority to change the BIOS…

Yea, it's the unnamed IBM guy that didn't want to do it.

Spicoli said,

Yea, it's the unnamed IBM guy that didn't want to do it.


That guy didn't want a dedicated key, that doesn't rule out different key combinations, were there an option to extend the BIOS…

If you're not interested in watching the entire video but want to jump ahead to where he's talkng about Ctrl+Alt+Del skip ahead to 16m 40secs.

It was the right thing to do. I wonder if someone, at some point, will create a way to create a ghost login screen to grab your creds. That was the point that he articulated. That scenario exists, again, now I would imagine.

just watched the whole video. WOW. Very interesting stuff, gotta say. Don't care so much about the keys - IBM's linear hardware design for keyboard's fault

It's been a mystery for a long time; why did Microsoft make people who owned early versions of Windows use the Ctrl+Alt+Del keyboard combination to log into their PC?

Really? This was a mystery? I could have answered this 20 years ago, I didn't realize the world was waiting for a answer.

Seriously, this was NOT a mystery or an arbitrary decision.

This specific SAS (Ctrl-Alt-Del) was used because of the BIOS coded soft reset that would disrupt and prevent spoofing/hacking tools to run (under/over/outside NT) to ensure a simple keyboard login was secure and not able to fool the end user or keep testing logins against the GINA.

^^ This. It was not a mistake and hopefully we'll not see someone spoofing the credential process at login now that it is any key.

I would agree - IIRC it was quite deliberate and done for good reason - to defeat simplistic floppy/cd-based Trojans that would emulate whatever the logon process might have been.

Is Windows 2000 now considered an "...early versions of Windows..."? Man I'm old!

Mugwump00 said,
I would agree - IIRC it was quite deliberate and done for good reason - to defeat simplistic floppy/cd-based Trojans that would emulate whatever the logon process might have been.

Is Windows 2000 now considered an "...early versions of Windows..."? Man I'm old!

I remember testing pre-beta builds of NT 3.1; I didn't realize I was old yet.

Gates should not be apologizing for things like this, Microsoft Bob was ages ago. You don't see Steve Jobs running around apologizing for Apple mistakes...oh wait....
Another dumb "news" article from NeoWin

"It's been a mystery for a long time; why did Microsoft make people who owned early versions of Windows use the Ctrl+Alt+Del keyboard combination to log into their PC?"

What does that mean? Early versions of Windows (1.x, 2.x, etc) would reboot if you did that.

CURRENT versions of Windows use Ctrl Alt Del to log in.

j2006 said,
CURRENT versions of Windows use any key. The PREVIOUS few versions used CTRL+ALT+DELETE.

YOU ARE DEAD WRONG!!! Current version of windows 8 & 8.1 DOES require Ctrl+Alt+Del. It's disabled by default, just like in Win7. It is still enforced in Win Server 2012 R2 and Windows Embedded 8. You can enable this in win8 as well using group policy.

why did Microsoft make people who owned early versions of Windows use the Ctrl+Alt+Del keyboard combination to log into their PC?

I'm using Windows 8.1 and still Ctrl+Alt+Delete...

Edit: Mine could be GPO enforced.

If it was a mistake, why take so long to change to a single key like Win 8? Wait so bloody long that CTRL + ALT + DEL is embedded in my fingers that I'm still doing it on Win 8.

Because enterprise users were used to it. With all the great changes in Windows 8/8.1, they were able to make any drastic changes they wanted.

That doesn't help me though, it really frustrates me when i go into auto pilot and do that and then realise i didn't have to. It's slowly being drummed out of me...

It comes with risk though. What prevents someone from running a program that looks like the login screen? We actually had someone do that in our Unix lab way back in the 80s. It was a lot easier for those because it was just text.

Do you seriously expect people to watch the whole interview just to find out at which time the conversation took place? Fine, I will watch the whole thing later.

ThunderRiver said,
Do you seriously expect people to watch the whole interview just to find out at which time the conversation took place? Fine, I will watch the whole thing later.

17 mins in