4 Programming Languages That Won’t Fade Away Anytime Soon

It’s easy to predict a programming language’s seemingly imminent demise. When Apple rolled out Swift in 2014, for example, some analysts believed that it would quickly eat into the market-share of its predecessor, Objective-C. But languages have a funny way of hanging on, often powered by clusters of hardcore users and legacy applications. 

In the past, we’ve used a variety of sources (including Stack Overflow data, the language-popularity rankings published by TIOBE and RedMonk, and Dice’s own data) to predict which programming languages are doomed in the medium- to long-term. But that feels a bit morbid, so now we’re going to focus on something else: Which languages continue to hold on, despite constant predictions that they’re headed for the dustbin of dead tech.  

Objective-C

As we mentioned above, when Apple executives took to the stage six years ago to unveil Swift, its new-and-improved language for building macOS and iOS apps, many predicted that usage of Objective-C would soon wither away. At the time, it seemed like an easy prediction to make: Apple’s Objective-C is 35 years old, with all the baggage that comes with that. 

But a funny thing happened: Objective-C refused to die. Over the past few years, it managed to maintain a fairly high position on programming-language rankings such as RedMonk and TIOBE (your personal mileage with those lists and their methodology may vary, of course), although it’s dropped somewhat in recent months. 

What’s behind this unexpected longevity? A couple decades’ worth of legacy code to maintain and manage is a big part of that. Simply put, it takes resources and time to rewrite and update an app. In addition, many developers simply prefer to work with a language they’ve always used.

Eventually, usage of Objective-C may tumble to nothing, but that might take far longer than anyone thought. In the meantime, if you’re interested in building iOS and macOS apps, and you haven’t yet learned Swift, check out our short tutorials on functionsloopssetsarraysstringsstructs and classes.

R

For years, it seemed as if R, a programming language heavily utilized by data analysts and academics, might be done for. The culprit? Python, which has become increasingly popular in a variety of niche programming contexts, including data analytics and machine learning. Two years ago, for example, a survey from Burtch Works revealed that Python use among analytics professionals grew from 53 percent to 69 percent, even as the R user-base shrunk by nearly a third.

But R might be enjoying something of a comeback. The latest TIOBE Index rankings show R jumping into eighth place, up from 20th a year ago. Of course, TIOBE isn’t the definitive indicator of a language’s use, but other rankings (such as Stack Overflow’s annual Developer Survey, specifically its ‘Most Loved’ language rankings) also show R hanging on. 

R is niche; it’ll never challenge the likes of Python and JavaScript as a generalist language. However, it seems like a sizable cluster of specialists and fans could keep R viable for quite some time into the future.

COBOL

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the nation into lockdown (and workers into self-quarantine), state governments began pleading for COBOL experts. The reason was simple: These local municipalities had never shifted their databases from mainframes onto more modern systems, and they needed technologists skilled in COBOL to deal with unexpected spikes in usage. 

For example, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy asked for volunteers who could program in COBOL to help the state deal with a 1,600-percent increase in unemployment claims.

The crisis has highlighted how governments, along with major institutions such as banks, still rely on COBOL for some of their core systems. Moreover, demand for the programming language won’t slacken soon: Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, has predicted that positions demanding COBOL skills will “only” decline 13.6 percent over the next decade. Not bad for a language that’s 61 years old.

In other words, COBOL won’t be around forever. But claims that it’s a “dead” language are very premature. In the meantime, those who specialize in COBOL-related jobs can earn more than $115,000 per year, according to Burning Glass’s analysis. 

PHP

Every few quarters, it seems there’s yet another article about how PHP is in a death spiral. Last year, for example, TIOBE declared yet again that the 25-year-old language was doomed—for real, this time! “Till the end of 2009 everything went fine, but soon after that PHP was going downhill from 10 percent to 5 percent market share in 2 years’ time. In 2014 it halved again to 2.5 percent,” it noted.

Critics have spent a lot of time lambasting PHP. “A fractal of bad design,” as one blog infamously termed it. Some 62.7 percent of developers, meanwhile, told Stack Overflow that they “dreaded” using PHP, which really isn’t good.

Despite all that, however, PHP continues to linger in a pretty high-up position on TIOBE’s own Index, as well as the RedMonk rankings; and as with Objective-C, PHP is used in so many legacy applications, at so many major companies such as Facebook, that it’s clearly not going away anytime soon. Reports of its imminent demise might just be wishful thinking on the part of many technologists. 

5 Responses to “4 Programming Languages That Won’t Fade Away Anytime Soon”

  1. Companies do not have money to burn to rewrite working code just because it is an old language. As developers, we might like them to but that’s not how it works. There have to valid reasons to scrap working code.

  2. Taxzen

    A lot of “this programming language is dead” declarations are by competing advocates and companies that wish for the language to die, so that they can take it’s place or market share, not that the language is actually dead. And new doesn’t always mean better or easier to work with.

  3. DEREK BRITTON

    The opening narrative that the age of the language is a clear indicator of its usefulness – that somehow usefulness fades after a time – is entirely flawed.

    While a case could be made for languages that have a promoted successor provided by the same vendor (in the case of Swift v Objective C), elsewhere the premise that the age of a language is a sign that it is on its way out is missing the point, entirely, about both the suitability of the language, and the laws of supply and demand.

    Languages don’t achieve and retain “popularity” (by which I mean how widely they are used, rather than how widely they are cherished) accidentally. They achieve it by being useful for that they do, and then being able to retain and evolve that value for more and more use-cases. Consider the very mature Java, the positively venerable C, or even the utterly antique COBOL. They stuck it out because, whether academia or the press or hipster techies like it or not, they are good at what they do. Which, as noted, is often doing stuff that ultimately is important for the economy. Banking, government, insurance, healthcare, retail, logistics. Following that line of thought, it holds that the age of tech is a strong indicator of value and therefore likely future value, rather than the opposite. The comment “languages have a funny way of hanging on, often powered by clusters of hardcore users and legacy applications” only superficially explains the fundamental principle that the ultimate measure of lasting usefulness are the applications that are built with the tech, rather than what anyone thinks about the tech. Reported issues about skills gaps and “unsuitable” technology is typically just the manifestation of poor IT funding decisions.

    Computer languages are not fashion accessories. It is probably time to flip the table on its head and look at the longer-lasting technology as being where the real value is.

  4. Nicholas J Spanos

    I started my career as a COBOL developer and eventually switched to Project Management & Management Consulting. I caution my clients when they begin transformation initiatives that most people have a very strong resistance to change. Getting people to adopt a new system and new processes will be very difficult. The same is true of developers. They become comfortable with a specific language/technology and they also resist switching. The IT industry is approaching a crisis point. Senior developers who support the huge inventory of COBOL applications are retiring and younger developers refuse to learn COBOL. They want to work with their preferred language. Companies need to develop a strategy for addressing this issue or they may find themselves unable to operate/support mission critical applications.