Programming languages: Why this old favorite is on the rise again

A long-standing coding choice has seen an unexpected rise in popularity, according to one tracker of programming languages.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer
Image: Jasper Cole/Getty

Software-testing firm Tiobe, which maintains a monthly tracker of the popularity of the vast array of programming languages available to software developers, has picked C++ as its programming language of 2022.

Despite it being placed third in Tiobe's January 2023 index, the popularity of C++ rose faster than all other languages last year, up by 4.26% compared with January 2022, the company said.

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Runners-up this year were C, the second most popular language, which grew in popularity by 3.82%, and Python, the top language, which grew by 2.78%. Having fallen from third, Java is now in fourth place, growing 1.55%. 

"The reason for C++'s popularity is its excellent performance while being a high level object-oriented language. Because of this, it is possible to develop fast and vast software systems (over millions of lines of code) in C++ without necessarily ending up in a maintenance nightmare," says Tiobe CEO Paul Jensen

He also attributes C++'s rise in popularity to the relatively recent C++20 update in December 2020. This is the latest version of C++ to be standardized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and introduced interesting features, such as modules. C++ was created in 1985 by Danish computer scientist, Bjarne Stroustrup.   

C++ is the main language used to build Chrome and has been a key language, along with C, for the Android Open Source Project. C++ is also popular in systems programming, the automotive industry, the finance sector, and games development. 

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In terms of the Tiobe index, Jensen notes C++ gained in popularity when the C++11 standard was published in 2011, marking its first major rise since 1998. 

"The adoption of this new standard [C++11] took a few years because there were no C++ compilers available to support the new language definition. Because of C++11, C++ was slowly going uphill in the TIOBE index after having been in a constant decline since 2001. The second land mark is the recent C++20 publication," notes Jensen.     

Jensen also notes that C++ rival Rust entered the top 20 again (being ranked at number 26 one year ago), but says that "this time it seems to be for real", suggesting it could now hold a stable position in the top 20.

Rust's profile shot up during the past year after it was officially adopted for the Linux kernel version 6.1, clearing its way for drivers to be written in Rust. 

In many ways, C++ is an interesting choice for Tiobe's language of the year. Mark Russinovich, CTO of Microsoft Azure, said recently that developers should avoid using C or C++ in new projects and instead use Rust because of its memory safety benefits, even urging the industry to declare those languages deprecated. 

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The Android Open Source Project, which adopted Rust in 2021, is handling its adoption of Rust by leaving existing C or C++ code in place but writing new code in Rust. Its engineers made the decision after finding Rust could achieve memory safety, while also providing equivalent performance to C and C++. 

Even the NSA has recently told developers to think about switching from C and C++ to a memory safe programming language such as C#, Go, Java, Ruby, Rust, and Swift.

The top 10 languages in Tiobe's January 2023 index: Python, C, C++, Java, C#, Visual Basic, JavaScript, SQL, Assembly language, and PHP. 

Rounding out the top 20 are: Swift, Go, R, Classic Visual Basic, MATLAB, Ruby, Delphi, Rust, Perl, and Scratch. 

Tiobe says its ratings are based on the number of skilled engineers globally, courses, and third party vendors. It also uses popular search engines to calculate the ratings.

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