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O Cobol, Cobol! wherefore art thou Cobol?

February 12th, 2012 2 comments

Programming language popularity has been in the news again and as always Cobol is nowhere to be seen in the rankings. Even back in the day, when people in the know generally considered Cobol to be the most widely used language it often failed to appear, or appeared very low down, in language rankings. I think Cobol’s unrepresentative rankings occur because users of Cobol are assumed to hang out in the same places as users of other programming languages. The letters bo in the name is the clue, business oriented people are not usually interested in technical stuff and tend not to read the magazines (and these days web sites) that users of the other popular languages read.

Cobol is very business domain specific and does not contain functionality that makes it a reasonable choice for writing applications in other domains (it is possible to write a compiler in Cobol, for instance the Micro Focus compiler is written in Cobol). It has very sophisticated languages constructs for handling data having the most convoluted formats imaginable, essential in the business world which has to process data whose format has evolved over the years into a tangled mess (developers have to deal with spaghetti code, business has to deal with spaghetti data formats). Cobol’s control flow and code structuring facilities are primitive (all variables are global and the perform statement is very similar to the gosub statement found in Basic’s that are line number based) because business data processing tends to be relatively simple and programs to handle them are generally small (the large Cobol programs of legend are invariably made up of lots of small programs run in series with complicated data format dependencies between them).

I started to realise just how different Cobol is when working on my first Cobol code generator (yes it was written in Cobol). If a processor has lots of registers it is usually worthwhile to dedicate one to holding the value zero (of the 32 registers supported by most RISC processors, often only 31 can hold different values, one is dedicated to returning zero when read from and ignores any value written to it), in the case of Cobol it is considered worthwhile to dedicate a register to hold 0x20202020 (four space characters) rather than zero.

Is Cobol still the most widely used language today? No, I don’t think so. Business people love spreadsheets which means developers have switched to writing pre/post data format processing code, previously in Cobol, in Visual Basic (to convert input data into a form accepted by the spreadsheet and then print the results of the spreadsheet calculations in a presentable format); this Visual Basic source can often have a Cobol-like feel to it. This spreadsheet usage also resulted in the comma separated list becoming a widely used format for data representation, eroding Cobol’s unique selling point of sophisticated input/output data format processing.

What does language popularity mean? Does using a language you don’t like count towards it being popular? There are several languages I like and very rarely get to use, does this mean I don’t get to contribute to their popularity?

In these tough financial times the number of job adverts requiring knowledge of a specified language is probably of more interest than number of posts to web sites. One job search site lists 3,032 Cobol jobs and counting job ad hits for the top languages listed in a recent popularity poll puts Cobol at the bottom end of the cluster of highest ranked languages.

On mainframes I think Cobol is likely to still be No. 1; it is probably impossible to replace the dominant language in a niche market.