COBOL is a high-level programming language first developed by the CODASYL Committee (Conference on Data Systems Languages) in 1960. Since then, responsibility for developing new COBOL standards has been assumed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Three ANSI standards for COBOL have been produced: in 1968, 1974 and 1985. A new COBOL standard introducing object-oriented programming to COBOL, is due within the next few years.

The word COBOL is an acronym that stands for COmmon Business Oriented Language. As the the expanded acronym indicates, COBOL is designed for developing business, typically file-oriented, applications. It is not designed for writing systems programs. For instance you would not develop an operating system or a compiler using COBOL.

How widely used is COBOL?

For over four decades COBOL has been the dominant programming language in the business computing domain. In that time it it has seen off the challenges of a number of other languages such as PL1, Algol68, Pascal, Modula, Ada, C, C++. All these languages have found a niche but none has yet displaced COBOL. Two recent challengers though, Java and Visual Basic, are proving to be serious contenders.

COBOL's dominance in underlined by the reports from the Gartner group.

  • In 1997 they estimated that there were about 300 billion lines of computer code in use in the world. Of that they estimated that about 80% (240 billion lines) were in COBOL and 20% (60 billion lines) were written in all the other computer languages combined.
  • In 1999 they reported that over 50% of all new mission-critical applications were still being done in COBOL and their recent estimates indicate that through 2004-2005 15% of all new applications (5 billion lines) will be developed in COBOL while 80% of all deployed applications will include extensions to existing legacy (usually COBOL) programs.

Gartner estimates for 2002 are that there are about two million COBOL programmers world-wide compared to about about one million Java programmers and one million C++ programmers.

Surprised by COBOL's success?

People are often surprised when presented with the evidence for COBOL's dominance in the market place. The hype that surrounds some computer languages would persuade you to believe that most of the production business applications in the world are written in Java, C, C++ or Visual Basic and that only a small percentage are written in COBOL. In fact, the reverse is actually the case.

One reason for this misconception lies in the difference between the vertical and the horizontal software markets.

In the vertical software market (sometimes called "bespoke" software) applications cost many millions of dollars to produce, are tailored to a specified company, encapsulate the business rules of that company, and only a limited number of copies of the software may be in use. A good example of this kind of application is the DoD MRP II system. This system is "used to manage almost 550,000 spare and repair parts and equipment items with an inventory value of $28 billion. The system runs on Amdahl mainframes at multiple locations throughout the U.S. and contains over 4,000,000 lines of COBOL code."

In the horizontal software market, applications may still cost millions of dollars to produce but thousands, and in some cases millions, of copies of the software are in use. As a result, these applications often have a very high profile, a short life span, and a relatively low per-copy replacement cost. The Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, Access) is an example of an application in the horizontal software market. Because of the highly competitive nature of this marketplace considerations of speed, size and efficiency often make languages like C or C++ the language of choice for creating these applications.

Applications written for the vertical market, on the other hand, often have a low profile (because they are usually written for use in one particular company), a very high per-copy replacement cost, and consequently, a very long life span. For example, the cost of replacing COBOL code has been estimated at approximately twenty five dollars ($25) per line of code. At this rate, the cost of replacing the DoD MRP II system mentioned above, with a system written in some other language, would be some one hundred million dollars ($100,000,000). The importance of ease of maintenance often makes COBOL the language of choice for these applications.

The high visibility of horizontal applications like Microsoft Word or Excel persuades people that the languages used to write these applications are the market leaders. But however many copies of Excel are sold, it is just a single application produced by a limited number of programmers. Many more programmers are involved in coding or maintaining one off, "bespoke", applications. And these programmers generally write their programs in COBOL.

Characteristics of COBOL.

COBOL is a simple language (no pointers, no user defined functions, no user defined types) with a limited scope of function. It encourages a simple straightforward programming style. Curiously enough though, despite its limitations, COBOL has proven itself to be well suited to its targeted problem domain (business computing). Most COBOL programs operate in a domain where the program complexity lies in the business rules that have to be encoded rather than in the sophistication of the data structures or algorithms required. And in cases where sophisticated algorithms are required COBOL usually meets the need with an appropriate verb such as the SORT and the SEARCH.

We noted above that COBOL is a simple language with a limited scope of function. And that is the way it used to be but the introduction of OO-COBOL has changed all that. OO-COBOL retains all the advantages of previous versions but now includes -

      • User Defined Functions
      • Object Orientation
      • National Characters - Unicode
      • Multiple Currency Symbols
      • Cultural Adaptability (Locales)
      • Dynamic Memory Allocation (pointers)
      • Data Validation Using New VALIDATE Verb
      • Binary and Floating Point Data Types
      • User Defined Data Types

COBOL is non-proprietary (portable)

The COBOL standard does not belong to any particular vendor. The vendor independent ANSI COBOL committee legislates formal, non-vendor-specific syntax and semantic language standards. COBOL has been ported to virtually every hardware platform - from every favour of Windows, to every falser of Unix, to AS/400, VSE, OS/2, DOS, VMS, Unisys, DG, VM, and MVS.

COBOL is Maintainable

COBOL has a 30 year proven track record for application maintenance, enhancement and production support at the enterprise level. Early indications from the year 2000 problem are that COBOL applications were actually cheaper to fix than applications written in more recent languages.

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