If you follow the TIOBE Index, which attempts to rank the popularity of the world’s programming languages, then you know there’s never a lot of movement at the very top of the rankings. So it’s surprising that the latest update to the list has C taking the top spot, overcoming Java and Python.
TIOBE can’t definitively state why C managed to hop from second to first place, though. “One of the reasons might be the Corona virus [sic],” read the note accompanying the latest rankings. “This might sound silly but some programming languages really benefit from this situation. Examples are Python and R in the data sciences area because everybody is searching for an antidote for the virus. But also embedded software languages such as C and C++ are gaining popularity because these are used in software for medical devices.”
Do you buy that explanation? It’s okay if you don’t. TIOBE has a particular (and often controversial) way of building its popularity rankings. Languages on the list must be Turing complete, have their own Wikipedia entry, and earn more than 5,000 hits for +”<language> programming” on Google. That’s in addition to TIOBE studying data from a variety of aggregators and search engines, including YouTube and Wikipedia.
Critics have spent years complaining that this methodology isn’t a “true” measure of a language’s popularity, because the inputs focus more on “chatter” around a particular language than its actual use. And granted, there’s a lot of chatter about coronaviruses and COVID-19 right now, particularly in the context of tech, and C is used in a number of embedded medical devices… but that’s not necessarily the only reason why the language has leapt into TIOBE’s top spot.
Indeed, C’s popularity showed no signs of flagging well before COVID-19 became a serious issue. Despite its advanced age by tech standards (over half a century old!), C is widely taught and used. It’s featured in the kernels of the world’s major operating systems, and many key platforms—including the first Java compiler—were written in it.
Back in January (doesn’t that feel like a million years ago?), TIOBE even named C its top programming language of 2019. “Why is the programming language C still hot? The major drivers behind this trend are the Internet of Things (IoT) and the vast amount of small intelligent devices that are released nowadays,” read the note accompanying the results. “C excels when it is applied to small devices that are performance-critical.” Plus, C is “easy to learn and there is a C compiler for every processor.”
In other words, COVID-19 might not be the primary driver behind C’s latest bump in the rankings. Whether or not C stays in first place, though, TIOBE is a solid reminder that the older programming languages—including Java, C, C++, and Python—are always useful to know. Not only are tons of new apps, platforms and websites written in these languages every day, but you can always land a job maintaining enormous amounts of legacy code.
And as you can see from this breakdown of Dice data, these programming languages are often associated with hefty salaries. Keep that in mind as you’re plotting which language to learn next.
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