COBOL turns 50

When you find yourself standing in front of an ATM waiting for cash, spare a thought for the programming language that powers it all.

Common Business-Oriented Language — widely known as COBOL — has turned 50, but, far from being a dinosaur, it still plays a pivotal role in running most of the world’s businesses and public services.

COBOL is used to power almost all global ATM transactions and runs almost three quarters of the world’s business applications. It helps book hundreds of holidays every single day.

And, according to enterprise application management company, Micro Focus, more than 200 billion lines of COBOL code in existence, with hundreds more being created every single day. And a COBOL programming gig is considered to be one of the safest jobs in IT.

COBOL’s fate was decided during a meeting of the Short Range Committee, the organisation responsible for submitting the first version of the language in 1959. The meeting was convened after a meeting at the Pentagon first laid down the guidelines for the language.

It was based on the philosophy of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a US computer scientist and naval officer who pioneered the idea that programs would be written in a language (like English) rather than machine code.

Half a century later, Micro Focus published research which showed people still use COBOL at least 10 times throughout the course of an average working day in Australia. Only 18 per cent of those surveyed, however, had ever actually heard of COBOL.

“COBOL can trace its origins to the very start of the computer age, yet its applications continue to deliver to businesses and the public sector every single day,” said Micro Focus CTO, Stuart McGill. “In an industry constantly driven by innovation and the ‘next big thing’, it is a real testament to the language’s resilience, flexibility and relevance to the task at hand that it is still so widely used today.

“Customers come to us to modernise their business critical applications — not rip them out — because they hold deep business intelligence and continue to deliver value every single day. The vast majority of these applications have been written in mature languages, such as COBOL. Very few languages could make the same claim fifty years on,” concludes McGill.

So happy birthday, COBOL.

Read more from Computerworld's A-Z of programming languages.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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