Top programming languages: Python still rules but old Cobol gets a pandemic bump

Python programming language is once again the most popular choice, according to IEEE Spectrum.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Python is still the most popular programming language, but Cobol has become more popular again this year because of the strain unemployment benefits systems have been put under during US coronavirus lockdowns, according to electrical engineering publication IEEE Spectrum. 

There's nothing controversial about the very top end of IEEE Spectrum's 2020 programming-language rankings, which are consistent with other popularity indexes, including those from developer analyst RedMonk, Tiobe, and GitHub

IEEE Spectrum offers several ways of looking at rankings, but its default ranking is weighted toward the interests of the average IEEE member, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers publication

Following Python, the top 10 programming languages in descending order are Java, C, C++, JavaScript, R, Arduino, Go, Swift and Matlab. 

Last year's IEEE Spectrum top 10 was similar except Matlab was ahead of Google's system programming language, Go, and C# was in 7th place, where Arduino is today. 

However, one notable omission from the new rankings is Microsoft's TypeScript, a superset of JavaScript, which was one of the most popular languages in Stack Overflow's 2020 developer survey.    

Other languages that made this year's top 20 list included Ruby in 11th place, followed by Dart, SQL, PHP, Assembly, Scala, HTML, Kotlin, Julia, and Rust. 

Some developers may be surprised by IEEE Spectrum classifying Arduino, a range of microcontrollers, as a programming language, but it argues it's taken a "pragmatic approach" in its definition of a programming language. 

"Purists may argue that Arduino is not a language but rather a hardware platform that is programmed using a derivative of Wiring, which itself is derived from C/C++," writes Stephen Cass from IEEE Spectrum.

"But we have always taken a very pragmatic approach to our definition of 'programming language', and the reality is that when people are looking to use an Arduino-compatible microcontroller, they typically search for 'Arduino code' or buy books about 'Arduino programming', not 'Wiring code' or 'C programming'.

This year's rankings are based on 11 metrics from eight sources, including CareerBuilder, GitHub, Google, Hacker News, the IEEE, Reddit, Stack Overflow, and Twitter. 

One standout from this year's ranking is the 60-year-old Cobol, which, based on the Twitter metric alone, is the seventh most popular language. IEEE Spectrum speculates this is because unemployment benefits systems in several US states that are written in Cobol were failing under the strain of higher volumes due to workers being laid off during the pandemic lockdowns. 

As ZDNet reported this April, several states and the Inland Revenue Service hadn't refreshed their Cobol codebases, and state unemployment systems weren't built to handle such massive volumes. 

The systems' shortcomings exposed a scarcity of Cobol programmers, which prompted IBM and the Linux Foundation's Open Mainframe Project to launch a program to reach Cobol programmers. All that extra attention bumped Cobol up one position to 43 in this year's ranking. 

  1. Python 100.0
  2. Java 95.3
  3. C 94.6
  4. C++ 87.0
  5. JavaScript 79.5
  6. R 78.6
  7. Arduino 73.2
  8. Go 73.1
  9. Swift 70.5
  10. Matlab 68.4
  11. Ruby 66.8
  12. Dart 65.6
  13. SQL 64.6
  14. PHP 63.8
  15. Assembly 63.7
  16. Scala 63.5
  17. HTML 61.4
  18. Kotlin 57.8
  19. Julia 56.0
  20. Rust 55.6

The very top of IEEE Spectrum's rankings is line with other programming-language indexes, but the inclusion of Arduino and the omission of Microsoft's TypeScript are not.

Source: IEEE Spectrum

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