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Ctrl-Alt-Del, dropping out of Harvard, and other admitted tech mistakes

Bill Gates shocked the PC devout this week by admitting that the "Ctrl-Alt-Del" command to unlock Microsoft computers was a mistake. But he is far from the only tech giant to announce his wrongs.

By / September 27, 2013

Bill Gates speaks at Harvard University, where he admits that Ctrl-Alt-Del and dropping out of Harvard were mistakes.

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Anyone who learned about computers on a PC knows the finger-bending key to unlocking the home screen: Ctrl-Alt-Del.

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Bill Gates, however, wishes it wasn’t so. In an interview at Harvard last week, Mr. Gates told his interviewer Ctrl-Alt-Del was a “mistake,” as was dropping out of Harvard. This is a big revelation from a man well known for his computing innovation and rebellious interest in the tech world. But he is far from the only tech giant to realize hindsight is 20/20.

Gates says the three-finger button combination was IBM’s idea, after the keyboard engineer decided not to make a single start-up button. Originally, it was meant as a security precaution – letting the operating system know the hardware is on the same page. Microsoft programmed this three-button decision, and it stuck, even to today’s Windows 8.

Gates also says though he dropped out of Harvard early to start Microsoft, “An extra year or two wouldn’t have made a difference." Considering several of his tech-giant followers also dropped out (Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Michael Dell of Dell), he may have also unconsciously started a trend that has stuck around until today.

However, when you’re dealing with a major technological advancement, often innovating as you wildly grow, it isn’t uncommon to make a mistake or two.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has admitted a few mistakes in Facebook’s first nine years. In 2007, the website rolled out “Beacon,” a service that posted users' information from third-party websites, such as Blockbuster and Overstock, on their timeline, sometimes without the person's explicit condition. Privacy advocates denounced the program, and Facebook ended up settling a class-action lawsuit over Beacon.

Mr. Zuckerberg also admitted in a TechCrunch interview in 2012 that focusing Facebook’s mobile applications on HTML5, rather than applications distributed through an app store, was a mistake. With HTML5, Facebook users weren’t able to see as many timeline stories or feeds, which cut down on advertising opportunities which Facebook hoped to capitalize on in mobile apps. Not making money usually constitutes as a mistake.

Even mighty Apple doesn’t have a clean record. In 2012, Apple removed its products from the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) program, which measures electronics on environmental standards, like product life expectancy and toxic materials. Apple told EPEAT its design was “no longer consistent with EPEAT standards” and would like its 39 products to be removed from the list of green products.

This did not sit well with green-minded customers – or government organizations required to buy products that have met 95 percent of EPEAT standards. After public outcry, and major agencies such as the city of San Francisco announcing it would no longer buy Apple products, Apple renounced its withdrawal from EPEAT. In a letter on Apple’s website, Bob Mansfield, senior vice president of hardware engineering, apologized for the removal, writing, “I recognize that this was a mistake.”

Sometimes the mistakes in the tech world have nothing to do with hardware. In 2001, AOL and Time Warner merged in a deal valued at $350 billion, the biggest merger in American business history. Nine years later, the company was worth only 80 percent of its original price. The dot-com bust and a massive switch to high-speed Internet over AOL’s dial-up connection led the company into dramatic decline, sending AOL careening from the poster child of the Internet to laughingstock of the tech world. In 2010, Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes said at a London press conference that the merger was the “biggest mistake in corporate history.”

At least Ctrl-Alt-Del didn’t cost Bill Gates billions of dollars.

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