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Bill Gates made many exceptional decisions while he was leading Microsoft to immense success. He did, however, make a few errors.

Bill Gates chats with David Rubenstein, Harvard Campaign co-chair.

One of those was the idea of using “Control-Alt-Delete” —  initially designed to efficiently reboot a computer — as a way to log into Windows.

During a fantastic talk last week at a Harvard fundraising campaign, Gates admitted that it was a mistake to force users to use hold down “Ctrl+Alt+Del” to log into their computers.

“Why, when I want to turn on my software and computer, do I need to have three fingers on Control, Alt, Delete?” asked David Rubenstein, Harvard Campaign co-chair. “Whose idea was that?”

Gates then explained why Microsoft decided to implement the command.

“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 said.

[Follow-up: The rest of the story: Control-Alt-Delete inventor didn’t expect it to be widely used]

gatesharvard212The Microsoft co-founder said that there was an option to make a single button for such a command, but the IBM keyboard designer didn’t want to give Microsoft a single button. So Microsoft decided to use “Ctrl+Alt+Del” as a way to log into Windows.

“It was a mistake,” Gates said, drawing a big laugh from the crowd.

David Bradley, a designer of the original IBM PC, is responsible for inventing the “Control-Alt-Delete” command to reboot a system. He famously poked fun at Gates on stage during IBM’s 20th anniversary of the IBM PC.

“I may have invented it, but Bill made it famous,” Bradley said.

A decade later in an interview with CNET, Bradley said he didn’t really know why Microsoft decided to make his invention their log-in command.

“Why they used it for the log-in also, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess it made sense for them.”

I recommend watching the whole Gates talk, which helped celebrate the launch of the Harvard Campaign. Rubenstein does a really good job guiding a discussion that touched on a number of interesting topics from Gates’ early days at Microsoft to his work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, all the way to how he first met Melinda and how many more years he plans on working for.

His comments on “Control-Alt-Delete,” start at 16:30. Watch the entire talk here.

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