5 Programming Languages That Refuse to Die

Not all programming languages will stay relevant forever. As technologies evolve, and companies ask developers to rewrite mountains of legacy code, some languages will inevitably see their “base” erode. But “lesser usage” isn’t the same thing as annihilation. In that spirit, let’s examine five programming languages that, despite a shrinking user base, probably won’t disappear for a decade or two—if ever.

Or to put it another way, in the spirit of October: The Walking Dead ain’t got nothing on these programming languages.

Objective-C

Make no mistake about it: Apple wants Objective-C dead. Although the language undergirded Apple’s development ecosystem for decades, the company has made an aggressive point of promoting Swift, its successor. With Swift gaining power and features with each new iteration (Swift 5 offered ABI stability, for example), Objective-C has seen its solely dedicated developers jumping ship.

When developers begin moving away from particular programming languages, you see stagnation in the amount and quality of documentation being produced, and Objective-C is no different. But there’s one big factor that will prevent Objective-C from disappearing entirely for quite some time to come.

Simply put, there is a ton of legacy Objective-C code out there. In many cases, companies will opt to maintain it, because outright replacement is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. When replacement does occur, it will often take several quarters, if not a few years, especially for mission-critical iOS and macOS apps.

So even as Apple encourages developers to embrace Swift and cross-platform app building, it will take years for Objective-C to dwindle away—and even then, given its current legacy code base, there’s every chance that pockets of usage will remain. It will end up being one of the more zombie-like programming languages.

FORTRAN

As with many programming languages, people have been breezily predicting FORTRAN’s demise for years. And to be fair, the language is 62 years old—unbelievably ancient by technology standards. However, it’s still very much in use by engineers and scientists, and (even more importantly) it’s evolving at a steady clip. If your work is mathematical and highly specialized, such as weather modeling or computational physics, chances are good you’ll encounter FORTRAN at some point.

R

Yes, in our ultra-popular “5 Languages That Are Probably Doomed” article, we wrote that R was slated for history’s dustbin of dead programming languages. And wow, did we ever get a response from some folks! Significant numbers of programmers still care very much about R, which is primarily used by academics and data scientists for data analytics.

In our previous analysis, we suggested that Python would eventually swallow R. To back that up, we pointed to analyses by TIOBE and other firms showing R’s usage among data scientists degrading, with an accompanying rise in Python uptake. But perhaps we were a bit overzealous; instead of stating that R’s decline would end in outright dissolution, maybe it’ll maintain a healthy following among certain data-science shops and academic institutions.

There’s certainly enough passion around R to justify the assumption that it’ll last. And given its role in data science, and data science’s increasingly prominent role at many companies, it’s one of those programming languages worth studying if you do anything data-related.

COBOL

This is one entry on this programming-languages list that folks might have particular issue with. After all, COBOL is 60 years old, and famous for its use on mainframes. And when was the last time you saw a mainframe in an office?

But COBOL remains in use, even if its usage has dropped radically. For example, it’s still in use at many federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Veterans Affairs (as of 2016). The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Hiring Tracking Systems, which as of three years ago were still running on a 2008 IBM z10 mainframe, are reportedly COBOL-based.

And it’s not just the federal government: financial institutions refuse to give up their legacy systems, at least some of which run on COBOL. Banks refuse to overhaul these systems, and as long as they do, there’s a need out there for COBOL programmers. In 2018, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, and Citi had at least two-dozen job openings that listed COBOL, according to eFinancialCareers.

Given the widespread refusal to abandon legacy systems and the undead programming languages that go with them, it seems like pockets of COBOL will persist for some time—putting pressure on banks and federal agencies to find developers who actually know the language. That’s good for these highly specialized technologists, who can probably name their price when it comes to salaries and other benefits.

PHP

A few weeks ago, TIOBE predicted that PHP was in a death spiral of sorts. “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,” the organization wrote in a note accompanying its September update of the most popular programming languages, which shows PHP falling from seventh to ninth place in the overall rankings.

TIOBE blamed the decline on security holes; others have pointed to Python as swallowing up an ever-greater portion of the same market for backend development. However, PHP has been around long enough—and big companies such as Facebook have invested in it heavily enough—that it seems unlikely to disappear completely anytime soon, even as its market-share declines.

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