5 Programming Languages Fading Away

Some programming languages take a long time to die. Companies and institutions are often unwilling to devote the time and resources necessary to rewrite mission-critical software in a newer language, which is why you sometimes see important systems running decades-old code. For example, there’s Ada, an object-oriented high-level language developed forty years ago that’s still used for safety-critical systems such as air-traffic control and rail transport.

Nonetheless, given enough time, most languages will fade away, replaced by something more efficient (or at least more heavily promoted). Here are five that seem to be on the downslope:


Apple would really like it if you stopped using Objective-C, its aging language for iOS and macOS. In June 2014, the tech giant rolled out Swift, a substitute language for building apps for those platforms, and began prodding developers to move to it.

Although many of those developers embraced Swift in short order, Objective-C has a massive legacy thanks to all the iPhone, iPad, and Mac apps out there. And because of that, it’s unlikely the language will die anytime soon, no matter how much Apple prods its creators to move on. That being said, Objective-C has tumbled like a stone in the TIOBE rankings over the past year—a trend that will certainly continue.


First developed in the late 1980s as a supple tool for Unix scripting, Perl saw its stature rise over the next 20 years, used in everything from CGI scripting to network programming. By the turn of the century, though, development had stalled. Some sixteen years after it was first announced, Perl 6 is still under development, although Perl 5 continues to receive updates.

The absence of Perl 6 aside (It’ll arrive someday! Maybe!), developers continue to use Perl, claiming that it’s efficient and portable despite some annoyances. But other programming languages have seized the spotlight in the interim, and it’s an open question whether Perl will see some sort of renaissance.

Visual Basic.NET

Visual Basic.NET (not to be confused with Visual Basic, its predecessor) is a key language for building Windows apps, although Microsoft has evolved the accompanying Visual Studio into a cross-platform IDE that also supports iOS and Android apps.

Visual Basic.NET has some fierce competition for developer attention in the form of C#, a language very similar to Java that was developed by Anders Hejlsberg, who also created Borland Delphi. For years, developers have loved using C# for building Windows apps, which is why the language sits unmoving near the top of the TIOBE rankings.

If that competition from C# wasn’t enough pressure, Visual Basic.NET also sits on the wrong side of a massive paradigm shift. Whereas the PC dominated the tech industry for many decades, smartphones and tablets have become the center of many folks’ digital lives—which means that Android and iOS are dominant platforms in developers’ minds (and workflows).

If Windows loses too much market-share to these alternative platforms, you could see usage of Visual Basic.NET erode—especially if C# remains strong.


Back in 1987, Lisp held second place in TIOBE’s rankings. Thirty years later, it sits in thirtieth place. Although it has produced a number of well-known dialects, most notably Clojure, Lisp’s current usage is largely restricted to artificial-intelligence researchers.

While Lisp’s usefulness to the A.I. community guarantees that the language will hang around a little longer, it’s thoroughly niche at this point—and at risk of fading even more if A.I. researchers decide to rely on something else. But even if that happens, Lisp has enjoyed a great run for a language first created in 1958.


COBOL is the very definition of a legacy language. Although once widespread within the enterprise, its usage has declined as corporations have gradually migrated to newer languages and platforms. These days, COBOL usage is largely tied to the maintenance of legacy systems.

12 Responses to “5 Programming Languages Fading Away”

  1. William Murphy

    I ABSOLUTELY agree that COBOL is not going away. It is stronger than ever before. Many companies are discovering the immense costs associated with replacing COBOL. This goes hand-in-hand with the rumored death of the mainframe. For now, there is nothing else out there than can match the reliability and dependability of the mainframe. Besides, when is the last time you heard a mainframe crashing or being hacked?

  2. JenniT

    Can you elaborate? I’m actually looking at a career change, I used to be pretty good at programming and software, and I think at my age (late 30s) it may be easier to get a job with one of the “dinosaur” languages that the younger IT people ignore. Thanks!

  3. Ladder Logic and LabVIEW are not going anywhere soon, yet they are lower on the “list” than the languages in this post. As a bit of context:

    Objective C is 16 (Swift is 10), Perl is 9, Visual BASIC.NET is 6 (Visual BASIC is 15), LiSP is 33, and COBAL is 25 (I think the author is upset because a girl in the navy was instrumental in developing it).

    SAS is 21.

    Fortran is 27.

    LabVIEW is 34.

    Ladder Logic is 45.

  4. Sebastian Schleussner

    “[Perl 6]’ll arrive someday! Maybe!” Seriously? Where have you been living? Perl 6 was released 15 months ago, fergodsake! And Perl 5 is not just receiving small “updates”, it continues being actively developed in its own right (borrowing ideas from Perl 6 where applicable).

  5. Richard Riehle

    Old COBOL is old. But COBOL has evolved, and is better than ever. The COBOL Evaluate statement alone makes it still the best language for business data processing. The Picture clauses map directly to accounting data far better than any of the languages derived from C.

    Ada has also evolved. From an engineering perspective, it is substantially better than most popular languages, but as with calculus and other advanced mathematics, there is more to learn to use it at its very best.

    Engineering in the modern world of software, where safety is becoming more and more important, suggests that a language that supports the “principle of least surprise” such as Ada, should be a consideration for medical devices, airplanes, nuclear power plants, and any other application where people could be killed or maimed from a software-based accident.

    Languages that evolve will survive when they fill a need. Languages that do not evolve will become less useful. That is the case with PL/I, a language that has failed to evolve to conform to modern software practices.

  6. raiph mellor

    > Apple would really like it if you stopped using Objective-C, its aging language for iOS and macOS.

    Trusting a language that is effectively owned by a single corporate sponsor is asking for trouble down the line. What if they change their tune?

    > By the turn of the century, though, development [of Perl] had stalled.

    That’s a marketing myth.

    Fast forward to 2017. The Perl 5 core is updated yearly. From https://metacpan.org/pod/release/RJBS/perl-5.24.0/pod/perldelta.pod#Acknowledgements :

    “Perl 5.24.0 represents approximately 11 months of development since Perl 5.22.0 and contains approximately [250,000] lines of changes across [1,200] files from 77 authors.”

    And that’s just the core package. Another important element of the open ecosystem is CPAN, the distributed downloadable modules network. From http://stats.cpantesters.org/statscpan.html it’s clear there have been more distributions (bundles of modules) added in the last 2 years than were added in the 5 year period 1996 – 2000.

    In the meantime, https://github.com/rakudo/rakudo/graphs/contributors makes it clear that Perl 6 is vibrant. The Perl 6 ecosystem has over a thousand committers to date, shipped a first official version around a year ago, and has multiple O’Reilly books appearing in print this year.

    > Visual Basic.NET has some fierce competition for developer attention in the form of C#

    Is this pure speculation by DICE? The TIOBE rankings are mostly marketing BS but VB.NET weighed in at #6 in their March 2017 rankings.

    > Back in 1987, Lisp held second place in TIOBE’s rankings.

    Is that supposed to be a joke? (The company that developed TIOBE’s rankings was incorporated in 2000.)

    > Lisp’s current usage is largely restricted to artificial-intelligence researchers.

    That’s another joke, right?

    > Although once widespread within the enterprise, [COBOL] usage has declined

    Do you have stats to back this up?