The Interesting History Behind The 3-key Control-Alt-Delete Combination

It may seem trivial these days, almost reflex in some cases, but there was time at the dawn of the PC age where the three-key combination, Control-Alt-Delete, didn’t exist. Despite becoming part of our second nature to hit these keys whenever something in Windows fails, thinking about it logically seems to point to the fact that it was a bad idea. It didn’t start out that way. In fact, it was used even before Microsoft incorporated it into their OS.

Origins of Control-Alt-Delete - Keys

David Bradley, the man behind the design of the original IBM computer, added the Control-Alt-Delete command. It was originally intended to reboot the computer, most often used when a crash occurred. At the time, IBM controlled most of the computer market, which shipped with MS-DOS, Microsoft’s command line OS.

Microsoft’s Control-Alt-Delete sequence was initially intended as a security feature, to block against malware that would have attempted to intercept the username and password to gain access to users’ computers. While Gates admits that “it was a mistake”, he goes on to state that his original preference was also to have a single button login key for Windows.

At some point, Microsoft approached IBM to create a single Windows button that would have performed the same function, but the IBM designer denied their request as they did not want to give Microsoft their own single button at the time. Years later, Bradley stated that he didn’t know why Microsoft decided to make the three-key sequence their login command, although it was he who rejected their proposal.

Origins of Ctrl, Alt, Delete - Windows Menu

The sequence was intended to assist developers during troubleshooting, while Bradley’s original trigger, Ctrl+Alt+Esc, was deemed too easy to carry out. Microsoft later split the function to include the ‘Del’ key, which first appeared on Windows 3.1. Thus, the sequence was purposefully designed to be tricky to perform, although it would also later become the trigger to open the Task Manager.

While IBM continued to refuse the ‘Windows key’, other manufacturers that started popping up made the switch to include the key. Sadly, the key’s primary function is to open the Start Menu, or Live Tiles (Windows 8), a watered-down approach to Ctrl+Alt+Del, which in a later version of Windows is used to display a separate Windows menu and not just the Task Manager.

Origins of Control-Alt-Delete - HP Compaq TC1000

In 2003, when Microsoft released its first tablet with HP, the HP Compaq TC1000 (some 7 years before the first iPad), it included a dedicated Ctrl+Alt+Del, which was essential to using keyboard-less devices running Windows (for which developers had hardcoded the command). The TC1000 added the dedicated button between the programmable buttons on the side, which was designed to be used with the included Stylus. Without this key at the time, users would have been unable to log into the OS.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed, eventually, and Microsoft switched to a dual login sequence for secure logins; users either sticking with the old Control-Alt-Delete or the new combination of the Windows key and power button. In any fact, secure login is disabled by default on the new Windows tablets and has to be activated by the administrator.

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