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How widely used is a language?

December 11th, 2008

How widely used is a language? Nobody really knows and since there is nothing anybody can do to control usage (both IBM and the US DOD have tried) the question is probably of only academic interest.

Languages are used in a variety of ways and contexts and it is possible that while one language currently occupies the greatest number of programmer hours, a different one has greatest number of lines of code ever written in it, another the greatest number of lines of code currently in existence, and a fourth utilize the most CPU time.

Some languages are very popular for particular kinds of applications or within industries. For example, COBOL is still strong in corporate data centers; Fortran in engineering applications; C in embedded applications and operating systems; C++ and Java for writing desktop applications; Perl, PHP, etc. for web based applications.

There are various methods of measuring language popularity, each subject to a different bias over what is measured, that might be used, including:

  • counting the number of job advertisements that mention the language. Money counts, so this may be a solid indicator. However, beware, companies like to paint a rosy picture and sometimes mention languages they don’t use just to attract people to apply for the job.
  • measuring the financial value of companies making a living through selling tools for a particular language. As an ex-compiler writer I know that compared to applications software compilers make very little money (compiler companies invariably go bust or get bought by a hardware vendor looking for leverage). Microfocus is the only (primarily) compiler based company to have grown to a significant size and exist independently for a long period of time
  • the number of books sold that teach or describe the language. This will be biased towards the more recently popular languages.
  • estimates of the number of existing lines of code written in the language—which will underestimate languages not often found in public searches, e.g., there is very little Cobol source available on the web (is this because the kind of people who write Cobol are not the kind to make it publicly available or are the applications so specialized that web distribution is not considered worthwhile?)
  • counts of language references (i.e., to the name of the language) found using a web search engine.
  • Some of the above material exists in a section of a Wikipedia article I wrote some time ago.

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