Hey, you know that awkward three-finger splaying thing you had to do with your hands all through the 90s, and whenever you used a Windows device thereafter? Remember that rush of joy when you first got hold of a MacBook or iPhone, and there was just that one button that did everything? Yeah: now Apple's iPhone is vastly outselling Microsoft's, and Bill Gates is glumly admitting that Ctrl+Alt+Del was just one big mistake.
At Gates' talk at Harvard last week, one of the university's fundraisers demanded: "Why, when I want to turn on my software and computer, do I need to have three fingers: control, alt, delete? Whose idea was that?”
Microsoft's co-founder looked sheepish. "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," he said. "And so we had, we programmed at a low level that you had to..." Pause. "It was a mistake."
Not only did the incident prove that people take their gadgets very seriously, it also indicates a bigger problem for turn-of-the-century Microsoft and other tech companies that failed to rival Apple in glory: they used third-party builders. Apple, by contrast, built their computers themselves, with designers collaborating with the company's engineers to jointly create the product (in stark contrast to other tech companies at the time, which worked on the same product from different departments). Apple created one button for everything, whereas Microsoft only latched on to the single-button thing years later.
Microsoft has been trumped by Apple and Google's Android in the smartphone market, and though PCs still outsell Mac computers, the gap is closing between the two. More importantly, Apple is still shining from its Steve Jobs era of innovation ,whereas Microsoft mostly lost that reputation back when Spice Girls were still a thing. We're hardly blaming Ctrl+Alt+Del for all that, but, um, it didn't help.
PC World disagrees, saying that a single-button system would have been a complete nightmare at the time:
The problem with Bill Gates single-key plan is that in most versions of Windows pressing the Ctrl-Alt-Del combination while Windows is running forces the OS to restart, or soft boot. It’s pretty hard to “accidentally” press Ctrl-Alt-Del twice, but it would probably be trivial to tap the Bill Gates “magic key” a couple times and reboot your system—most likely when it’s least convenient, and you’re in the middle of a project with a deadline approaching in an hour and you end up losing all of your work.
So, thank you, Mr. Gates. Thank you for allowing the “mistake” of the three-key Ctrl-Alt-Del combination to become engrained as a Windows standard. That single key solution would have been a nightmare.
The bloody definition of a nightmare.