Programming Languages: Survivors and Wannabes

By Charles Petzold

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Whether they are in the vanguard with new languages like Java, or toiling in the catacombs of Cobol, programmers speak a variety of tongues in their intimate conversations with computers. And each has its own vocabulary, mixing algebraic statements with simple words to tell the computer to perform repetitive tasks.

Of the thousands of programming languages invented over the last several decades, only a few are still in widespread use. Fashions in programming languages change slowly; sheer inertia often keeps languages alive much longer than they deserve.

Based on a totally unscientific survey (those programming languages that occupy at least 3 feet of shelf space in the McGraw-Hill Bookstore in Manhattan), only six languages currently reign. The member of this odd and motley crew come in this order of seniority.

1 COBOL, the Common Business-Oriented Language, is 35 years old and remanins the most popular language for corporate mainframe programming. Many insurance policies and bank accounts are still maintained by Cobol programs.

Cobol has almost no fervent enthusiasts. As a programming tool, it has roughly the sex appeal of a wrench. A listing of Cobol code is a wordy and stodgy mind-numbing affair that only a bureaucrat could love.

Indeed, Cobol was designed to be somewhat readable by nonprogrammers. The idea was that managers could read through a printed listing of Cobol code to determine if the programmer got it all right. This has rarely happened. There are limits to human endurance.

2 BASIC, the Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, was developed at Dartmouth in the mid-1960's. Thanks to Bill Gates, Basic was the first programming language availbable on the very first personal computer (the Altair) in 1975, and it was also one of the first languages available on the I.B.M. personal computer.

Basic has a notorious reputation for fostering poor programming practices. Historically, the primitve features of the language almost mandated that programmers created convoluted ''spaghetti code'' that no one else could decipher.

More recent enhancements to the language (most notably in Microsoft's Visual Basic environment) have made it suitable for writing small applications for Windows. Visual Basic is currently quite popular among recreational weekend programmers, and for specialized corporate Windows applications.

3 PASCAL was invented in the late 1960's by Prof. Niklaus Wirth of Zurich as a tool to teach students proper programming structure before their brains became hopelessly warped by Basic. The syntax of Pascal practically forces programmers to write neat, structured, well-mannered code.

Pascal would probably have faded into disuse had not a young Swede named Anders Hejlsberg designed a Pascal programmng environment for the personal computer. This eventually became Turbo Pascal, the flagship product of Borland International, and a mid-1980's programming craze.

Though Borland's best corporate days may now be behind it, throughout the last decade, the company has kept Pascal alive through several incarnations. The most recent is Delphi, a popular object-oriented programming environment for Windows. Delphi competes with Visual Basic, but appeals more to people who hate Microsoft and prefer not buying its products.

4 C was developed in the early 1970's by Dennis Ritchie of AT&T Bell Laboratories in connection with the development of the Unix operating system. By the mid-1980's, it was ready to become the most popular programming language for personal computers. Virtually all the early applications for Windows and for the Apple Macintosh were written in C, and many still are. C is a terse, elegant, deceptively simple language that allows programmers almost unlimited flexibility. It appeals to the macho intincts of young and wild PC hackers, as well to the puzzle-solving impulses of more mature programmers, because of its power and ther variety of ways to sovle problems.

Alas, because C is so powerful, it's almost impossible to write a bug-free program in C. Allen Holub, a programmer and author, gave one of his books on C programming the title ''Enough Rope to Shoot Yourself in the Foot.''

People often ask, ''How did it get the name C?'' Answer: It was derived from an earlier, little-used language called B.

5 C++ C++ (prounced ''C plus plus'') is an extension of C developed by Bjarne Stroustrup of Bell Labs in the early 1980's. C++ extends C by adding ''objects.'' In object-oriented programming, objects are reusable computer codes that fuction as the basic building bloks of programs. In theory, the use of objects makes program code easier to maintain and reuse, although no one has actually shown this to be true. C++ is currently the language Microsoft encourages for new Windows programs.

C++ is somewhat more bug-resistant than C but intorduces problems of its own. As Mr. Stroustrup once said: ''C makes it easy to shoot yourself in the foot. C++ makes it harder, but when you do, it blows away your whole leg.''

6 JAVA came about just a few years ago at Sun Microsystems as part of a project involving interactive cable TV. Java is now the darling of the computer industry.

In its general syntax, Java is very much like C++. But it does introduce some changes that (depending on your perspective) correct some flaws of C++ or botch up some features.

Java's biggest selling point is that little Java applications (called applets) can be incorporated in a World Wide Web page along with text and pictures. The same programs can run on Windows, Macintosh or other systems (although certainly not as fast as native programs).

Currently, Java is largely unfinished, untested and unproven, but that is not preventing big players in the computer industry from throwing vast resources to fitting Java into their futures. CHARLES PETZOLD