Ctrl-Alt-Del, do you remember?

ctrl-alt-delI may be a dinosaur, because I still remember the time when CtrlAltDeleting a box was a bad thing, a sign of weakness, sometimes even a necessity. Now it’s a key press combination that makes users feel safe and empowered. How did we get this far?


How it was… a long time ago

I’m talking about the age that Microsoft now refers to as the Windows on DOS era. This was the era in which Microsoft released and supported Windows 3 and Windows 9x.

Unfortunately,not everything was easy with Windows 95 and Windows 98. One bug in Windows 98 was that you couldn’t leave it running for more than 42 days; the uptime counter was limited and the box would stall. Pressing ctrl, alt and del at the same time was the only resolution to reboot the box. A necessity. Hanging applications (with the absence of preemptive multitasking in these earlier Operating Systems) would hang an entire box. You’ve guessed it, pressing ctrl, alt and del at the same time was the answer here too.


What they did

First of all, Microsoft has done a tremendous job in Windows to streamline the Operating System. Several initiatives, like MinWin and the trustworthy computing initiative, combined with clear ‘laws’ and ‘boundaries’ from an architecture point of view, have untangled the many user mode hooks that had direct access to the kernel, the core of the Operating System. System stability is the result, as the last laptops of my wife pointed out with perfect 10s in their Reliability Indexes. (perfmon.exe /rel will show you your systems score)

Of course, this did not happen without a hitch, looking at the appalling rate display drivers had problems in Windows Vista with version 1 of the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) and the fuzz many anti-malware producers made with the release of Windows Vista Service Pack 1 in regards to Kernel Patch Protection. (coincidentally also introducing a new kernel, the first time a Service Pack did that)

The fact is, Windows systems are infinitely more reliable than they were fifteen years ago. Also, new file systems have made it more safe to just press and hold the power switch to the box without the risk of losing data(flow).


The result

With Windows 2000 and further versions of Windows NT (Windows 7 is Windows NT 6.1) Microsoft kept Ctrl+Alt+Del in these versions, and changed the reputation of this concurrent key press combination to something that makes people feel safe en empowered.

Ctrl+Alt+Del makes us feel safe

People in networking environments still use Ctrl+Alt+Del every day. Most of them use it multiple times per day. Depending on Group Policy settings, people also have to use the key press combo when returning from lunch (which they initiated on their computer using ÿ+L, short for Windows Lunch).

Windows 2000 Server (NT 5.0) and Windows Server 2003 (NT 5.2) both have an explanation for how pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del keeps your password safe. It’s accessible from the logon screen using the help link. The message is identical in both Operating Systems:


Apparently the messages stuck with people, because since Windows Vista, and its new logon screen, there is no help link on the logon screen anymore.

Ctrl+Alt+Del makes us feel empowered

Now, when logged on, and pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del, Windows presents a helpful screen. It allows the currently logged on user to lock the box, switch user, log off, change password and start the task manager. (not all at the same time, though).

This screen is fully customizable using Group Policy, and I see many admins remove items from the screen.



In the last ten years, Microsoft has completely turned around the reputation of the Ctrl+Alt+Del key press combo. From being the epiphany of everything wrong in Windows in the nineties, to a combination that makes us feel safe and empowered.

Sometimes, Microsoft gets credited for its amazing Marketing efforts. While this little gem hardly ever gets noticed, I feel it is one of the biggest marketing feats pulled.

Further reading

Thank this guy for ‘control-alt-delete’
Why ctrl-alt-delete to logon is not backwards
How to enable or disable the CTRL+ALT+DELETE sequence for logging on to Windows XP, to Windows Vista, and to Windows 7

2 Responses to Ctrl-Alt-Del, do you remember?


    Heh, I remember back before that. In the DOS days, Ctrl-Alt-Del was common and accepted. It was the simplest way to restart your computer. Similarly, when you were done, you just disconnected power.

    Then *real* Windows (not just “pretty DOS”) came along with ’95, and I had to re-train a lot of my friends that Ctrl-Alt-Del is now bad. And yes, you should actually wait for it to shut down before killing power.

    Nowadays, Crtl-Alt-Del has come full circle; it is now accepted and common again.


    Ctrl+Alt+Del ? Try Ctrl+C on for size.. the nemesis of any .bat and .com job gone bad.

leave your comment