Will Java, C, C++ and C# be the new Cobols?

A few decades ago most programming was performed in Cobol, Fortran, Rexx and some typical main frame languages, that hardly made it to the Linux-, Unix- or MS-Windows-world. They are still present, but mostly used for maintenance and extension of existing software, but less often for writing new software from scratch.
In these days languages like C, C++, Java and to a slightly lesser extent C# dominate the list of most commonly used languages. I would assume that JavaScript is also quite prominent in the list, because it has become more popular to write rich web clients using frameworks like Angular JS. And there are tons of them and some really good stuff. Some people like to see JavaScript also on the server side and in spite of really interesting frameworks like Node-JS I do not really consider this a good idea. If you like you may add Objective C to this list, which I do not know very much at all, even though it has been part of my gcc since my first Linux installation in the early 1990es.

Anyway, C goes back to the 1970es and I think that it was a great language to create at that time and it still is for a certain set of purposes. When writing operating systems, database engines, compilers and interpreters for other languages, editors, or embedded software, everything that is very close to the hardware, explicit control and direct access to very powerful OS-APIs are features that prove to be useful. It has been said that Java runs as fast as C, which is at least close to the truth, but only if we do not take into account the memory usage. C has some short comings that could be done better without sacrificing its strengths in the areas where it is useful, but it does not seem to be happening.

C++ has been the OO-extension of C, but I would say that it has evolved to be a totally different language for different purposes, even though there is some overlap, it is realtively easy to call functionality written in C from C++ and a little bit harder the other way round… I have not used it very much recently, so I will refrain from commenting further on it.

Java has introduced an infrastructure that is very common now with its virtual machine. The JVM is running on a large number of servers and any JVM-language can be used there. The platform independence is an advantage, but I think that its importance on servers has deminished a little bit. There used to be all kinds of servers with different operating systems and different CPU-architectures. But now we are moving towards servers being mostly Linux with Intel-compatible CPUs, so it is becomeing less of an issue. This may change in the future again, off course.

With Mono C# can be used in ways similar to Java, at least that is what the theory says and what seems to be quite true at least up to a certain level. It seems to be a bit ahead of Java with some language features, just think of operator overloading, undeclared exceptions, properties, generics or lambdas, which have been introduced earlier or in a more elegant way or we are still waiting in Java. I think the case of lambdas also shows the limitations, because they seem to behave differently than you would expect from real closures, which is the way lambdas should be done and are done in more functinally oriented languages or even in Ruby, Perl or typical Lisps.
Try this

List<Func<int>> actions = new List<Func<int>>();

int variable = 0;
while (variable < 5)
{
    actions.Add(() => variable * 2);
    ++ variable;
}

foreach (var act in actions)
{
    Console.WriteLine(act.Invoke());
}

We would expect the output 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, but we are getting 10, 10, 10, 10, 10 (one number in a line, respectively).
But it can be fixed:

List<Func<int>> actions = new List<Func<int>>();

int variable = 0;
while (variable < 5)
{
    int copy = variable;
    actions.Add(() => copy * 2);
    ++ variable;
}

foreach (var act in actions)
{
    Console.WriteLine(act.Invoke());
}

I would say that the concept of inner classes is better in Java, even though what is static there should be the default, but having lambdas this is less important…
You find more issues with class loader, which are kind of hard to tame in java, but extremely powerful.

Anyway, I think that all of these languages tend to be similar in their syntax, at least within a method or function and require a lot of boiler plate code. Another issue that I see is that the basic types, which include Strings, even if they are seen as basic types by the language design, are not powerful enough or full of pitfalls.

While the idea to use just null terminated character arrays as strings in C has its beauty, I think it is actually not really good enough and for more serious C applications a more advanced string library would be good, with the disadvantage that different libraries will end up using different string libraries… Anyway, for stuff that is legitimately done with C now, this is not so much of an issue and legacy software has anyway its legacy how to deal with strings, and possible painful limitations in conjunction with Unicode. Java and also C# have been introduced at a time when Unicode was already around and the standard already claimed to use more than 65536 code points (characters in Unicode-speak), but at that time 65536 seemed to be quite ok to cover the needs for all common languages and so utf-16 was picked as an encoding. This blows up the memory, because strings occupy most of the memory in typical application software, but it still leaves us with uncertainties about length and position, because code points can be one or two 16-bit-„characters“ long, which can only be seen by actually iterating through the string, which leaves us where we were with null terminated strings in C. And strings are really hard to replace or enhance in this aspect, because they are used everywhere.

Numbers are not good either. As an application developer we should not care about counting bits, unless we are in an area that needs to be specifically optimized. We are using mostly integer types in application development, at least we should. These overflow silently. Just to see it in C#:

int i = 0;
int s = 1;
for (i = 0; i < 20; i++)
{
    s *= 7;
    Console.WriteLine("i=" + i + " s=" + s);
}

which gives us:

i=0 s=7
i=1 s=49
i=2 s=343
i=3 s=2401
i=4 s=16807
i=5 s=117649
i=6 s=823543
i=7 s=5764801
i=8 s=40353607
i=9 s=282475249
i=10 s=1977326743
i=11 s=956385313
i=12 s=-1895237401
i=13 s=-381759919
i=14 s=1622647863
i=15 s=-1526366847
i=16 s=-2094633337
i=17 s=-1777531471
i=18 s=442181591
i=19 s=-1199696159

So it silently overflows, or just takes the remainder modulo 2^{32} with the representation system \{-2^{31} \ldots 2^{31}-1\}. Java, C and C++ behave exactly the same way, only that we need to know what „int“ means for our C-compiler, but if we use 32-bit-ints, it is the same. This should throw an exception or switch to some unlimited long integer. Clojure offers both options, depending on whether you use * or *‘ as operator. So as application developers we should not have to care about these bits and most developers do not think about it. Usually it goes well, but a lot of software bugs are around due to this pattern. It is just wrong in C#, Java, and C++. In C I find it more acceptable, because the typical area for using C for new software actually is quite related to bits and bytes, so the developers need to be aware of such issues all the time anyway.

I would consider it desirable to move to more expressive languages like Clojure, Scala, F#, Ruby or Perl for application development. Ruby and Perl have better Strings. Clojure and Scala inherit them from the JVM, and F# has the same strings as C#. Ruby and Clojure have a good way to deal with integers, Scala, Perl and F# can do it right if we actually want to do so, but not by default. Perl and Ruby are very weak when it comes to multithreading. As compared to Java this can be dealt with by just using more processes instead of threads, because the overhead of a Ruby or Perl process is much less than the overhead of a Java process, but I would see this as a major drawback. C, C#, Java and C++ offer good facilities to use multithreading, but the issue of avoiding typical multithreading bugs is a big deal and actually too hard for a large fraction of typical application developers. Or at least too far away from there point of focus. Moving to a more functional paradigm might be a way to go. Java enterprise edition is a failure if the goal is to get multithreading, done well without having to worry about it, because the overhead is too much. On the other hand, if you are willing to go the extra mile, having more explicit access to the multithreading mechanism and using it correctly is extremely powerful, for example in C with pthreads or with a deliberate usage of processes, shared memory and threads together. For which kind of projects do we have the time and the team for this? I am not talking about multithreaded applications that work well on the developer’s laptop, but fail during some high load processing in production with some concurrent modification issues a few months after the deployment. Thinking cannot be replaced by testing.

So now we have a lot of software in C, C++, Java and C# and a lot of new software is written in these languages, even from scratch. We could do better, sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. It is possible to write excellent application software with Java, C++, C# and even C. It just takes a bit longer, but if we use them with care, it will be ok. Some companies are very conservative and want to use stuff that has been around for a long time. This is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. And since none of the more modern languages has really picked up so much speed that it can be considered a new main stream, it is understandable that some organizations are scared about marching into a dead end road.

On the other hand, many businesses can differentiate themselves by providing services that are only possible by having a very innovative IT. Banks like UBS and Credit Suisse in Switzerland are not likely to be there, while banks like ING are on that road. As long as they compete for totally different customer bases and as long as the business has enough strengths that are not depending so heavily on an innovative IT, but just on a working robust IT, this will be fine. But time moves on and innovation will eventually outcompete conservative businesses.

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