Widely used programming languages: past, present, and future

Programming languages are like pop groups in that they have followers, fans and supporters; new ones are constantly being created and some eventually become widely popular, while those that were once popular slowly fade away or mutate into something else.

Creating a language is a relatively popular activity. Science fiction and fantasy authors have been doing it since before computers existed, e.g., the Elf language Quenya devised by Tolkien, and in the computer age Star Trek’s Klingon. Some very good how-to books have been written on the subject.

As soon as computers became available, people started inventing programming languages.

What have been the major factors influencing the growth to widespread use of a new programming languages (I’m ignoring languages that become widespread within application niches)?

Cobol and Fortran became widely used because there was widespread implementation support for them across computer manufacturers, and they did not have to compete with any existing widely used languages. Various niches had one or more languages that were widely used in that niche, e.g., Algol 60 in academia.

To become widely used during the mainframe/minicomputer age, a new language first had to be ported to the major computers of the day, whose products sometimes supported multiple, incompatible operating systems. No new languages became widely used, in the sense of across computer vendors. Some new languages were widely used by developers, because they were available on IBM computers; for several decades a large percentage of developers used IBM computers. Based on job adverts, RPG was widely used, but PL/1 not so. The use of RPG declined with the decline of IBM.

The introduction of microcomputers (originally 8-bit, then 16, then 32, and finally 64-bit) opened up an opportunity for new languages to become widely used in that niche (which would eventually grow to be the primary computing platform of its day). This opportunity occurred because compiler vendors for the major languages of the day did not want to cannibalize their existing market (i.e., selling compilers for a lot more than the price of a microcomputer) by selling a much lower priced product on microcomputers.

BASIC became available on practically all microcomputers, or rather some dialect of BASIC that was incompatible with all the other dialects. The availability of BASIC on a vendor’s computer promoted sales of the hardware, and it was not worthwhile for the major vendors to create a version of BASIC that reduced portability costs; the profit was in games.

The dominance of the Microsoft/Intel partnership removed the high cost of porting to lots of platforms (by driving them out of business), but created a major new obstacle to the wide adoption of new languages: Developer choice. There had always been lots of new languages floating around, but people only got to see the subset that were available on the particular hardware they targeted. Once the cpu/OS (essentially) became a monoculture most new languages had to compete for developer attention in one ecosystem.

Pascal was in widespread use for a few years on micros (in the form of Turbo Pascal) and university computers (the source of Wirth’s ETH compiler was freely available for porting), but eventually C won developer mindshare and became the most widely used language. In the early 1990s C++ compiler sales took off, but many developers were writing C with a few C++ constructs scattered about the code (e.g., use of new, rather than malloc/free).

Next, the Internet took off, and opened up an opportunity for new languages to become dominant. This opportunity occurred because Internet related software was being made freely available, and established compiler vendors were not interested in making their products freely available.

There were people willing to invest in creating a good-enough implementation of the language they had invented, and giving it away for free. Luck, plus being in the right place at the right time resulted in PHP and Javascript becoming widely used. Network effects prevent any other language becoming widely used. Compatible dialects of PHP and Javascript may migrate widespread usage to quite different languages over time, e.g., Facebook’s Hack.

Java rode to popularity on the coat-tails of the Internet, and when it looked like security issues would reduce it to niche status, it became the vendor supported language for one of the major smart-phone OSs.

Next, smart-phones took off, but the availability of Open Source compilers closed the opportunity window for new languages to become dominant through lack of interest from existing compiler vendors. Smart-phone vendors wanted to quickly attract developers, which meant throwing their weight behind a language that many developers were already familiar with; Apple went with Objective-C (which evolved to Swift), Google with Java (which evolved to Kotlin, because of the Oracle lawsuit).

Where does Python fit in this grand scheme? I don’t yet have an answer, or is my world-view wrong to treat Python usage as being as widespread as C/C++/Java?

New programming languages continue to be implemented; I don’t see this ever stopping. Most don’t attract more users than their implementer, but a few become fashionable amongst the young, who are always looking to attach themselves to something new and shiny.

Will a new programming language ever again become widely used?

Like human languages, programming languages experience strong networking effects. Widely used languages continue to be widely used because many companies depend on code written in it, and many developers who can use it can obtain jobs; what company wants to risk using a new language only to find they cannot hire staff who know it, and there are not many people willing to invest in becoming fluent in a language with no immediate job prospects.

Today’s widely used programmings languages succeeded in a niche that eventually grew larger than all the other computing ecosystems. The Internet and smart-phones are used by everybody on the planet, there are no bigger ecosystems to provide new languages with a possible route to widespread use. To be widely used a language first has to become fashionable, but from now on, new programming languages that don’t evolve from (i.e., be compatible with) current widely used languages are very unlikely to migrate from fashionable to widely used.

It has always been possible for a proficient developer to dedicate a year+ of effort to create a new language implementation. Adding the polish need to make it production ready used to take much longer, but these days tool chains such as LLVM supply a lot of the heavy lifting. The problem for almost all language creators/implementers is community building; they are terrible at dealing with other developers.

It’s no surprise that nearly all the new languages that become fashionable originate with language creators who work for a company that happens to feel a need for a new language. Examples include:

  • Go created by Google for internal use, and attracted an outside fan base. Company languages are not new, with IBM’s PL/1 being the poster child (or is there a more modern poster child). At the moment Go is a trendy language, and this feeds a supply of young developers willing to invest in learning it. Once the trendiness wears off, Google will start to have problems recruiting developers, the reason: Being labelled as a Go developer limits job prospects when few other companies use the language. Talk to a manager who has tried to recruit developers to work on applications written in Fortran, Pascal and other once-widely used languages (and even wannabe widely used languages, such as Ada),
  • Rust a vanity project from Mozilla, which they have now abandoned. Did Rust become fashionable because it arrived at the right time to become the not-Google language? I await a PhD thesis on the topic of the rise and fall of Rust,
  • Microsoft’s C# ceased being trendy some years ago. These days I don’t have much contact with developers working in the Microsoft ecosystem, so I don’t know anything about the state of the C# job market.

Every now and again a language creator has the social skills needed to start an active community. Zig caught my attention when I read that its creator, Andrew Kelley, had quit his job to work full-time on Zig. Two and a-half years later Zig has its own track at FOSEM’21.

Will Zig become the next fashionable language, as Rust/Go popularity fades? I’m rooting for Zig because of its name, there are relatively few languages whose name starts with Z; the start of the alphabet is over-represented with language names. It would be foolish to root for a language because of a belief that it has magical properties (e.g., powerful, readable, maintainable), but the young are foolish.

Influential programming languages: some of the considerations

Which programming languages have been the most influential?

Let’s define an influential language as one that has had an impact on lots of developers. What impact might a programming language have on developers?

To have an impact a language needs to be used by lots of people, or at least have a big impact on a language that is used by lots of people.

Figuring out the possible impacts a language might have had is very difficult, requiring knowledge of different application domains, software history, and implementation techniques. The following discussion of specific languages illustrate some of the issues.

Simula is an example of a language used by a handful of people, but a few of the people under its influence went on to create Smalltalk and C++. Some people reacted against the complexity of Algol 68, creating much simpler languages (e.g., Pascal), while others thought some of its feature were neat and reused them (e.g., Bourne shell).

Cobol has been very influential, at least within business computing (those who have not worked in business computing complain about constructs handling uses that it was not really designed to handle, rather than appreciating its strengths in doing what it was designed to do, e.g., reading/writing and converting a wide range of different numeric data formats). RPG may have been even more influential in this usage domain (all businesses have to specific requirements on formatting reports).

I suspect that most people could not point to the major influence C has had on almost every language since. No, not the use of { and }; if a single character is going to be used as a compound statement bracketing token, this pair are the only available choice. Almost every language now essentially uses C’s operator precedence (rather than Fortran‘s, which is slightly different; R follows Fortran).

Algol 60 has been very influential: until C came along it was the base template for many languages.

Fortran is still widely used in scientific and engineering software. Its impact on other languages may be unknown to those involved. The intricacies of floating-point arithmetic are difficult to get right, and WG5 (the ISO language committee, although the original work was done by the ANSI committee, J3). Fortran code is often computationally intensive, and many optimization techniques started out optimizing Fortran (see “Optimizing Compilers for Modern Architectures” by Allen and Kennedy).

BASIC showed how it was possible to create a usable interactive language system. The compactness of its many, and varied, implementations were successful because they did not take up much storage and were immediately usable.

Forth has been influential in the embedded systems domain, and also people fall in love with threaded code as an implementation technique (see “Threaded Interpretive Languages” by Loeliger).

During the mid-1990s the growth of the Internet enabled a few new languages to become widely used, e.g., PHP and Javascript. It’s difficult to say whether these were more influenced by what their creators ate the night before or earlier languages. PHP and Javascript are widely used, and they have influenced the creation of many languages designed to fix their myriad of issues.

2019 in the programming language standards’ world

Last Tuesday I was at the British Standards Institute for a meeting of IST/5, the committee responsible for programming language standards in the UK.

There has been progress on a few issues discussed last year, and one interesting point came up.

It is starting to look as if there might be another iteration of the Cobol Standard. A handful of people, in various countries, have started to nibble around the edges of various new (in the Cobol sense) features. No, the INCITS Cobol committee (the people who used to do all the heavy lifting) has not been reformed; the work now appears to be driven by people who cannot let go of their involvement in Cobol standards.

ISO/IEC 23360-1:2006, the ISO version of the Linux Base Standard, has been updated and we were asked for a UK position on the document being published. Abstain seemed to be the only sensible option.

Our WG20 representative reported that the ongoing debate over pile of poo emoji has crossed the chasm (he did not exactly phrase it like that). Vendors want to have the freedom to specify code-points for use with their own emoji, e.g., pineapple emoji. The heady days, of a few short years ago, when an encoding for all the world’s character symbols seemed possible, have become a distant memory (the number of unhandled logographs on ancient pots and clay tablets was declining rapidly). Who could have predicted that the dream of a complete encoding of the symbols used by all the world’s languages would be dashed by pile of poo emoji?

The interesting news is from WG9. The document intended to become the Ada20 standard was due to enter the voting process in June, i.e., the committee considered it done. At the end of April the main Ada compiler vendor asked for the schedule to be slipped by a year or two, to enable them to get some implementation experience with the new features; oops. I have been predicting that in the future language ‘standards’ will be decided by the main compiler vendors, and the future is finally starting to arrive. What is the incentive for the GNAT compiler people to pay any attention to proposals written by a bunch of non-customers (ok, some of them might work for customers)? One answer is that Ada users tend to be large bureaucratic organizations (e.g., the DOD), who like to follow standards, and might fund GNAT to implement the new document (perhaps this delay by GNAT is all about funding, or lack thereof).

Right on cue, C++ users have started to notice that C++20’s added support for a system header with the name version, which conflicts with much existing practice of using a file called version to contain versioning information; a problem if the header search path used the compiler includes a project’s top-level directory (which is where the versioning file version often sits). So the WG21 committee decides on what it thinks is a good idea, implementors implement it, and users complain; implementors now have a good reason to not follow a requirement in the standard, to keep users happy. Will WG21 be apologetic, or get all high and mighty; we will have to wait and see.

2018 in the programming language standards’ world

I am sitting in the room, at the British Standards Institution, where today’s meeting of IST/5, the committee responsible for programming languages, has just adjourned (it’s close to where I have to be in a few hours).

BSI have downsized us, they no longer provide a committee secretary to take minutes and provide a point of contact. Somebody from a service pool responds (or not) to emails. I did not blink first to our chair’s request for somebody to take the minutes :-)

What interesting things came up?

It transpires that reports of the death of Cobol standards work may be premature. There are a few people working on ‘new’ features, e.g., support for JSON. This work is happening at the ISO level, rather than the national level in the US (where the real work on the Cobol standard used to be done, before being handed on to the ISO). Is this just a couple of people pushing a few pet ideas or will it turn into something more substantial? We will have to wait and see.

The Unicode consortium (a vendor consortium) are continuing to propose new pile of poo emoji and WG20 (an ISO committee) were doing what they can to stay sane.

Work on the Prolog standard, now seems to be concentrated in Austria. Prolog was the language to be associated with, if you were on the 1980s AI bandwagon (and the Japanese were going to take over the world unless we did something about it, e.g., spend money); this time around, it’s machine learning. With one dominant open source implementation and one commercial vendor (cannot think of any others), standards work is a relic of past glories.

In pre-internet times there was an incentive to kill off committees that were past their sell-by date; it cost money to send out mailings and document storage occupied shelf space. In an electronic world there is no incentive to spend time killing off such committees, might as well wait until those involved retire or die.

WG23 (programming language vulnerabilities) reported lots of interest in their work from people involved in the C++ standard, and for some reason the C++ committee people in the room started glancing at me. I was a good boy, and did not mention bored consultants.

It looks like ISO/IEC 23360-1:2006, the ISO version of the Linux Base Standard is going to be updated to reflect LBS 5.0; something that was not certain few years ago.

2017 in the programming language standards’ world

Yesterday I was at the British Standards Institution for a meeting of IST/5, the committee responsible for programming languages.

The amount of management control over those wanting to get to the meeting room, from outside the building, has increased. There is now a sensor activated sliding door between the car-park and side-walk from the rear of the building to the front, and there are now two receptions; the ground floor reception gets visitors a pass to the first floor, where a pass to the fifth floor is obtained from another reception (I was totally confused by being told to go to the first floor, which housed the canteen last time I was there, and still does, the second reception is perched just inside the automatic barriers to the canteen {these barriers are also new; the food is reasonable, but not free}).

Visitors are supposed to show proof that they are attending a meeting, such as a meeting calling notice or an agenda. I have always managed to look sufficiently important/knowledgeable/harmless to get in without showing any such documents. I was asked to show them this time, perhaps my image is slipping, but my obvious bafflement at the new setup rescued me.

Why does BSI do this? My theory is that it’s all about image, BSI is the UK’s standard setting body and as such has to be seen to follow these standards. There is probably some security standard for rules to follow to prevent people sneaking into buildings. It could be argued that the name British Standards is enough to put anybody off wanting to enter the building in the first place, but this does not sound like a good rationale for BSI to give. Instead, we have lots of sliding doors/gates, multiple receptions (I suspect this has more to do with a building management cat fight over reception costs), lifts with no buttons ‘inside’ for selecting floors, and proof of reasons to be in the building.

There are also new chairs in the open spaces. The chairs have very high backs and side-baffles that surround the head area, excellent for having secret conversations and in-tune with all the security. These open areas are an image of what people in the 1970s thought the future would look like (BSI is a traditional organization after all).

So what happened in the meeting?

Cobol standard’s work becomes even more dead. PL22.4, the US Cobol group is no more (there were insufficient people willing to pay membership fees, so the group was closed down).

People are continuing to work on Fortran (still the language of choice for supercomputer Apps), Ada (some new people have started attending meetings and support for @ is still being fought over), C, Internationalization (all about character sets these days). Unprompted somebody pointed out that the UK C++ panel seemed to be attracting lots of people from the financial industry (I was very professional and did not relay my theory that it’s all about bored consultants wanting an outlet for their creative urges).

SC22, the ISO committee responsible for programming languages, is meeting at BSI next month, and our chairman asked if any of us planned to attend. The chair’s response, to my request to sell the meeting to us, was that his vocabulary was not up to the task; a two-day management meeting (no technical discussions permitted at this level) on programming languages is that exciting (and they are setting up a special reception so that visitors don’t have to go to the first floor to get a pass to attend a meeting on the ground floor).