The Three-Finger Salute

by David Battino

Perhaps the most famous key combination in computing is the notorious "three-finger-salute" that lets you break out of crashed programs. On the Mac, you press Command-Option-Escape; in DOS and Windows, the three keys are Ctrl-Alt-Del.

A few years ago, someone tracked down David Bradley, the IBM engineer who devised the Ctrl-Alt-Del combo, and asked him why he had picked those specific keys. He said that he'd wanted keys that were far enough apart that they couldn't be pressed accidentally.

Of course, he didn't realize how often that ejector seat would be used. In later years, Bradley started joking that although he had invented the combination, it was Microsoft that made it popular. (Here's a funny video of Bill Gates's reaction.)

I thought about that today after reading about the FlipStart, a new palmtop PC with a tiny keyboard designed to be operated with your thumbs. It was so awkward to press Ctrl-Alt-Del on prototypes that the company combined the three keys into a single button—sorta defeating the purpose.

FlipStart keyboard

The FlipStart merges three keys into one Ctrl-Alt-Del button. Reviewers called it an ergonomic nightmare.

Coincidentally, we just published an unusual article about user interface design over at O'Reilly Digital Media. It's called "Singing With Your Thumbs."

What are some of your favorite three-finger salutes?


2007-03-27 07:06:14
Well, actually on new OS's the 3-finger-salute does nothing more than evoking some sort of task manager, it no longer resets the machine or kill process. so, even if pressed accidentally, it wouldn't create excessive mayhem...


2007-03-27 08:04:38
OK, it is well out of the way up there for typing, closing the lid or--probably--anything else.

Still, isn't this the ideal keyboard for a device running Windows?

The FlipStart can't help but provoke amusement. First, it's painfully expensive. Secondly, the overall size is nice, but comes at the cost of input and output devices that are both too small for comfort. Thirdly, to top it off, the FlipStart is running Windows rather than software specifically tailored to the needs and interface of a smaller device.

David Battino
2007-03-27 08:58:51
@Michael: Good one! That keyboard reminds me of the Matias Half Keyboard. Maybe pairing that with a pull-out, flexible display (and a true mobile OS, as you note) would be the way to go.
2007-03-27 12:21:55
You said "On the Mac, you press Command-Option-Escape"

Well, all that does is bring up the "Force Quit" dialog. The key combo, that still works for serious problems, is still Control-Open Apple-Power (or Control-Command-Power if you don't remember open and closed apples on the keyboard). On current systems, without that nifty power key on the keyboard, you just hold the Power key until it feels like the logo is permently embossed into your thumb.

David Battino
2007-03-27 15:24:50
@Mark: Thanks for the reminder. Another combo I use all the time is Control-Eject, which brings up the Restart/Sleep/Shutdown buttons. Apple has a big list of key commands. The Sleep command didn’t work for me.
2007-03-27 20:00:43
Marcello is right, these days accidental input of "control-alt-delete" is a minor inconvinience, so it is not such a big deal. Still, I do find it amusing that the key combination is used so frequently in Windows that it demanded its own button. They should have just labeled it "oh damn."
2008-01-12 02:59:14
Hey dudes how to press ctrl+alt+del on the on-screen keyboard