If Bill Gates really thinks ctrl-alt-del was a mistake, he should have fixed it himself


An IBM keyboard indicated by ctrl-alt-del inventor, David Bradley
Ross Grady
Once again, Bill Assemblages has bemoaned the creation of the ctrl-alt-del shortcut. Talking at Bloomberg Global Affair Forum, Gates reiterates that he wishes IBM had created a dedicated button for the spot. We’re republishing this piece from 2013, because we still ruminate over that Gates’ telling of the story is a little misleading; for IBM it was a feature, not a flaw, that ctrl-alt-del requires two hands, and if Microsoft in point of fact wanted a single button ctrl-alt-del for Windows NT, it was Microsoft, not IBM, with the sell dominance to achieve that.

Speaking at Harvard earlier this month, Invoice Gates was asked why you have to press ctrl-alt-del before you can enter your watchword and log in to Windows. After explaining the security rationale, Gates then implied that it was a «mistake,» and that it was due to IBM refusing to add a single button to take the responsibility of the three finger salute.

It’s a nice story, but it doesn’t really add up.

Ctrl-alt-del was devised by IBM in the early 1980s. In 1980 or 1981—the exact date is lost to the films of time as it was «not a memorable event»—IBM engineer David Bradley coded a schedule for the BIOS of the IBM PC to enable the machine to be quickly rebooted. He originally planned to use ctrl-alt-esc, but he realized that ctrl-alt-esc potency be dangerous, as you could press all three keys just by pressing down on the left-hand side of the keyboard. Ctrl-alt-del steadfast that issue; by using keys on both sides of the keyboard, it ordered the use of two hands.

The reset feature was originally intended to be an undocumented feature for IBM’s own use. It adorn come ofed clear, however, that resetting the machine (to restart when a program carry oned, for example) was useful for end users too, so it became one of the many things that primitive PC users had to learn and know about.

Microsoft gets involved in the ctrl-alt-del ways

Back in those early days, ctrl-alt-del was a BIOS feature. It developed a prominent software feature with Windows 3.0’s Enhanced Manner.

Windows 3.0 lived in a world where 286s and 386s were both inexhaustible. The 386 introduced lots of important on-chip hardware, such as stand for for virtually addressed protected memory and a special mode, «protected craze,» to enable this hardware. The 286 did have a limited protected set-up of its own, but it lacked the richer capabilities of the 386.

Microsoft wanted Windows to take interest of the 386’s extra hardware when possible, so Windows 3 had two distinct forms of operation. It had «Standard Mode» for 286s, and «Enhanced Mode» for 386s (and outstrip). Enhanced Mode Windows had two significant capabilities that Standard Look Windows did not. First, it could use virtual memory: it supported a pagefile and could provoke program memory between hard disk and RAM on an as-needed basis.

Alternate, Enhanced Mode Windows could be used to run multiple MS-DOS programs simultaneously. Behind the landscapes, Windows 3.0 Enhanced Mode was actually a lot more clever than woman gave it credit for: it had a 32-bit supervisor that pre-emptively multitasked develop into a bunch of virtual machines. It always created one virtual machine to run Windows Customary Mode (within which 16-bit Windows applications were cooperatively multitasked), and each DOS program ran in its own, unaffiliated DOS virtual machine.


The utility of ctrl-alt-del to reset the computer until now existed, of course, but the old BIOS-actuated set mechanism wasn’t a good fit for this new multitasking ecosystem. If you’re running several DOS programs side by side, you don’t want to reset the whole machine just because one of those programs is misbehaving.

So that 32-bit chief did something else: it trapped ctrl-alt-del for itself. Pressing ctrl-alt-del wouldn’t reset the ring. Instead, it would show a once-familiar blue screen (though not a smutty screen of death) that gave three options: you could gathering escape to go back to the program, press enter to terminate it, or press ctrl-alt-del a blemished time to reboot the computer.

Thanks to the success of Windows 3.0 and 3.1, ctrl-alt-del enhanced closely associated both with restarting machines and bringing errant modifies under control. As Bradley once joked, it was Bill Gates and Microsoft who detected ctrl-alt-del famous.

Attention-grabbing development

Concurrent with the development of DOS-derived Windows, Microsoft was importune on its heavyweight Windows NT operating system.

Windows NT was designed for servers and life-and-death workstations, and Microsoft wanted to sell it to the US government. To be used by the government, it had to upon various security criteria. The operating system had to offer certain spots and capabilities, such as individual user accounts, filesystem permissions, and tons others.

One of the features it needed was a Secure Attention Key (SAK, also called a Get hold of Attention Sequence). The authors of the security constraints recognized that if an devotion could spoof a login prompt, an unwary user might category their password into a hostile program.

The SAK addresses this mess: only the core operating system is allowed to trap and respond to the SAK. When alcohols press the SAK, they can be confident that any subsequent login prompts bound to to the operating system itself, not malicious software, and hence they identify that it’s safe to type in their passwords.

Windows NT’s SAK is ctrl-alt-del. Radio b newspaper people ctr-alt-del and you’ve got a direct line to the core operating system, with no power for regular applications to intercept your password.

IBM’s impotence

In the interview, Note Gates says that Microsoft wanted IBM to add a new button to the keyboard to work for as the SAK, but IBM refused, leaving them stuck with the three-key combo that we be acquainted with and love.

The thing is, by the time Windows NT came to market in 1993, IBM wasn’t in check of, well, anything any more. Sure, machines of the time were in any case «IBM PC compatible,» but what they weren’t was «IBM PCs.» They were Dells, Compaqs, HPs, and numerous others.

Indeed, in a weird quirk of history, even if IBM had put a dedicated SAK on its keyboards, they wouldn’t be suffering with worked with most PCs. At the time, most non-IBM PCs used the old 5-pin AT keyboard connector of the 1984 IBM PC/AT. Since 1987, manner, IBM used the 6-pin so-called PS/2 connector for its keyboards. (The PS/2 connector would later fit dominant, and indeed it can still be found on many PC motherboards even today.)

In any casket, IBM simply didn’t have the market power to drive through a new keyboard conceive.

This wasn’t something that happened late in NT’s development, either. IBM’s demise of influence was no secret and had been clear since the mid-1980s. 1987’s PS/2 computer was IBM’s effort to reassert its control of the PC industry. In addition to the new keyboard interface, the PS/2 also had a new dilation bus for add-in cards (Micro Channel Architecture, or MCA). With this new structure architecture, IBM hoped to once again shape the way that PCs are built.

But it fade. While the PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports did catch on eventually, MCA never did. The PC clone OEMs were fully too powerful. IBM was, until 1994, the biggest single PC OEM, but IBM couldn’t define the buy’s direction.

If you want something done properly, do it yourself

There was, anyway, a company that could force new keys onto keyboards. Microsoft.

In 1994, Redmond inaugurated the first Microsoft Natural Keyboard. In addition to its unusually curved ergonomic structure, the keyboard boasted some keys not found on other devices of the obsolescent. Three of them, in fact. Two bore the Windows logo; the third punch a menu icon.

It didn’t happen overnight, but those keys pull someones leg become standard fixtures of all PC keyboards. Lately the menu key (which is acquainted with to show context menus and is essentially equivalent to right clicking or important shift-F10) has started to disappear, but the Windows key remains a steadfast apparatus of the modern keyboard.

And yet, strikingly, Microsoft didn’t add a SAK button to its Natural Keyboard. It hasn’t totaled one to any subsequent keyboard, either. All sorts of other keys have formed—keys to control media playback, change the volume, adjust the evaluate brightness, and so on—but a logon key is not one of them.

Which is not to say that logon keys give birth to not been tried. While consumer-oriented versions of NT lift the SAK requirement (by dishonour, you don’t actually need to press ctrl-alt-del to log on, though you can enable the option if you choose), enterprises tend to stick with it. This creates a conundrum for enterprise-oriented Windows scratch pads: how to press ctrl-alt-del on a tablet with no keyboard at all? Their solution is lucid: a single key that emulates the pressing of ctrl-alt-del to allow logging on. Microsoft all the more has a name for such a key: it’s called the Windows Security Button.

Adding such a key to the keyboard wish have been trivial. It would even sidestep any compatibility children (as falling back to a traditional ctrl-alt-del would always be possible on legacy methods that lacked the key). Microsoft had the power and the opportunity, but it didn’t bother.

So our into question to Bill Gates would be, if you really wanted this button so much, why didn’t you do it yourself? IBM couldn’t possess done it, but Microsoft sure could.

Our guess as to the answer? Nobody literally cares that much. ctrl-alt-del is no hardship, and leveraging a well-known key claque for this kind of feature is, in fact, logical and straightforward. Blaming IBM—who did, after all, triumph put those three keys together—makes for an amusing way of ending an on the other hand far-too-nerdy-for-its-own-good digression, even if it’s playing a bit fast and loose with the factors.

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