RPG Surges in Popularity, According to Language Index
January 31, 2011 Alex Woodie
RPG is showing surprising legs. At 52 years old, conventional thinking would hold that the programming language would be in mid-life crisis and suffering from the slow and inevitable decline of its powers. Instead, interest in Report Program Generator seems to be gaining steam, according to Tiobe Software‘s monthly index of the popularity of programming languages. Nobody’s confusing RPG with Java or C, but the IBM i coder’s old standby is proving that it still has a lot to give.
RPG surged from the 33rd most popular language a year ago to claim the number 18 spot this month, according to the January 2011 iteration of the Tiobe Programming Community Index, which you can see here. As you can see from Tiobe’s chart, RPG scored a relative popularity rating of 0.317 percent a year ago. RPG’s rating this month more than doubled to 0.717 percent, making it one of the biggest movers and shakers on the list. Assembly language, which surged to number 15, and Transact-SQL, which moved up to 17, also experienced big jumps.
Exactly what these figures mean can be debated. The index doesn’t measure which language is being used the most, but it is useful in gauging the popularity of languages. Tiobe Software, which has been tracking languages for over a decade, says it takes several things into account in tabulating the index, including the number of skilled engineers, courses, and third party vendors that it finds focused on a given language. The index also takes into account Web searches performed on the major search engines, in addition to Wikipedia and YouTube.
A surge in RPG popularity could not be confirmed through other objective sources. Every year, the analyst firm Evans Data performs a survey of developers, to see what tools they’re using. The company does not track RPG usage, although it is considering adding RPG for this year’s study.
Tiobe’s Paul Jansen cautions about reading too much into the index, especially for languages with smaller adoption rates. “Below 1 percent market share, small changes might have big consequences in position,” Jansen writes in an email. “Moreover statistical noise is considerable at that level. That’s why I would primarily focus on the top 10 as having real value. The rest is just fun.”
Nevertheless, a look at RPG’s long-term popularity curve reveals some interesting trends. While the long-term curve doesn’t entirely eliminate the problem of background noise, it does provide a relatively solid baseline number from which to work from.
According to the long-term curve, RPG popularity is trending well above its historical average for the past six years, and has spiked twice in the past two years–once in the first half of 2009, and again in the second half of 2010. Because the spikes correspond with an outside force–the Great Recession–there is a somewhat substantive reason to believe that the increase in popularity of RPG that Tiobe detected is a reflection of real conditions, and not merely background noise.
In other words, combined with what we already know about the kind of budget decisions companies have made, and continue to make, in the wake of the Great Recession (namely, they are investing in existing systems and applications, and holding off on replacements until the economy improves), it makes perfect sense that interest in RPG would spike.
RPG’s sudden surge on the Tiobe Index also jibes with what RPG expert Susan Gantner is seeing on the ground. Gantner, who runs the Partner400 management consulting company with her husband, Jon Paris, and is an award winning speaker and presenter at IBM i industry events such as System i Developer‘s RPG & DB2 Summit (and COMMON in the past), isn’t seeing a big surge in new RPG adoption.
“What I have seen,” Gantner says via email, “is a large increase in the number of shops who have recently re-committed to RPG as the primary language for their business applications. I say re-committed because a number of RPG shops were considering moving to some other language and/or environment and/or platform. In the process of considering that (and in some cases, actually trying to make the move) many found out that modernizing their RPG applications offered a faster and more reliable and cost-effective approach. This could certainly have caused RPG to rise in the TIOBE index.”
Java and C continue to dominate the world of programming languages, with a combined 33 percent rating on Tiobe’s index. And while developers can use these object-oriented languages to write modern applications for the IBM i server, most IBM i developers continue to use RPG, which is considered the platform’s “native” language. According to Gantner, it’s tough to beat the combination of RPG IV language and the IBM i OS.
“There is no better language for writing background business logic than today’s RPG,” she continues. “Especially in difficult economic times, businesses need to do more with less. This has forced some companies to look into modernizing what they already have rather than throwing it out in favor of some apparently more modern solution.”
The future is bright for RPG programmers who are willing and able to keep pace with recent enhancements to RPG, and will be open to using new features that are being built into the next generation of the RPG compiler. But established RPG programmers also need to be open to use other languages, such as Java or PHP, to extend their RPG applications with new Web service interfaces and to build modern-looking user interfaces, she says.
The big question is whether RPG programmers will take the bull by the horns and use RPG for all it’s worth. “There is a terrific window of opportunity for RPG shops out there to say ‘Give us a chance to show you how modern our RPG-based applications can be,'” Gantner says. “I hope even more RPG shops will be brave enough to ask for that opportunity.”