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Why Older Programming Languages Still Got Game

By Arthur Cole | Reviewed by Kuntal ChakrabortyCheckmark | Last updated: August 19, 2021
Key Takeaways

Don't discount them because they aren't new and shiny! Older programming languages still have a lot of use and knowing them is a desirable skill.

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For both novice and experienced programmers, learning a new language is always fun and exciting. New languages bring new tools, new capabilities and in general allow data to be manipulated in ways that can be both intriguing and profitable.

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Naturally, most coders want to keep up on the newest languages on the market. But there are some very good reasons why older languages should still have a place in most coders’ skillsets, depending, of course, on their objectives and fields of interest.


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Re-emergence and Evolution of Programming Languages

Just because a language is old does not mean it’s obsolete. COBOL, for one, is alive and well, says Leon Kappelman of the University of North Texas, occupying the legions of mainframes that still power many of the world’s largest companies. With more than 200 billion lines of COBOL in operation today, it has simply become too risky and too expensive to replace them. That means demand for COBOL expertise will remain high as firms attempt to keep the language fresh in a changing economy.

Other dinosaur languages making comebacks in recent years include Fortran and Apple’s Objective-C, which were both listed in Tiobe Programming Community’s most recent index of popular languages. Objective-C had ceded the spotlight to newer releases like Swift for iOS and macOS, but it has regained some momentum primarily because interest in Swift quickly declined due to the developer’s preference to write for multiple platforms.

Meanwhile, Fortran reappeared on Tiobe’s top-20 list this year, rising from the 34th position in last year’s survey as demand for analytics and heavy number-crunching rose. Also back in the top-20 is Apache Groovy, which runs on the Java virtual machine and delivers advanced features like scripting and domain-specific authoring with relatively simple syntax. (Read also: These 5 Programming Languages Built the Internet.)


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Still Running Strong: Old Programming Languages Still in Use

In fact, when it comes to selecting a new language, one of the last things to consider should be its age. BMC Software recently put out a list of 10 top languages that are driving key processes today, and it’s telling that only two of them were released this century. Hard as it may be to believe, still-hot languages like Java, Python and PHP all date back to the 1990s, while the likes of C++ and Excel came out in the mid-80s.

Keep in mind, of course, that programming languages are not static. The Java released in 1995 is not the same Java we see today. New commands, new techniques, new ways of defining syntax all serve to refresh and refine languages for new generations of applications. And sometimes a single language branches off into new versions for more specialized tasks, such as Javascript and C++.

It should also be noted that regardless of age every language is tailored to a certain field. Alys Brooks, of online tutoring service Wyzant, notes that one of the oldest gaming languages is C, which powered such classics as SimCity and Doom but also made its way onto the Mars Curiosity Rover. Likewise, Python has applications on web sites that require massive number-crunching, while Java remains a top choice for enterprise workloads. In the end, learning a new language shouldn’t be based on what’s new or cool, but on what you want to do and how you want to do it. (Read also: The History of C Programming Language.)

Key Programming Language Attributes

Also important are the language’s key attributes, which go a long way toward determining how easy it is to work with and how flexible it is. One leading considering is accessibility, which Brooks says helps determine how well it allows you to break down problems and translate them into code. In this vein, you want a language with explicit and consistent syntax, provides clear and concise error messaging, and makes good use of established libraries.

It also doesn’t hurt to gauge a language’s relative popularity, since the more coders out there the more help there is when confronting thorny problems. On the flips side, however, those looking to build a career in coding will want to specialize in languages that are in high demand, which usually comes about due to a lack of available programmers. (Read also: What Functional Programming Languages are Best to Learn Now?)

Conclusion

Of course, the main reason why older programming languages are still in use today is because they work, and they work well. At the end of the day, languages are judged by their ability to convert human needs and desires into digital processes – to basically get work done faster and more accurately than people. If it can’t do that, then it quickly becomes a dead language.

In this regard, there is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing a language to master – just if it works satisfactorily or it doesn’t. Whether it was created in your father’s day, or your grandfather’s, should be the least consideration.


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Written by Arthur Cole | Contributor

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Arthur Cole is a freelance technology journalist who has been covering IT and enterprise developments for more than 20 years. He contributes to a wide variety of leading technology web sites, including IT Business Edge, Enterprise Networking Planet, Point B and Beyond and multiple vendor services.

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