5 Programming Languages Doomed to Extinction

It’s the programming equivalent of the circle of life: programming languages are created, gain popularity, hit their peak, and slowly degrade until nobody uses them anymore. With some languages, this process is fairly rapid, especially if the language in question never sees much adoption; others are decades old and still going strong.

For developers, knowing which languages will fade is a crucial issue: It’s hard to earn money off programming in a language that nobody really uses anymore. Here are five languages that won’t disappear tomorrow, but the long-term trends definitely don’t look good.

R

In the TIOBE Index, R has tumbled from 15th to 18th place over the past year. There’s a solid reason behind this: although it emerged as a strong language for data analytics (itself a burgeoning field), R has lost ground to Python, which has proven as useful for data analysis as it has for other kinds of programming work.

R faces the same situation as many highly specialized languages: a steady rise thanks to a relatively small group of loyal specialists and subject-matter experts—many of whom begin to drift away once they realize that they can use another programming language that works roughly as well. In addition, workers entering the field for the first time may choose to go with the more general-purpose language over the specialized one, figuring they can use the former for other functions, besides.

Like other, highly specialized languages, R probably won’t disappear completely. But if Python becomes data analysts’ language of choice, it could end up reduced to relatively few users.

Objective-C

In 2014, Apple launched Swift, its general-purpose language for building iOS, macOS, and watchOS apps. It was meant to work with Apple’s existing frameworks and programming infrastructure; more to the point, the company wanted its developer ecosystem to use it in place of Objective-C, which is over three decades old.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Objective-C’s predicted obsolescence: the language refused to die. Maybe that’s due to the enormous number of apps written in it, or maybe because developers who learned Objective-C aren’t quite ready to commit to learning Swift yet; maybe it’s a combination of both. Whatever the case, Objective-C has maintained a (slowly declining) presence on various popular-languages lists.

All that being said, Apple is determined to replace Objective-C with Swift. It’s going to happen. It might just take longer than the company expects.

Visual Basic

R might have tumbled quite a bit in the TIOBE Index over the past 12 months, but it has nothing on Visual Basic, which fell from 13th place to 19th over the same period. It’s also dipped in RedMonk’s long-term language rankings, although not quite as much.

In many ways, this decline isn’t surprising: Visual Basic is a really old language, having first appeared on the scene in 1991, and if there’s any truism in the technology world, it’s that older technologies are inevitably eclipsed by the new. Plus, Microsoft stopped supporting Visual Basic quite some time ago. And yet, according to the sites that monitor the relative popularity of programming languages, this platform continues to hold on—there must be a substantial number of hobbyists out there, or else tech pros tasked with maintaining legacy code.

Rather than learn Visual Basic, which will completely fade from view at some point, it’s worth your time to educate yourself in the particulars of its successor, Visual Basic .NET, an object-oriented programming language that launched in 2002 and continues to power the building of Windows apps. It’s safe to say that Microsoft isn’t going to stop supporting Visual basic .NET anytime soon, given its importance to the contemporary Windows ecosystem. (If you’re unfamiliar with Visual Basic .NET, note that Microsoft doesn’t use ‘.NET’ in its documentation, which can lead to some confusion between the contemporary .NET and “classic” Visual Basic.)

Perl

At one point, Perl seemed ubiquitous, and developers used it to build some of the biggest websites of yesteryear, including Craigslist and Slashdot. It was also useful for prototyping new, smaller programs, or creating wrapper functions.

Perl was doing so well for so long—it even broke into the top 10 of the TIOBE Index (peaking in ninth place) before tumbling to 16th. But it’s also a language in serious decline. In 2000, Perl creator (and the language’s “benevolent dictator for life”) Larry Wall announced that work had begun on Perl 6, the language’s next big iteration; it’s now 2018, and while the Rakudo Perl 6 compiler is in active development (targeting MoarVM and the Java Virtual Machine), momentum for the project seems to have frittered away. Smaller updates, meanwhile, continue on Perl 5 (which is up to 5.28).

What drove Perl’s decline? Some experts think that Python, which occupies much of the same programming “niche,” had something to do with it. “Perl’s eventual problem is that if the Perl community cannot attract beginner users like Python successfully has, it runs the risk of become like Children of Men, dwindling away to a standstill; vast repositories of hieroglyphic code looming in sections of the Internet and in data center partitions like the halls of the Mines of Moria,” Conor Myhrvold wrote for Fast Company in 2014. Not much has changed since.

COBOL

If you’re a COBOL programmer, chances are good you can land a job at a major institution that’s maintained a COBOL codebase since before you were born. Indeed, an industry-wide shortage of COBOL programmers means that such positions can provide quite a comfortable salary (the Dice Salary Calculator suggests $79,000 per year isn’t out of the question in California).

But sooner or later, COBOL is going to fade away as companies replace their tech stacks, especially if they opt for cloud-based solutions over on-premises. If you plan on having a decades-long career as a programmer, COBOL probably won’t be a factor in your mid- to late career.

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34 Responses to “5 Programming Languages Doomed to Extinction”

  1. You seem to be somewhat mistaken about Visual Basic, classic edition. Back in 1997 it branched into vb for desktop and vb for applications (VBA) aka macros, but it is the same core language. The difference is that vba does not let you compile into standalone applications. Vba is thriving in all ms office products, especially Excel for both windows and Mac. So until ms offers a replacement–and their attempts to transition it to vb.net failed– then it is likely to continue on as long as excel exists. And even though it’s not available in the current web edition of office, that’s supposed to change in the near future.

    • I hope Microsoft comes to its senses and figures out how to kill VBA. It would be better for folks to learn Javascript as a replacement Office scripting technology. Although for the target audience it would not necessarily be better, it’s far more capable than VBA, drives all modern web sites and with Node, it’s a serious contender on the server. AWS Lambdas also offers first class Node support. Imagine writing a Javascript office macro and then using that same language to harness the power of serverless apps in the cloud.

      While Azure may have some form of VBA container support, Node and Javascript have lots of open source libraries and plenty of experts to answer questions. VBA, not so much. It’s a quaint, quirky language that has no future.

      • Peter Adam

        VBA is so much more structured, dependable language compared to the quirky, C-style syntax JavaScript. Need I say more than =/==/===?
        VBA is not only for certified programmers.

          • Max Peck

            Yup, VBA is for all purposes VB6 and in all honesty quite powerful in the MS Office environment. You can be a code bigot all you want but the thing just flat gets the job done. Ripping it out of Office just because some other language is more fashionable is nuts. Until and unless Microsoft sees a patented reason to replace VBA, it will serve fine as it is.

          • Peter Adam

            That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Only floating point numbers are the mass of it, in the office environment VBA designed for. And VB.NET should have nothing to do with VBA, because object oriented programming is not as easy as procedural programming.

      • @MaxPeck said: “You can be a code bigot all you want but the thing just flat gets the job done. Ripping it out of Office just because some other language is more fashionable is nuts. Until and unless Microsoft sees a patented reason to replace VBA, it will serve fine as it is.”

        I bought my first house with money made doing VB4, VB5 and VB6. At one time I was an expert and managed to coax VB6 into doing things by calling the Win32 API or creating C++ COM objects that it was never intended to do. From this perspective, I have many pragmatic reasons for MS to replace VBA or at least allow alternatives:

        1) Office is a popular product and if it used a popular scripting language, there would be lots of folks who could help business people automate their lives. As it stands, the folks who know VBA are dwindling.

        2) Like every software package ever invented, VBA likely still has many unknown bugs. Microsoft needs to keep patching it and staff folks that know the underlying C++ code that makes it work. MS has invested heavily in EMCA Script and claims to have one of the fastest runtimes for it in their Edge browser. They should leverage this in Office

        3) Office is cross-platform. AFAIK, the VBA is Windows only. Like everything else MS is doing with their cloud-first strategy, VBA no longer makes sense. Office deserves a scripting language that is as cross-platform as it has become.

        • Peter Adam

          Sorry, but the sole idea of COM objects is to make them usable in every language. I’m sure you have used a lot of ActiveX extensions in your VBx projects which are COM objects.
          It was the weakness of VBx that you had to use another language to create most of the controls, and this was one reason why Delphi was superior to the VBx line.

          But we are speaking about VBA.

          Microsoft invested heavily in TypeScript, to save the world from the JavaScript hell.

          There are lots of already existing applications, and nobody will rewrite them to be just hip.

          If you change it, please change it to a language that can do math. JavaScript was inspired by a dead-end called LISP, which is used for dead-end AI, not boring accounting.

          • There’s no rewriting. It’s not about being hip. I laid out many pragmatic reasons VBA shouldn’t be the road forward. It doesn’t make any sense for you to be sorry about COM objects.

  2. Christopher E. Stith

    I’ve been hearing about the imminent demise of Perl for over twenty years and about the death of Cobol for longer. Perl 5 his had multiple big updates the past few years, and with the deprecation cycle sped up from glacial to explicitly scheduled for old features that’s just accelerating. Both are becoming niche languages, but filling a niche is far different from becoming extinct.

    People still write code in MUMPS, A+, Object Pascal, Tcl, Ada, Common Lisp, Forth, Fortran, and Standard ML. People still speak hundreds of natural languages that aren’t in the top ten, too.

    Giving Python so much credit for declines in Perl and R use ignores S, Julia, Ruby, PHP 7, JavaScript on the server side of the web, Scala, Clojure, Rust, and Go.

  3. Dave Cross

    I’m not convinced that any language is “doomed to extinction”. They all seem to find a niche where they still hang around, still being used long after the rest of the world has forgotten about them.

    But I have to take issue with your mention of the “smaller updates” to Perl. While the Perl 6 project prevents Perl 5 from incrementing its major version number, the Perl 5 team have effectively started to treat the second part of the version number as major. There have been a huge number of big changes in Perl 5 since the turn of the millennium and anyone who can describe them as “smaller updates” simply isn’t keeping up.

    I recommend spending an hour or three perusing the “perlXXXXdelta” files that come with every new version of Perl.

  4. Elizabeth Mattijsen

    I cannot judge the parts about programming languages other than Perl. But with regards to Perl (both Perl 5 and Perl 6), you seem to be only repeating prejudices. Did you even know that Perl 6 has had its first official release in December 2015? That *seven* Perl 6 books have been published since then? And that there is a monthly compiler release with a 3-monthly “batteries included” user release called “Rakudo Star”? And that Perl 5 is on a yearly release schedule (apart from the monthly developer releases)?

    Please do your research better next time.

    • Aureliano

      Thanks for recalling that Perl 6 is available. I remembered seeing it in one Ubuntu distribituion. Please Mr. Kolakowski be careful with such assertions as they can bring discredit to the right ones.

  5. Bruce Harrington

    When I started playing with R way back in 2016 there were about 7,000 libraries or packages. Today there are more than 10,000. For a dying language, that’s a lot of dedicated development. R is not as broadly useful as Python or C#, but it is an extremely useful tool for data analysis and probably better than either will ever be.

  6. Angelo Barone

    Cobol, more importantly, Mainframes, aren’t going anywhere unfortunately. Cloud based solutions simply aren’t viable when it comes to the high volume of transactions we have today. Simply too risky

    • He’s talking about the original Visual Basic, not Visual Basic .NET. He mentioned that Visual Basic .NET is still well supported by Microsoft. The original Visual Basic is what’s losing popularity.

  7. I think you’re off base on COBOL. Companies that have invested millions of dollars in code are not replacing it. And, replace it with what? The only language close is Java and that’s not the most friendly and easy to understand language out there. They may replace front-end code like CICS with a web front-end but back-end code, there’s no need.

    • Did anyone notice that R is on the “programming-languages-doomed-to-extinction”
      AND the “5 Rising Programming Languages” (in the Related section above).

      (I don’t use R, just noticed the curiosity)

  8. Sadsteve

    “and if there’s any truism in the technology world, it’s that older technologies are inevitably eclipsed by the new.”

    So, when does ‘inevitably’ hit the old C programming language? It still seems to been hanging around in the top ten (tiobe index) for quite a while.

  9. Whenever Dice needs more eyeballs on ads they get someone to write one of these rediculous “languages doomed for extinction” articles. It would be nice if they got someone from academia to do some ACTUAL RESEARCH on the topic, instead of having some hack compare this year’s TIOBE index with last year’s.

  10. Liopleurodon

    “If you plan on having a decades-long career as a programmer” plan to find a different planet or a portal to a fantasy world. The expiration date for ‘coders’ just gets shorter and shorter here on Earth.

    As much as I dislike COBOL, it apparently does better with calculations than most modern languages, and financial institutions seem to care about calculations. “Muller’s Recurrence” is one of the methods used to illustrate that.

  11. Me Me Meeeeee

    Read an article just to find it too clickbaity, and more likly someone writing an article to feed themselfs this week.
    Extinction vs obscurity maybe?
    Skimming down the list I had though Fortran was more legacy used in the mainframe space (29th) and is no where near being “extinct” do to what others already commented on being why change something that works.
    Haskell, Erlang, Lisp all will forever stay afloat due to them being the what makes the back end of so much infrastructure work.

    contrast that with Dart (24th), sub 10 year language. Off the top of my head would say most things written in it can be replaced by rewrite.

  12. “Indeed, an industry-wide shortage of COBOL programmers means that such positions can provide quite a comfortable salary (the Dice Salary Calculator suggests $79,000 per year isn’t out of the question in California).”

    Umm – 79K is barely an entry level programmer salary in CA

  13. Zur Kammer

    WOW! How many decades have passed since COBOL, FORTRAN were declared dead languages? Dude, when your Grandparents wrote FORTRAN how can it be relevant into today’s world? The fact is these languages are still very alive, viable and flexible. Significant investments exist in business critical applications that would be very expensive to migrate especially given the frequent failure to document changes and other enhancements. Rewriting code adds costs, time, potential lost opportunities, and risk to what are often mission critical applications. Few CEO’s will fund high risk initiatives placing revenue and margin at risk and burning investors when the business needs are being served and the code is easily moved to the Web? A functional rewrite from a time and cost perspective is often out of the question. Many don’t understand recursive programs in FORTRAN and real-time interactive applications in COBOL for mission critical needs are not that challenging to achieve.

  14. David Richardson

    Cobol has stayed alive by evolving. But as much as you can insult procedural languages like Cobol they are more efficient and faster at what they were designed to do than these newer languages…