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Undead COBOL celebrates (another) 50th birthday

The name. Not the language

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COBOL is celebrating its 50th birthday. Or at least the name is.

In May 1959, during a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the US Department of Defense organized a committee charged with developing a "short range" approach to a common business computing language. And on September 18th of that year, the new Short Range Committee coined the name COBOL, short for Common Business-Oriented Language.

The committee represented six big-name computer manufacturers (Burroughs Corp., IBM, Minneapolis-Honeywell, RCA, Sperry Rand, Sylvania Electric Products) and a trio of government agencies. By the end of the year, specifications for the new language were complete, and in 1960, they were approved by the Defense Department-backed Executive Committee. Some celebrated in May. Other are celebrating today. And no doubt, someone will celebrate sometime next year.

In any event, COBOL's range was longer than anyone could have expected.

According to November 2008 stats (PDF) from Datamonitor - the international research firm headquartered in London - the world is still running 200 billion lines of COBOL code and about 5 billion lines are added to live systems every year. Believe it or not, between 1.5 and 2 million developers are still working with the 50-year-old programming language.

In other words, little has changed since the days of Y2K.

So many other languages have come and gone over the past five decades - including MANTIS, FORTRAN, MUMPS, Forte, and Smalltalk - but COBOL refuses to die. In May, the UK-based business software outfit MicroFocus said the average American relies on COBOL at least 13 times a day while making phone calls, using credit cards, and commuting to work - among other mundane tasks.

Of course, much of this down to inertia. COBOL has long run systems inside banks and network operators, so it continues to run systems inside banks and network operators.

"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," reads a birthday card from MicroFocus 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."

COBOL was inspired by the FLOW-MATIC language, invented by a Navy officer named Grace Hopper and the COMTRAN, developed by IBMer Bob Bemer. ®

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