In October 2014, Dice published a list of 5 programming languages marked for death. “Older languages can go one of two ways,” author and developer Jeff Cogswell wrote at the time. “Stay in use, despite fading popularity, or die out completely.” He predicted that five languages would soon disappear: Perl, Ruby, Visual Basic.NET, Adobe Flash and AIR, and Delphi’s Object Pascal.
(And yes, Adobe Flash and AIR are technically platforms, rather than languages; but their tight integration with the Web-development cycle, coupled with Flash’s well-publicized issues over the past several years, arguably rendered them valid for inclusion.)
In programming terms, 2014 was a lifetime ago, which means its time to update this list. Which programming languages continue to tumble in popularity? Which have managed to survive despite our earlier predictions?
We may have been wrong about Perl.
This high-level, general-purpose language was first developed in the late 1980s as a supple tool for Unix scripting, then exploded in popularity over the next decade. Referred to as the “Swiss Army chainsaw of scripting languages” for its adaptability and strength (and perhaps for its rough edges), Perl ended up used in everything from network programming to CGI scripting.
But a funny thing happened on the way to bigger market-share: development stalled. At the Perl Conference in the summer of 2000, computer programmer (and Perl creator) Larry Wall announced that work on Perl 6 was underway. There was, however, a catch: rather than serving as an organic successor to Perl 5—one that would clean up most of that version’s bigger issues—this next iteration was positioned as something new, a fundamental breakaway.
Nearly sixteen years later, Perl 6 is still under development, while Perl 5 continues to evolve (it’s currently up to version 5.22.1). Granted, the language isn’t as widely used as it was a decade ago, and you can debate whether the blame for that fact rests with that original decision to split off Perl 6, or if developers got tired of wrestling with some of Perl’s more inelegant aspects. But according to the latest TIOBE rankings, Perl is actually on the rise, having jumped four slots between February 2015 and 2016.
You can’t stop the chainsaw.
Unlike some other languages on this list, Objective-C’s decline falls under the category of “deliberate kill.” Although Objective-C has a very long and storied history as the platform for Mac OS X and iOS development, Apple began to feel it was time for a radical revamp.
That revamp came in the form of Swift, launched in the summer of 2014. Anxious to avoid breaking entirely with the past (which would have sent thousands of legacy developers marching toward Apple’s Cupertino headquarters, pitchforks and burning torches in hand), Apple ensured that Swift boasted compatibility with existing Cocoa frameworks and Objective-C.
Swift was also built for greater code resiliency, and addresses some of the performance and safety issues inherent in Objective-C. Apple made its new language open-source, starting with version 2.2. The consequence of all this, of course, is that Objective-C has tumbled in pretty much every programming-language ranking over the past year.
While Objective-C didn’t make Cogswell’s original list, it’s worth mentioning here as a language that is, most likely, dying.
We were also wrong about Ruby, which jumped nine slots on TIOBE’s most recent list (to ninth place). In addition, the language ranked high on RedMonk’s updated rankings, which are based on an analysis of GitHub and Stack Overflow.
Although some major platforms have stopped using Ruby as a development tool (Twitter, for example, switched its search front-end from Ruby on Rails to Java in mid-2011), the language evidently remains popular among developers.
Visual Basic .NET
While Visual Basic .NET ranked high on TIOBE’s list (where it managed to climb from 49th place in 2011 to seventh place this year), it’s dropped almost entirely from the one issued by RedMonk, suggesting that, while the language is still very much in use, developers are working and chatting about it less. (And to be fair, RedMonk advises that readers take its rankings with the skepticism due any sort of list.)
Created as a version of BASIC, with a coding schema heavily influenced by C#, Visual Basic .NET could have become much more ubiquitous, if only Microsoft (which built it) had opened it up more to cross-platform and open-source development. As it stands, C# ended up seizing developers’ hearts and minds instead. But that doesn’t mean Visual Basic .NET will fade away anytime soon.
Although Cogswell predicted that Delphi/Object Pascal would fade from view, it continues to hold strong on TIOBE’s list, ranking above even Objective-C, Visual Basic, and other languages. That speaks to the language’s strong legacy.
Adobe Flash and AIR
Back in 2010, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs published a letter online entitled “Thoughts on Flash.” Sparing no words, Jobs attacked Flash as insufficient for a world that depended on low-power mobile devices, touch interfaces, and open Web standards.
More than five years later, the attacks haven’t let up. In 2015, Facebook and Mozilla condemned Flash as insufficient when it comes to security. By the end of the year, Adobe announced that Flash Professional CC would be rebranded as Animate CC with new features such as HTML5 support. Within its official blog posting on the matter, Adobe acknowledged that “new web standards” such as HTML5 will become “the web platform of the future across all devices.”
In other words, yes, Adobe Flash is all but certainly dead… and perhaps sooner rather than later.
Once a language has a sizable install base, it’s likely to stick around for quite some time.