Decades-old programming languages Fortran and Cobol are still thriving

Old Glories: Despite being almost 70 years old, Fortran and Cobol are still among the world’s most popular programming languages. They’re certainly overachieving, but for entirely different reasons, and neither seem unwilling to go out of fashion as new technological advancements like AI keep old skills relevant.

The May 2024 edition of the TIOBE Index includes a couple of surprising results, placing two of the most ancient programming languages among the top spots in popularity among developers.

The TIOBE Index, which gathers data from 25 high-ranked search engines, is updated monthly and primarily focuses on Turing complete languages. As a result, HTML and other markup languages such as XML are excluded, despite their popularity as “coding” technologies. According to the latest TIOBE Index, Python, C, and C++ are the three most popular programming languages among developers.

Fortran, a compiled language originally created by IBM in 1957, is especially suited to numeric computation and scientific computing tasks. According to the index, this ancient language is still the 10th most popular programming technology. Fortran reentered the top 10 after more than 20 years, and TIOBE Software CEO Paul Jansen has provided some explanations for this seemingly odd situation.

The TIOBE Index simply “publishes what has been measured,” and Fortran is apparently the subject of more than a thousand books available on Amazon. New, “cool” languages such as Kotlin and Rust barely hit 300 books for the same search query, Jansen said, while Fortran is still evolving, with the latest ISO definition for the language published in 2023.

The main reason for Fortran’s resurgence, however, is its aptitude for mathematical computing. Fortran has some competition, but each newer language has its own issues. Python is slow, MATLAB is “very easy” for math-related computations but costly, and C/C++ are fast but lack native support for complex math. In this jungle of languages, Jansen said, Fortran still has a reason to exist.

As for Cobol, its popularity is even easier to understand. The English-like language was designed for business use in 1959 and is now the 20th most popular programming technology. Cobol is still widely used in mainframe computers employed in critical industries such as banking, automotive, insurance, and more. IBM is proposing an AI-based solution designed to “translate” Cobol applications into something more modern like Java, but the ancient language will likely remain relevant for the foreseeable future.

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