COBOL at 50: Same Age as Barbie, But More Like Rodney
June 1, 2009 Alex Woodie
Last Thursday, May 28, was COBOL’s 50th birthday. If you didn’t gather around your data processing device to celebrate this technological milestone, don’t feel too bad about it. Chances are, few of your IT business associates celebrated COBOL’s birthday, either. But backers of COBOL, such as Micro Focus, are a little miffed that the language doesn’t get more respect. After all, the vendor points out, you don’t see Barbie, who also turns 50 this year, being relied upon to run billions of dollars worth of transactions every day, do you?
COBOL may share the same age as Barbie, that icon of American ideals about beauty and consumerism, and a product of Mattel–an AS/400 shop that was once featured on the cover of AS/400 Technology SHOWCASE magazine. But COBOL shares more in common with Rodney Dangerfield, the late comedian whose tagline about “getting no respect” seems to epitomize COBOL’s standing in a hype-hungry IT industry that’s perpetually looking for the new new thing to grab people’s attention–and capitalists’ pocketbooks.
Tech marketers and IT pundits have slotted COBOL in the “dead or dying” category for years. (And RPG, that upstart language about 10 years younger than COBOL, is also being hustled to the IT cemetery.) But the folks at Micro Focus are determined that the iconic programming language has plenty of life left in it. In fact, the company, which makes its living selling COBOL development tools and compilers, among other products, insists that COBOL will be going strong 50 years from now–in 2059!
That’s quite a claim, especially for a language that’s admired about as much as the bubblegum on the bottom of your shoe. But Micro Focus comes equipped with data to back up its claims of COBOL’s future longevity. The company recently commissioned a survey from Harris Interactive to look into American’s perceptions of COBOL, and their use of products and services that use COBOL.
The survey found that the average person uses COBOL at least 13 times per day, in the form of cell phone calls, retail transactions, and commuting on trains and subways. (The survey was conducted online in early May, involved 2,397 U.S. adults, and had an error rate of 2 percent.) That means the average American has about 90 interactions with COBOL-based applications per week, or nearly 4,000 per year. People run into COBOL so often because of its sheer footprint–more than 200 billion lines of COBOL in operation around the world, powering more than 30 billion transactions every day, at most of the world’s biggest corporations.
Despite this massive presence, only 23 percent of Americans know what COBOL is, Micro Focus’ survey found. (It stands for Common Business-Oriented Language, for the record.) Middle-aged men were the most likely to have heard of COBOL, according to the survey, while only 15 percent of those in the 18 to 34 age bracket knowing about COBOL. In other words, COBOL is an older technology managed by older people, and it’s not on the radar screens of the younger programmers and administrators who will be managing IT in the decades to come.
That lack of visibility belies COBOL’s real-world presence, according to Ken Powell, president of North American operations for Micro Focus. “COBOL is one American icon that has truly stood the test of time, and we believe that it will be around for another 50 years running the core transactions that we all rely on to go about our daily lives,” Powell says in a press release.
To fully understand COBOL’s impact, Powell says, you need only to imagine a day without it. “It would impact every aspect of our lives–from traffic signals, cash registers and cell phones to online travel reservations,” he says. “Put simply, we’d struggle to function without COBOL.”
COBOL emerges from the shadows only occasionally. One example is the Y2K fiasco, which Micro Focus says was largely driven by COBOL, which relied on two-digit fields to represent years with four digits. Apparently, the original developers behind COBOL didn’t think the language would be around this long, either.
In the same vein, most Americans would have assumed that NASA would have returned to the Moon by now, too. It seems amazing that the Apollo program was able to steer spaceships using computers that had less processing power than modern pocket calculators, and some wonder whether the huge leaps in processing power and storage capabilities that we enjoy would be a help or a hindrance for 21st century Moon mission. Perhaps today’s’ IT architects have something to learn from the elegantly simple solutions devised by American engineers in the 1960s.
Micro Focus has launched a Web site, www.cobol.com, to commemorate the 50th birthday of COBOL. The Web site features videos (check out the amusing “COBOL-ator” video on the homepage), photos, and loads of fun COBOL facts. At least somebody is giving COBOL a little respect.